Space is a word that is flung around in planning and architecture with wild abandon and when used in some disciplines, it can take on a variety of meanings in different contexts. Having worked in mental health, the term ‘safe space’ was used to provide clients with the knowledge that they were in a physical area where they would not be harmed. We each have our understanding of what our personal space is, and genuinely feel affronted if someone does not respect this. Indeed, we speak of our personal space being ‘violated’. Most interestingly, the required distance someone should keep from us is not spoken and agreed upon every time we meet someone for the first time. Rather, it is bound by cultural norms and expectations.
When it comes to public space, all of these elements come into play in a fascinating and very subtle manner. As has been noted by individuals more experienced than I, public space is truly democratic space. It matters not your age, gender, income, political or sexual persuasion. Public space is a leveller.
If we all share it, and we all use it, why is it that we can’t all have a similarly weighted opinion of it? A recent competition on Flinders Street train station here in Melbourne perhaps best exemplified this point. Of the shortlisted entrants, the public were invited to vote for the one they felt best deserving of the coverted prize. There were to be two prizes – the ‘People’s Choice’ and the one they would actually build (in short then, this could be reduced to ‘The One the People Didn’t Choose and Therefore Don’t Want’).
The one the people chose was – I think – beautiful. Housed beneath a rooftop garden that comprised lawn, trees and nature, the original building of the station was complemented by it’s new surroundings. It was a design that invited people to sit, stroll and wander. It invited them to stay.
Needless to say, it didn’t win the prize for the design that would actually be built.
The winning prize was a stark, vaccuous, white, garish thing that didn’t blend with the environment and offered nothing soft. It certainly didn’t invite staying. And yet, and yet…this is the station to be built – this, ‘The One the People Didn’t Choose and Therefore Don’t Want’. I suspect that what happened was 6 or 7 middle aged men sat in a room and decided that from an architectural point of view this was the best. Well, most people aren’t architects. In fact, according to the CEO of CoDESIGN Studio, only 1.4% of the population are Designers, Planners or Architects. Does this then mean that only 1.4% of the population is somehow ‘allowed’ to comment on public space?
Only 1.4% of people have formal knowledge (and by that I mean qualifications) in an area that is experienced by all, yet people intuitively know when they feel good in a space, in public. They don’t need to know the specific language that is required to know that sensation What’s perhaps most baffling – and worse – is
if the People’s Choice is never to actually be chosen, then why give the people options in the first place?