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"Public Spaces, Shared Spaces" by Ian Wall - Edinburgh meeting of 6 December 2011

Ian walld

Ian Wall

In a 'rant' which was light-hearted in detail but serious in moral purpose, Ian Wall said that the serious deterioration in maintenance of public spaces in recent years has been echoed in heightened public discussion about place-making.

While much of the public realm has been abandoned to decay, a small number of set pieces get an enormous spotlight of attention. Parisian examples show seats that are follies, an abattoir turned into a science centre with no engagement and trees that are not to be enjoyed because they are architectural features.

In Madrid what looks at first like leftovers from an industrial past turn out to be artworks, while painting concrete white under olive trees has produced a light-reflecting surface that becomes unbearably hot. In Chicago how might the ten million dollar cost of Anish Kapoor's giant polished stainless-steel coffee bean have been better spent?

Ayr's Loudoun Square is a classic case closer to home of money spent to create things without thought. A poem that is backlit at night makes you long to turn the page, while a wall closes off people from the life of the square such as betting shops and rubbish bins. Edinburgh's Festival Square should have lots of active doors, but instead there is just a back door to the hotel and a single office entrance.

Thingism is about putting something into an empty space, and artwork invites redefinition as a "meaningful intervention in the built environment". Near Wallsend an ugly construct of sleepers, concrete and mesh masquerades as art, while an oak tree planted upside down alongside a normally-placed one to symbolise growing up and down soon died.

Perhaps only once has Festival Square been properly used, by people who gathered to watch a royal wedding on the giant screen - the water feature is long gone, and efforts to let the shops seem to have been abandoned. Architects and engineers are only as good as their clients, and Hunter Square has been designed to be unusable as a straight pedestrian route, with steps leading up to a big drop : heritage phone-boxes show it's in a conservation area, and cold metal seats face the traffic.

St Andrew's Square is the first Edinburgh space to have been made public, but is a triumph of design over humanity, with seats that force you to sit side by side and big bins visible behind the cafe, while in Castle Street benches are designer items and why is there not a proper newsagent's stall? At Haddington the area of wasted concrete negotiated in getting off the bypass is beyond belief.

When designing public spaces, we should stop thinking about materials, and should start to consider who is going to do what to whom. What we have instead is a primacy of money over people, and our planners decline to put out an instruction on shared space because people with power and money are obsessed with their vehicles.

The Scottish Region thanks Edinburgh City Council for hosting the event.

Reportand photograph by John Yellowlees.


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