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What makes a good public space?

, Cities

What are the essential components of human-centered design that can foster vibrant community life? A group of young Russian architects explored one of the best public spaces in the UK to find the answers and to see what solutions can be applied across national and cultural borders.

Photo by Yuliana Abisheva

In October, the group travelled to the UK on an architecture and urban design study visit organized by Strelka Institute and the Future Culture program delivered by the British Council. Selected through a competition, the diverse group of 11 professionals came from all over the country – from Krasnodar to Vladivostok.

The architects visited three British cities – London, Coventry, and Liverpool. The week-long trip provided a range of stimulating visits, meetings, and discussions with British experts and colleagues.

The study visit focused on new models for public space. “A deceptively simple concept most urban practitioners are seemingly well aware of, yet one which has never been so apt for re-invention and re-imagining in order to maintain its social relevance and transformative potential,” said Strelka’s Education Program Design Tutor Nicolay Boyadjiev.

“At Strelka, research trips are an integral part of our education approach: getting out of our comfort zone to ask questions, gather insights and test ideas in unfamiliar contexts with the help of leading relevant and inspiring local experts,” he added.

From unconventional public spaces to the studios that create them, the participants shared their thoughts and impressions with Strelka Mag.

 

Barking Square

A public square in the London suburb of Barking by Muf Architecture/Art. Winner of the 2008 European Prize for Public Urban Space

Photo by Yuliana Abisheva

Photo by Yulia Davletbaeva

Yuliana Abisheva, Naberezhnye Chelny

Architect

“Taking part in so many competitions, we always try to create a perfect render image with happy people in it. Fair enough – the chances that a developer will like an image with no active and joyful people are low.

But what if ‘better’ doesn’t mean ‘happy?’ What if we accept the flaws of a site as its unique character and use it, without forcing good emotions upon it? As Liza Fior, director of Muf Architecture/Art, said: ‘What’s wrong with being sad?’ They knew that a place in between two buildings was shady, dark, and windy. But instead of fighting for sun or trying to simulate ‘happy cappuccino hours,’ they created an arboretum there. It became an even darker space – magical, a bit scary, but one that leaves room for imagination.

They created a story through careful understanding and acceptance of a site, making it speak through artistic objects and spatial references, embracing what was hidden before – a sense of space. Yet that is what I think we need to learn from when dealing with places that seem to have no potential, or look grim and even scary.”

 

Assemble

A multi-disciplinary collective working across architecture, design, and art. Winner of the 2015 Turner Prize

Zhanna Dikaya, Moscow

Architect at Project Meganom

“While many young architects are trying to turn themselves into brands, the members of Assemble collaborate, experiment, and search for their own architectural language. They put their work in a wider context, breaking down the borders between the architect and the client, and bringing communities together around public spaces. Creating a self-sustainable platform, they make things and make things happen.

Back home, I’m interested in trying to bring architectural practice out of the bubble and to rethink the role of craft in architecture as a valuable asset. Architecture is not only about buildings, walls, drawings, and plans; it’s more about processes, scenarios, ideas, connections, and perceptions.”

 

Exhibition Road

A street in London that houses several major museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Designed by Dixon Jones Architects. Winner of the 2012 RIBA Award

Photo by Yulia Davletbayeva

Photo by The Academy of Urbanism / Flickr

Artem Olshevich, Irkutsk

Architect / urban planner at Territory Development Agency

“The concept of ‘shared space’ started in the Netherlands over 30 years ago and was first invented by traffic engineer Hans Monderman. He strongly believed that environment has a greater influence on people’s behavior than legislation and formal rules. The driver in a shared space takes more care and starts to rely on eye contact, human interaction, and becomes an integral part of the social and cultural context.

Exhibition Road in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is the first radical shared space street transformation project in London. Exhibition Road was designed by Dixon Jones Architects and it is one of my favorite pedestrian-friendly public spaces in the British capital. This street, without excessive and massive street furniture such as signs, barriers, and traffic lights, is certainly a very pleasant place for tourists and residents.”

 

Borough Market

A wholesale and retail food market in Southwark, London

Photo by Yuliana Abisheva

Photo by Yuliana Abisheva

Yulia Kovaleva, Krasnodar

Architect

Borough Market showed me the importance of a place’s context, its scenario. To revitalize a place you need a story, a concept – it will make the public space unique. I think that it’s not enough to make a place just beautiful and comfortable to use. It’s not enough to be able to eat and chat; something more is needed to attract people. You have to create the right atmosphere. I consider the project of Khokhlovskaya Square in Moscow an excellent example. Nothing is actually happening there, but the carefully preserved fragment of a medieval fortification wall is a feature that makes this place unique. This place attracts people and invites them to play out their own scenarios.”

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