25 May 2012

London's public realm conference

On the first day of summer, that's what it felt like, I cycled down to Toynbee Hall to attend the 'Changing Spaces: Sustaining good design and creative intervention in London's public realm'. This is a familiar area as I and others have been doing small projects here with students on the London Met foundation in architecture course. It's easy to forget about this tucked away institution and I was glad to have an excuse to come back.

The conference was jointly organised by Open City (formerly known as Open House) who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year and the London Borough of Enfield. Lee Mallet from Urbik Limited and Greater London Publishing kicked off with tales of places that attract artists, mostly anecdotal tales of Shoreditch back in the day. He was followed by Suzie Zuber from Open City (I love their simple and evocative slogan: 'opening eyes, minds and doors') who went over their work with young people, advocacy & enabling and design reviews  - quite a bit more than just the September open house weekend.

Isabelle Vasseur from ArtOffice gave an insightful talk about art as an agent in public space - questioning the idea of agent/message/meaning and public. She touched on the post-war public art, mostly sculpture, that was being commissioned and built in new estates - amazing images of neatly dressed families posing by a Henry Moore sculpture against a backdrop of brand new housing. She showed some great projects, I must have been too engrossed to write any names down, but I remember her message abut the importance of outreach and education and the 'resonance of what has been done not what has been left'.

Beatrice Galilee, a young curator with a background in architecture and history, gave an upbeat talk entitled 'the plurality of spacial practice' where she talked about her love of 'the fleeting, the experimental and the temporary'. It was filled with current examples of projects (many self-initiated) around public space: the Dalston's FARM:shop, Architecture 00:/'s Wikihouse, Eddie Rama's painted estates, the Brooklyn superhero supply store, the website Kickstarter and her work as a co-owner of the Gopher Hole and as chief curator at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale next year, amongst others. What stays with me is her energy when describing projects that lobby possibilities without waiting for a client.

It would be interested to hear thoughts on the economic sustainability of self-funded projects - on one hand all this great bottom -up work seems to spring up during a recession, on the other are we not emphasising the role of the middle class architect/ artist/ planner/ entrepreneur who can afford to undertake such projects? A discussion for another time.

A poignant question form a member of the audience fished off the morning session (unfortunately I had to miss the afternoon) in quite a reflective way: what is 'cultural well-being'? Apparently this is a term used in the national planning policy framework without a definition. The panellists offered some tentative guesses but all finished by saying they didn't know.

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