Streets need spirit

The great lakes and engineering structures, the large scale housing and employment areas now have a rawness that grates. They await the patina of the second-hand, the lived-in look

Derek WalkerThe Architecture and Planning of Milton Keynes

One of the things you get from learning a discipline is the ability to define the relevant characteristics that make something good or bad so you can more effectively articulate the hunch you have. Lately I’ve been trying to work out what turns me off about certain architectural spaces.

This was brought on by being in corporate managed pseudo-public spaces. They often have a manicured beauty to them, but it’s very still and lifeless. The form and symmetry will be very pleasing and elegant. The colours will have been chosen to be aesthetically pleasing but inoffensive. I went to view a flat once and the estate agent apologised because one of the rooms had eggshell blue walls. “Off white I told him…” Often the space will make heavy use of steel, glass and slate.

It’s not just offices but some new housing has this same effect as well. Other places have a sense of life and colour. I came to realise that its the artefacts of people’s lives that give it this impression. Plant pots, kid’s toys, bikes on balconies, worn bricks, posters in windows, garden sheds and scruffy front doors. What all these things have in common is that they result from people doing ordinary things and they convey that impression. Even a plant pot with dead yellow stalks hanging limply over the sides tells you something about that person within the walls, it gives you an insight into their character.

When I was in Pret recently I realised it had this lifeless quality. It’s like an Ikea showroom. Scrubbed clean of anything that might give it some idiosyncrasy. There’s an awareness that the staff are transplants; the gap between the till and the coffee machine does not belong to them but to a nameless corporate department whose personality has not graced the store. One assumes that there is a chain of command involved from board members to CEO, from the head of marketing to the fitter that installed the sign with a friendly but eerily impersonal reminder about freshness.

These chains remind me of self cleaning toilets. Anything not bolted down is to be flushed away, revealing a slick birch surface beneath the daily sediment of human activity. The signs of life from a person’s home don’t generally concern passion and tragedy, they’re simply reminders that a person exists and occupies a space with their humanity.

To combat this alienation from our surroundings, we should increase the amount of material in construction that pick up these symbols of activity. There is a limited amount of material we would find unsightly - a street with a burnt out car, old mattresses and dead vegetation would be unsightly.

There are two elements of responsive architecture: the architectural elements that are designed to respond to the accumulation of people’s actions. The balconies that fill up with personal items are good examples of this. The other is the configurable element that allows people to deliberately modify their environment to express themselves. A community noticeboard with job offers, social groups or political rallies serves this purpose - it is a clear physical manifestation of society’s bonds and conflicts.

We have enough tech capability to permeate the world with even more architectural elements that pick up life through conscious and unconscious actions. We can create living spaces that truly reflect the people who inhabit them.

I’ve added a photo gallery below featuring some examples of these two styles. Without comment so you can make your own judgement.