The Art of Placemaking

Wednesday 11 April 2012

We are living in ‘the age of the dude’, with creative individuals playing an ever larger part in city and place-making.

So said Futurecity’s founder and director Mark Davy at a special half-day conference on the art of placemaking held at the NLA. The knowledge economy is having a greater influence on the built environment, said Davy, with the rise of creative ‘hubs’ like Westbourne Studios, ‘pop up culture’ and creative individuals driving schemes, with developers driving their own culture, towards becoming ‘culture brands’. ‘There used to be a pub on every corner’, said Davy. ‘Perhaps there will be a time when we have a creative industry hub on every corner.’

Companies like Google are coming to London because they see that cultural life is exciting and they want to be around it, added Davy, while cities such as Shanghai, Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong’s West Kowloon are pushing creative districts. In New York’s Hudson Yards it is the High Line, a piece of infrastructure, which is providing the ‘authenticity and originality’ that is a popular draw. But pulling marketing or branding people to the beginning of the process of creating new places could be one way forward.

Grimshaw chief executive Jolyon Brewis said it was important to define the notion of place; the practice’s Eden project was a very successful ‘place’, along with the interior of its St Boltoph building and Paddington station. They have in common that they are well programmed and controlled – designers need to fit in with systems, as Grimshaw’s is doing at London Bridge station, where it is building a cultural programme. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is another entity working hard at its cultural strategy, and will be launching ‘new thinking’ on the subject on the 22 May. Cllr Nicholas Paget-Brown, deputy leader of the authority, said that interesting, culturally sophisticated places can help them to stand out from the rest, and work is ongoing to bring culture to the core of schemes such as the new Earl’s Court. Argent Group executive director Robert Evans said much of the placemaking at King’s Cross related to making the most of the site’s ‘fantastic history’, keeping a little of its ‘irreverence’ and ‘anarchic’ nature along with a flavour of its station engineering past, the grain of the place, and the gasholders. Particular attention is being paid on providing new streets and squares, creating WiFi for the area; on working with the canal and with St Pancras Road: ‘We’re trying to make it work for people, as well as the taxis and buses, trying to get a public realm of quality, which I think is now emerging.’ But a key asset – the Granary Building – has been a major part of the area’s revitalisation, now home to Central St Martins. A deliberate attempt has been to avoid oversanitising the wider area, while the ‘masterstroke’ of Stanton Williams was in creating a building which is both ‘very St Martins’, and ‘very King’s Cross’, said Evans.

The conference also heard from Arlene van Bosch, development executive at Cathedral Group, who stressed the importance of early community involvement during the construction of projects in Deptford, and in Hayes, where history and heritage will again be to the fore, drawing on the site’s former life as the home of EMI. DBMP founder and principal partner David Barrie talked about cultivating ‘uses’ to generate ‘personalities’ for places, with schemes like the ‘People’s Supermarket’ he helped set up, and noted people’s ‘immense’ capacity to create their own environments. Wordsearch director William Murray said it was important to build schemes in which the creative process is allowed to flourish, with a well thought-through vision as a fundamental – feelings and emotions were at the heart of places people love. ‘Placemaking is marketing, or rather what it should be’, he said. Finally, St James’ development director Paul Prichard pointed to art and culture as having an important part to play in the housebuilder’s placemaking principles, having produced some 40 art and design projects in the last decade. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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