Thursday, 9 September 2010

Towards a new architecture blog.

I am concerned primarily with the urban experience and how we can enrich it. How do our physical surroundings in the city - its architectural and spatial formations - affect us psychologically as well as practically? One street can inspire; the other can depress. This is my personal take on what 'psychogeography' is, and I believe that research into how we are affected by the city's appearance and configuration can be harnessed into urban planning policies to create a more harmonious, exciting and satisfying city.

It is the scene against which our lives play out and the slight changes in environment can completely destabilise us or transform our mood. Why do we like a place? For its beauty, interest? I know that I want my city to be unified but varied; a complex web of old and new - and yet everything functioning successfully for the contemporary society. Beauty is important: we love Paris for its elegant dated buildings and leafy squares. Rest is equally vital: escaping the activity so integral to a thriving city's life. Traces of the past fascinate: buildings tell stories and offer a sense of established identity. Emphasising a sense of space and light precludes the threat of the physicality of urban oppression.

My eventual desire is to help ensure that London, my home, develops in the best possible way for its inhabitants. While new developments have to be carefully evaluated and integrated with their social and built context, we should continue to celebrate the old through renovation and restoration. Like the examples of community gardens, pop-up cinemas and unexpected art spaces, we should strive to transform disused spaces into pleasant, democratic and functional areas for members of the public. Impacts of land uses on the environment and communities must always be monitored; the character and health of a place is so often incredibly fragile.

We all experience the city in different ways; it can never be objective. We infuse physical place with memory, emotion, personal associations and tastes. None of us see or respond to our surroundings identically - and yet somehow we must agree on a way to develop, control and change them for everyone. Our own feelings differ depending on where we are in a city: various areas can have such unique atmospheres, making us feel relaxed, excited, anxious, depressed, irritated or fascinated.

For me - and we speak of London here, my home - I find the suburban north west immensely depressing. I did grow up there and perhaps that colours my view, but I associate it with so much industrial wasteland, not to mention vast residential areas with a marked void of cultural activities. A place that never fails to enchant me is the Barbican, one of my first ports of call when showing a newcomer to the city. Walking into the complex instantly transports you and the most accurate sensation I can articulate is one of being on the set of a science fiction film. Elevated and suspended walkways, seating areas submerged in the middle of lakes, soaring towers and an overwhelming brutalist structure of visually powerful long walkways and monumental piers. It is both a dominant part of the City of London and a world unto itself; an escape from the prevailing urban experience. The flashing signs and busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly Circus can excite and irritate in equal measure. Walking along the Regent's canal gives me a great sense of satisfaction and calm.

Of course we begin to realize that feelings in response to the built environment begin to combine with those provoked by human activity: we, afterall, are the reasons why a place might be busy, dirty, dangerous, or empty. There have, however, been arguments to suggest certain kinds of architecture or built communities engender specific types of behaviour, whether friendliness or hostility (read Charles Mercer's Living in Cities: Psychology and the Urban Environment). Take the high-rise blocks and the suburban neighbourhoods: while one person might argue the former encourages a lack of interaction - in the same way that Simmel sets out the isolating anonymity experienced in large groups of people (The Metropolis and Mental Life), another might suggest that hostility really begins to emerge in the suburban areas. Some feel happiest where others feel most suffocated.

Cities are man-made, but we need to allow them to involve and nurture nature. As alluring as indoor spaces and pastimes are - the internet, cinema, television - engaging with the natural environment has much greater power to improve your mental as well as physical health. We have resigned ourselves to a life where few of our senses are needed or stimulated. We built cities for a good reason: to bring us together and create activity. But it is vital not to lose touch of that other side of nature, escape, calm. It has to be easily accessible throughout the city, whether in the forms of parks, gardens, rivers, or canals. Of course we can only create more of the former two, but there remains much potential in the access to, and use of, the waterways.

Those responsible for developing the city have a most serious duty. They are affecting and shaping the lives of its inhabitants. Practical, functional, environmental, financial and even political concerns may always take centre stage when deciding how to develop areas, but my opinion is that the psychological impact must not be disregarded. How will the design of this building make someone feel? How will the use of this space impact the public emotionally? If you want a happy and functioning city, it is worth keeping in mind.

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