The Train Carriage as Public Space
"He seemed to remember, or he retrospectively imagined, or he reconstructed, from films and books with the aid of a nostalgia as runny as old Camembert, a time when travellers crossing Europe by train would become acquaintances for the length of the journey. [...] Nowadays... yes, nowadays, the journey was too swift across this new European zollverein, the food was brought to you at your seats and no one smoked. The Death of the Compartment Train and its Effect Upon the Social Interaction of Travel."
Cross Channel - Julian Barnes
I had occasion to take a v-line service during the week, and was perhaps especially fortunate in that I got to travel on three different types of trains while doing so. Anybody who thinks I care exactly what type of train it was is sadly mistaken -- as are those of you who want to know how I got three trains on a return trip, who shall have to speculate. For what I want to talk about is the seating arrangements, which were, unfortunately, mostly the same.
The decline in compartment trains is pretty much a universal phenomenon, in that while a few rickety Italian trains still have them, I've not been on one in this state since the late 1990s. The decline in social interaction the quote alludes to is equally universal. I've not come close to experience the sort of shenanigans that accompanied a trip to Warnambool in a compartment train in any of the years since. Nowadays you are lucky to speak. Lucky even to look at another passenger.
And it has everything to do with the tendency of modern trains to face the vast majority of seats to the front.
It is not for this post to find out why, though I may return. I suspect it is related to a general wish many people have to travel facing forward, perhaps safety or economic reasons, and possibly, a designer fetish with air travel, where seats seemingly must face forward for landings and take-off.
However, I also think it is because designers are obsessed with individual comfort in a way that is naming them neglect a fundamental aspect of travel: a train is a public space.
It gets neglected because it is not obvious. A train, tram, or bus is primarily a device for moving people. And like our neglected streetscapes, which are perceived primarily as places for movement, and not interaction, the train suffers from a lack of public interaction to the extent that many people consider them unpleasant and unfriendly. And there is absolutely no reason why any piece of public space, be it a public park, a street, or a train carriage should be unpleasant, if some of the lessons of urban space use are absorbed.
Given quite a few urban designers don't seem to know anything about how people use public space, it should be no surprise that carriage designers don't either. However, there are two relative basic principles that tend to run through the work of both William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl, both encapsulated in the edge effect.
1. People want protection from their sides, so they feel comfortable. The first seats to fill up on a train will be at the window, and the more seats available at the edge of a space the better. Although they were principally done to increase standing room, and they never seem to be quite the right height, I like the rail seat-rests on trams because they let you stand/sit on the edge.
2. People want to be able to see other people. Seats that face each other, so you can talk to a friend are vastly superior to seats facing the same direction, and not just for tall freaks like me whose legs cramp up pressed against the back of another seat. People also sit at the ends of carriages, or in the door area so they can look out. Noone either sits, or stands in the aisle, exposed to others, and unable to look around.
I don't expect people to start conversations on trams and trains, any more than I expect people to start conversations with strangers in a public square. These principles run deeper, as they affect your general sense of enjoyment while retaining your personal space. Nor is this a call for a return to compartment carriages, which are, perhaps a little too intimate, but the train is a public space and should be designed with how people use (and should use) a public space in mind, by arranging the seats appropriately, and for preference, flexibly.
Many years ago I was asked to sit on several train seats to assess their comfort levels. It seemed pointless then, and it seems more pointless now, under travel conditions of great comfort but tedious boredom. Comfort on a train has no more relative importance than the comfort of your lounge room is to the enjoyment of that. I have yet to see a lounge room with a bunch of very comfortable couches facing a blank wall.
22nd July, 2006 21:17:37
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Vale Jane Jacobs
Every time you read something it changes your life a little. Jane Jacobs greatest work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed the way the public thinks about planning; unfortunately, I am not sure we can really say it changed the way all planners do. But it is still a seminal work, and the widespread mentioning of her passing on blogs I read is proof that, hopefully, her simple, but deep, message will someday percolate through.
I had the good fortune to read this work at a time when I was particularly receptive to it. It not only changed my life a little, it changed it a lot.
I bought Death and Life at the Technical Bookshop, formerly on Swanston Street, and began reading it on a United flight from Sydney to San Francisco. That was the start of a five month overseas trip, with time in the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium France, Italy and the Netherlands. I had chosen those countries because, even before reading Jane Jacob's books, I was interested in the economies of cities, and if you want to see where it all began, then northern Italy, the Low Countries and Champagne is the place you need to go. I had been interested in urban issues as well, which is why I'd bought the book. The confluence of three things -- interest, time to reflect, and travel -- was perfect.
I think all good books start with a rant. It shows the author cares, and that the topic is important. Most books don't sustain the passion, but Death and Life does. From beginning to end it gets at you, explaining why things are happening, why current thinking is hurting those things. And always, in a way that appeals to my liberal/libertarian sensibility and post-Artificial Intelligence cynicism of our ability to model dynamic systems, it focused on individual people first, not collections.
I didn't put down Death and Life and say: I want to be a planner. Nothing is ever so simple. But it put me on the path to planning, because it made me think about the very real problem of cities; an insoluble one perhaps, but endlessly interesting problem. After a few months of these problems, I was safely in the zone of a mid-20s crisis. The problems I was working on in IT had lost their lustre. By the time I returned home I was seriously contemplating a change of fields, and within 12 months I was back at university. Not all the result of one book, but it was certainly a catalyst for my change of state.
Ultimately though, Jane Jacobs' work wasn't really about cities. They were just one problem that she looked at, in some depth, but never as comprehensively as other people, some of whom concluded similar ideas. What she was about was a way of approaching problems generally, that emphasised that many things are self organised and unpredictable; and therefore, that we should be guiding, not leading, encouraging, not restrictive, and amenable to dynamic change.
Planning, for the most part, is none of those things; and rarely tries. Jane Jacobs' legacy is a slightly blurry, cynical, but optimistic, vision of what planning, and society in general, can be, and often is. She was probably wrong on a lot of the particulars, but that won't matter. Her work will outlive her long life by some margin. And for that, I and many others, am very glad.
30th April, 2006 03:51:22
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Creative Cities, Creative Tourism
On the recommendation of BridgeGirl I went along to the Melbourne Conversations series yesterday, to hear four speakers discuss what makes cities creative. Or more specifically, to engage with the unwieldy and overly broad set of questions relating to creativity and the urban form.
How does the design and built form of a city impact upon its public life? What elements contribute to communities and promote cultural interactions. Is it possible to design for sustainability, in the broadest sense of sustainability, to support a creative city? What are the lessons from our heritage? What are the leading examples of innovation in architecture and design for modern cities?
Needless to say, given such a broad brief, each speaker became remarkably adept at turning the topic into to a discussion of their own recent research, and for one, their forthcoming book. Nevertheless, because I think it is an interesting question, and one I have (fairly badly) already attempted to answer; I think it is worthwhile disentangling the various statements from the talks and the mostly decent discussion that followed to try and find an answer.
The most interesting contribution, and one that I think makes the most sense in the context of what governments can or should do to encourage creativity came from Kate Shaw. She identified a contradiction between the way artists improve an area, and the gentrification that raises house prices and eventually forces poor artists to relocate elsewhere. The implication being that creative areas contain the seeds of their own destruction.
On one level this isn't a good argument. As Leon van Shaik pointed out, when house prices rise, the artists merely move to another spot, leaving behind a trail of gentrified neighbourhoods. Because house prices will always operate on a curve related to wealth and income, as long as sufficient housing exists, some of it will be low cost. The question is really whether some low cost housing is unsuitable for artists and the bohemian subset of society that supports them, and therefore, whether some urban design kills creativity.
Needless to say, the underlying context here is anti-suburban, propounded by a group of people devoted to dense, walkable communities propounding their views to a like-minded audience.
The most significant argument in favour of this view is cultural. For van Shaik, who opened his talk by saying that all cities are creative, good design creates a culture that responds, and expects good design. Poor design does the opposite. Thus, the predilection for good design in cities like Milan or Paris, is different to the gross indifference of say, the Gold Coast, or Canberra. For Melbourne, some parts are obviously well designed, and some not. But in a city of this size, and with so much contact with other cities throughout the world, and their own creative impulses, it seems highly unlikely that those influences can be completely killed. Transformed, certainly, but that transformation would be a good thing.
Following the argument of Richard Florida however -- an argument oft-mentioned, but neither properly explained nor refuted -- creativity is not just the artists and their endeavours, but the combination of creative economic start-ups, and other value-adding service providers that Marcus Spiller identified as the main drivers of economic growth. Historically, no really creative city has not also been undergoing extraordinary economic growth -- Athens, Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, London, New York -- and there is little evidence that artists are more important for a creative community than their (mostly young, well educated and high disposable income holding) consumers. Nor that the latter are less attracted to the cheap housing that attracts the artists. However, if cheap housing attracts both, the question becomes what aspects of cheap housing are important. Or rather, why a Carlton slum and not a Broadmeadows one?
Often this is ascribed to immigrants in the inner suburbs, and there is no question they brought great vitality and diversity to the culture of the inner city. But the main reason seems to be simple economics. After World War II, the housing shortage was so great that any sort-of house would do, and would still cost quite a bit. Immigrants being the least financial, they made-do in the suburbs of the inner city in cramped, unsanitary conditions. By the late 1960s, when home-ownership rates peaked and levelled off, this was no longer the case. At this point, housing was cheap enough for the owners of different housing stock to become, and to continue to become self-selecting: families move into the suburbs and young singles and poor artists move into the inner suburbs.
The difference between Broadmeadows and Carlton is space and access to cultural services. In the former you can have a large land-lot, perfect for a young family. In the latter, you have no land, but access to cultural services that for historical reasons, convenience, and by political preference, reside in the CBD and immediate surrounds.
The ability of governments to provide for creativity is limited, but the current focus for events, festivals and venues in the inner city raises house prices in that area, and makes it harder for new creative areas to emerge where housing is cheaper. However, because the housing in the inner city remains smaller than the suburbs, there will always be a tendency for creativity to reside in those houses, even when, as now, the people in that demographic are growing faster than housing to accommodate them.
In a sense then, this is a discussion, not about creative cities so much, but about a demographic, where they live, the type of city they create for themselves, and their size. The trend of the past few decades has been for this demographic to expand, and to create an interesting environment, somewhat regardless of what government does.
But none of that relates to urban design. Urban design itself cannot create a creative class, although it can inspire them, and it does afford different potentials. As I discussed here, Melbourne's laneway culture and relaxed atmosphere would be different with a differently laid out city and different building materials. Leon van Shaik noted the importance of local input to local architecture, the way stories interact with what is built, and the poor quality of buildings done by outsiders in cities like Barcelona. But if the creative class moved elsewhere in Melbourne, they would still be a creative class. They would (and already do) produce different things in a different style.
26th February, 2006 19:08:48
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Canberra and Sydney: a Character Study
We are often given to describe cities as if they were people: Melbourne is sombre but relaxed; London, cosmopolitan and inventive; Paris, a grandiose show-off. But what does this mean really? That it invokes that mood in its visitors, or in its inhabitants; or that its inhabitants create that mood for themselves? If it is, at least in part, the built form that creates these responses in people then we need to ask what properties they give spaces, that they create such different effects.
Canberra and Sydney are two cities that provoke substantially different moods, as well as being as differently planned as any two places can be. Our national capital is generally derided as boring and left at that. Perhaps it is hard to define a mood in a place often devoid of people. By contrast, Sydney is wanton and harried. The harbour sparkles and invites a gaze but like the congested, shadowing streets is busy. The parks offer refuge but even these are full of movement and events, or workers out for a run at lunch.
And that is an important difference. In a week in Canberra I never saw anyone running. Cycling, often, which is an activity preserved for the clinically insane in Sydney, but never running, for fitness or any other reason. Canberra comes across as a city where people make their own time. But that probably isn't the case.
The urban form prevents anyone from rushing in Canberra. Noone walks anywhere of any great distance. I tried it, and it is long, slow and tedious, akin to bush-walking in many places, like trudging across endless playing fields (or a paddock) in others. If you do walk anywhere, it is because it is close, like the local pubs in the older suburbs -- actually that is probably the only place you would walk to. Otherwise people drive, the distances between things, and the tedium associated with seeing noone else. precludes walking. The roads themselves are processions marked only by endless unindicated lane merging; too wide and slow to seem dangerous, most driving in Canberra seems like a trip to the country.
It is the weight of nearby humanity that makes them different. Canberra has only a few places (the Civic mall) where you can sit and watch people, so people don't, they return to someplace else. In Sydney you can't help but watch people, you can hardly escape them (at least in the central city), and so it isn't a city for meditation. Melbourne has a CBD almost as large as Sydney, but its parks are larger and further away, and its streets wider and more open. You can set your own pace. You can tell the rest of the city to shove off. You can't in Sydney, there are always eyes on you wondering what you are doing, or things happening to draw your attention. As Canberra has nothing to engage your brain in social activity, so in Sydney you can't escape it. And as the urban form of the central city makes everyone akin to the social pages of a glamour magazine, so the character of the city reflects that.
It wouldn't be right to say the character of a city is just about its places. It is also its economy, its climate, its cultural mix, and its self-awareness. But those things combine with places that carry the potential of the city's character. Even as Sydney's streets push people to the gentler margins of the CBD, those places allow certain activities that define the character of the city: drinking in a sun-drenched bar along the harbour edge; jogging through the undulating botanic gardens; promenading through Hyde Park; or an older image I get that still seems to fit, of a hat-wearing man reading a newspaper in a be-shadowed Wynyard Square.
But does the reverse apply? If Melbourne's cafe strips, or laneway bars be imported into Sydney, would they fit, subtly understated as in Melbourne, or look out of place? If anything, Sydney came to Melbourne in a few places; at Docklands, and in parts of Federation Square and Southbank. Docklands is still finding its niche, but it is clear already that it won't be the brash destination the promoters originally pushed. For climatic reasons, if nothing else, the cafes are sheltered with gas heaters at the ready; fewer people abound, moving slower; the mood is subdued.
We can conclude that the character of a city is an open vessel, filled by its inhabitants. But not all cities offer much to their inhabitants. Canberra really is boring, pretty at times, but it offers no social comfort to the citizen on the street. Sydney's citizens though, have shaped the city to its surroundings, which in turn shapes its citizens to it. And like any city worth visiting, it has a character all its own.
10th January, 2006 13:25:52
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A short lesson
The second complaint I have is the way it interfaces with the surrounds. It is a long, mostly dull walk up Flinders St. to the atrium. There are just a few shadowed entrances to ACMI, and a largely dull, monotonous, grey hammering at you with no relief from the elements, or the traffic. Nor is there any greenery.
That is what I said about Federation Square a year and a half ago, and very little has changed. Only now however, is it becoming apparent that it is a problem. Businesses on the Flinders St. side are failing, and comments like this are indicative of people with no idea.
"I never saw that side of Federation Square as a problem . . . I thought of it as almost the hidden gem of Federation Square,"
The image above shows the most grievous problem. The atrium should be acting as an entrance, but faces, what? Perhaps Hosier Lane, but you need to cross Flinders Street to get to it. Perhaps it faces nothing, as is the way of modern pieces of architectural genius. The bottom picture is of the intersection at Russell Street. Here, in a piece of mind-blowing stupidity there is only one pedestrian crossing across to Russell Street. On the far side away from Federation Square! Is anyone in their right mind going to cross three streets to get across from the Forum to Fed Square.
There is a tendency to assume that developers and businesses have no interest in the urban form, and need to be coerced into doing something about it. Well, this area, which is in every way anti-pedestrian is a good example of whay that is wrong. And if these new businesses want to succeed they would do well to consider the streetscape instead of how good it is being in a "landmark building".
28th August, 2005 11:49:56
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Is this the ugliest building in Melbourne?
"Too many of the world's chief buildings fail of one chief virtue - harmony; they are made up of a methodless mixture of the ugly and the beautiful; this is bad; it is confusing, it is unrestful. One has a sense of uneasiness, of distress, without knowing why. But one is calm before St. Mark, one is calm within it, one would be calm on top of it, calm in the cellar; for its details are masterfully ugly, no misplaced and impertinent beauties are intruded anywhere; and the consequent result is a grand harmonious whole, of soothing, entrancing, tranquilizing, soul-satisfying ugliness.
Mark Twain - A Tramp Abroad
Sure it doesn't address the street, has no windows, looks like a sunken, mono-coloured Rubik's cube, is probably a graffiti artist's wet dream, repulses with its little "No Standing" signs, and oddly placed not-cone, gives no indication of its function, or owner, or what you could even potentially use it for, is not likely to attract executives looking for corner offices, has no natural light inside (except maybe, the third floor), probably no natural air flows, and I can't imagine that it has much potential reuse value if whoever owns it can no longer use it.
But it is so beautifully balanced, and of such perfect scale, it really is harmoniously, wonderfully, ugly. I'll give it that.
31st March, 2005 21:13:03
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The Changing Face of Swanston St. - Part I
Slightly less than ten years ago, when I first moved to Melbourne, the entire length of Swanston St. was relatively squalid. Full of empty lots, ugly service stations, or run-down businesses. It is now around halfway through the most rapid change of almost any street you could name in Melbourne. More interestingly however is that it is rarely commented on; despite it being the best example of the potential streetscape that the wailing objectors to high-rise apartment buildings are trying to prevent.
This post - and the followup - are an attempt to address that problem. In particular I want to assess three points: whether the buildings built are sympathetic to the area; whether the street is better for pedestrians as a result of the developments; and what this says about land-use planning (if anything). I will start by looking at the changes north of Victoria St.
Almost every change in the past decade has been on eastern side of the street. On the west the brewery site remains undeveloped, although the Sidney Myer Centre has been built at Melbourne University (bottom photo). What has been built are apartments, modern in style, set against the street, very square, and austere but for the splashes of colour, with small balconies. Almost all of them are 10 storeys high, but - particularly interestingly - no higher.
The height is very important in making the apartments sympathetic to the street. They don't dominate the remaining few buildings of interest - particularly the Canada Hotel and the old fire station. They are tall, and making good use of the land but don't overwhelm you as a pedestrian. In this way it is a similar sensation to that given by the buildings built under the 40 metre height restrictions in Melbourne, or to buildings in Europe that by-and-large conform to similar standards.
Aesthetically I am less convinced. When they were going up I thought the street was being over-run with the worst kind of cheap, drab concrete-box architecture (second picture). While the finished product is better, I fear for their condition in ten or twenty years time. They are certainly not inspiring, and in many cases they are downright dull. But that is an argument that could be made against most housing.
For pedestrians nothing much has changed. Well, almost. In years gone by you just wouldn't walk down that side of the street. It was not pleasant at all. Now, it is still not pleasant - none of Swanston St. is although Melbourne University is improving - but it is walkable. What hasn't improved is the amount of cover, the amount of greenery is very sparse, particularly in winter; the footpaths are still narrow, and the buildings don't address the street very well, producing a dull experience.
More generally, the urban design elements seem to be checked off a list of minimum requirements rather than actually trying to improve the space. To some extent it is council responsibility, but it is in the best interests of the owners to improve these spaces. The lack of attention to these elements says to me that neither the developers or the approving planners actually addressed the underlying goals of good urban design when they did these projects.
I think both of the questions I addressed above go to the heart of the system of land use and development controls we have in place. In almost no way could you point to these developments and say they are markedly inferior. Their height is well controlled, and they don't reduce the amenity of pedestrians, or other buildings, they are reasonable aesthetically, and produce a reasonable street frontage. But in no way do they exceed what you could expect from the controls either. The spirit is not there, the urban spaces are still drab and meaningless, they are just meaningless in a new and slightly less obnoxious way.
Swanston St. has changed a lot, but it doesn't inspire at all. Not in the way the Parisien end of Collins St. does, or in an entirely different way: nearby Lygon St. or even Drummond St. In a way that might not matter, because a street doesn't have to have character, and it may grow it over time. But I also think we need to better address what gives them character so we can maintain it when it exists, and find it when it doesn't.
20th September, 2004 01:36:46
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The Music of Architecture
Found floating around the planning blogs. Wired magazine had an article on Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe. Although they obviously can't do his 2000+ page work justice they have condensed the key points down for examination.
Alexander has attempted to explain why how architecture could be better, using the natural world as his guide. But, underlying the natural world is a poorly understood, but complex mathematical relationship that we are only beginning to understand. So, Alexander's book is merely a stepping stone in the examination of the structures of life, and the models we can build by imitating its procedures - as opposed to its eventual form.
But this is not the first field to undergo mathematical examination for complex patterns. Probably the first field to do that was music, by Pythagoras and its somewhat mystical followers. Culminating in the works of Herman Helmholtz. it is interesting then, to examine Alexander's different elements and consider them in the context of the four elements of music: melody, harmony, rythym, and dynamics.
Rythym first, is the basis of the song: the beat. For a building it is the constant changes in the building and streetscape, the repetition of arches, columns, decoation, houses, street lamps, and roads. Alexander recognises these as Gradients, Repetition, Contrast and Echoes. A long undecorated blank wall is bad because first and foremost, "it 'aint got no rythym".
Harmony is the relationship between elements, the notes. They are harmonic in relation to simultaneous and successive notes according to a fixed, and relatively simple mathematical ratio based on their frequency. For a building it is Positive Space, Shape, Local Symmetries and Simplicity. They are such that all the different elements go together without jarring the senses. Classical architecture is obsessed with harmony and rythym - the size and shape of columns, and capitals and their proper spacing. But while it is servicable, a truly great building - or public space needs the other two elements as well.
The melody is the overall structure of the song. For a building it is its shape, and functional elements arranged in a way that each is in harmony with the other. For Alexander it is Scale, Strong Centers, Boundaries, and Not-Separateness. It is the meeting of the building, space or even an organism with its surroundings and the use of what is available. Each living part of nature has its own melody, seperate from the ubiquitous rythyms and harmony common to everyone.
To quote from the page earlier: "Once a song is organized by melody, harmony, and rhythm, it is technically presentable". This is also true of any building, but it is damning it with faint praise. The dynamics, the emotion, or in nature, the mere random chaotic side is the final important thing. You could easily criticise architects for paying too much attention to this element and not those previously mentioned, which is no doubt the reason Alexander has spent thirty years on these books. But they are still important. For him they are the Deep Interlock and Ambiguity, and Roughness. Also to note, dynamics are not necessarily chaotic - in nature they are a reaction against the natural environment and merely appear so, a point I'll return to at another time - there are hidden harmonic structures in organic forms that still react some part of the brain. But, I'd have to read Alexander's book to see how he thinks to bring them forth.
For planners, finding a way to accomodate knowledge of natural - rather than fixed - order, so as to achieve better planning ends is somethign that would be great to see. How it can be done is another matter.
13th June, 2004 02:47:23
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The fine art of deluding oneself
There is something compelling about attempts by marketers to brand a product as something it is not - and never could be. Are they aware how forced it looks? Do they even care? Or is the brand itself the important feature, and the product merely adequate?
When it comes to tapping into local culture, governments are more guilty of this little charade than anyone; and local government is the worst of all. Take Melbourne City Council's plan for a Lygon Piazza.
Good idea you'd think. Reinforce the Italian links, create a central focal point for the area. Maybe reduce traffic and give more scope for pedestrians to 'just hang'.
The Lygon Piazza is a park - not a piazza. It is away from Lygon St., isolated from it by the strange - though not surprising - decision to retain the existing flower bed and bluestone wall. On three of it's sides it has warehouses and residential buildings; on the other, it faces perhaps the quietest part of Lygon St. itself where an empty carpark dominates, and some of the few remaining non-restaurants are located.
The place itself is surrounded by trees - most un-Italian - further isolating it visually. While it does have a paved surface; the dominating feature of piazzas in Italy, that ability to sit, or stand and watch other people isn't there. Instead the council proposes that: "at night, visitors will be drawn into the piazza to admire the dramatically lit fountain."
Not that the MCC doesn't recognise this problem, it is right there in their document:
Changes to pedestrian access and circulation are also needed to encourage social interaction and more effective links with surrounding residential, retail and commercial activities.
Ultimately the success of Argyle Square piazza will depend on its sense of vitality and its ability to attract and draw people to spend time there throughout the year. Its future will be linked to the way it can inspire spontaneous acts of enjoyment and accommodate major public events.
But their method of addressing it is, well, lacking?
connection Argyle Square Piazza will be an essential part of the life of the Carlton community. The new piazza will have strong links to Carlton’s other parks and reserves and to the area’s commercial, retail and cultural places. Likewise the established southern half of Argyle Square will be integrated with the piazza and cultural connections will be expressed through programming of events and activities by the local Italian community.
No, the Piazza should have strong links to its surrounding area. The designed square does not - except in that special world they inhabit, where what is stated becomes true. In the future, when the area around the square has become cafes and shops, instead of housing, when the car traffic isn't an impediment to pedestrians, when people must go through the square to conduct their daily activities, and when other people stop in the square to watch the maddening crowds. Then it will be a piazza.
For now, it is a park, a nice looking park, to be sure, but just a park.
27th March, 2004 14:49:18
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"Let's make it as loud as we can"
We are generally fairly critical of urban spaces around here, so today I'll talk about a good one. Last Sunday was one of those strange Melbourne days for weather. It was cloudless, with a nice warm sun, but the second you walk outside you were hit by a freezing south-westerly; sitting in an unsheltered place outside was actually unpleasant.
Enter the Outdoor Stage Lawn at the Arts Centre. This is the small grassed area between the spire and the concert hall - a small patch of civilisation on top of one busy road, and next to another, it is enclosed enough that you can escape both, without being inaccessible.
More importantly, the designers built it on a slight slope, with a tall thick hedge on the western side. The benefits are two-fold. First, the hedge and the slope protect you from the wind. You could hear the flags flapping furiously while you were there, but basking in the sun, you'd otherwise never know there was a cold, almost brutal wind. The benefits of the slope are related to Jan Gehl's Edge Effect. By making the park a slope, you don't feel exposed by having people behind you, they are instead, looking over you, at the whole area, as you are. The best example of this - in Melbourne - is the State Library.
The grass is thick and luscious, an interesting piece of public art is popular amongst children, and - by the marks on it - skate-boarders, and to polish it off? The Arts Centre was putting free concerts on each Sunday over summer, the last being a Mark Seymour (amongst others) acoustic set. An altogether pleasant way to spend a weekend.
Well, until the 25 storey tower block in Southbank blocked the sunlight. Then it was cold.
3rd March, 2004 10:11:38
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