Take a half an hour walk through the city I live in and you will realise that it isn’t designed for you as a pedestrian; it has undoubtedly lost its human element. You feel like an alien in your own world, trying to make your way through an entanglement of spaghetti-like highways. Your thoughts are drowned by the sounds of the fast paced spaceships soaring past you. You are in a non-place. A place of nowhere. A black hole. A place we humans once called a street. As an architect in this extraterrestrial world I put forward the following essay as an attempt to solving this problem.
In order to be successful in our endeavour I believe we need to break free from the stereotypical notion of the street, a street that is predominantly used for transport. We need to start seeing the street as something more than simply a connection between two points. The street needs to become a destination in itself. It seems ironic that this notion of a street, one whose primary (mal) function of transport, is most fixed in the minds of so called “first world” thinkers, thought that is presumably forward thinking and innovative.
In the first three weeks of studying architecture I participated in an exercise whereby we documented a portion of the infamous Maltese town of Birgu. I remember many of my classmates questioning the purpose of such a task. They didn’t think they could learn anything from these apparently uncivilized primitive settlements. They knew it all. For me it was a different experience, I left there in awe, it made me realise how uncivilised we “privileged” whites really were. I think it was here where I first appreciated the potential of what a street could really become. There were kids playing, women selling fruits, clothing being displayed, chickens running around, people were actually using the street, it was a destination, a place in itself, very unlike the lifeless non-place I was used to. We need to tame our egos and realise that perhaps we can learn from other cultures, especially those that haven’t been hit by the modernist’s hammer.
I come from a place where legislation is in a perpetual state of schizophrenia, constantly changing and altering to meet the needs of the new person in charge. As a result two opposing types emerge: streets where everything is very set and organised to a clinical albeit lifeless extent, to streets that form the backdrop to our organic everyday human activities. Activities such as street trading, playing, sitting, drinking, eating and sleeping seem to bring a needed ray of light to our contemporary dark streets. I suggest using the streets beyond the simple function of transportation. In addition to looking at other contemporary cultures, I believe there are clues available in history as well. By looking to the past we can take traditional principles and reapply them to our contemporary needs. I think postmodernism is a poor attempt at that; it is a nostalgic return to the past that simply gave us poor replicas. Let’s not make the same mistake. Let’s be contextual and responsive to our environment.
It worries me that most people from my city regard the recently built local Casino as an architectural masterpiece. Its name, the “Gran Casino”, the covered internal falsified streets with sky painted ceilings and Italianised props are what we consider a work of art? When I walk through it I feel as though I am visiting a section of Disney World, a theme park of our nostalgia. The building itself has the biggest parking lot the country. People park their cars there and then walk in these “pleasant” streets. The ceilings are painted like skies, there are dummies acting as people, it is an attempt at recreating a more liveable world. It’s almost surreal in a way. These Disney Worlds are evidence of our dissatisfaction with our own situation. Let’s create real streets, with real people.
If a street is to become a destination in itself, it needs to be integrated into the living fabric of our cities. It can not be designed in isolation of its surroundings; it is not an independent entity. By separating vehicular and pedestrian traffic we only further exasperate a street’s seclusion. If this integration is to take place, the street edge is of utmost concern. How does one blend a street which is a very public space with our most private of spaces such as a dwelling? The threshold into these two realms is important. To achieve this subtle transition we need a space in-between these two extremes, a semi-private space or semi-public space.
A gradual hierarchy from a private dwelling to the outside world could be simply expressed architecturally in the form of steps and ledges to the small street or square and then to the communal spaces for schools, markets, theatres etc. If we fail to provide such spaces in our cities we become susceptible to having detached public spaces. Having these in-between spaces also means that we have more variety, more choices. Instead of separating functions we need to integrate them, creating a mixed use environment within the street.
The permeability of the street becomes an important factor in determining how much variety or choice a user can make when going through our cities. Having smaller city blocks means that we can have more street frontage and an increased choice of routes to take when getting from one point to another.
By observing how people behave on streets in their everyday normal ways we can learn to design for them. We all too often adopt the typical modernist attitude of designing onto a “clean slate”, that is instead of designing and enhancing what already exists we choose to start from scratch and play gods to presumed human activities. Perhaps we need to realise that certain things are often the way they are because they work. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel and continually strive for so called originality.
The increasing number of shopping centres that are popping up all over my city never cease to amaze me. Why is it that one has to build these monstrous internalised buildings in such a tolerable climate like the Three Cities? What we need are streets that are opened to the sky, streets that are illuminated by sunlight light, and not streets that are air-conditioned and light with artificial neon bulbs. There is something special about a street that is opened to the sky, something I think we will never be able to recreate in an artificial environment such as a shopping centre.
The picture I have chosen for my inspiration is the one where there is a series of people sitting outside a pizza parlour. It magnificently encompasses a lot of what this essay is about. I think it is an excellent example of a street having the richness I am trying to describe. Firstly the street is used for more than just transporting people or cars, the individuals are sitting and enjoying the street. It looks like a street designed for people: one can relate to its human scale and the tactile materials of the pavement. It illustrates the idea of creating a street that blends into the existing fabric: the street edge isn’t blunt with a hard periphery to the shop front, there is a transitory space that the people have chosen to sit in, and it is precisely this in-between semi-public/semi- private space that adds splendour to an otherwise boring and lifeless street. There is also something quite intriguing about the “everydayness” of the photograph. It seems almost randomly composed, a photograph that you might find in a typical family photo album.
Not too far from where I live there used to be a small side-street where foreign artists would display their works of art. It was a really pleasant place to visit and we would often go there on Sunday afternoons. The street wasn’t planned or perfectly organised, it haphazardly grew and had a chaotic nature about it. Unfortunately planners didn’t seem to see the beauty of it or perhaps it was a developer who thought there was money to be made there. So they decided to formalise this street and to compartmentalise the traders into permanent structures they would have to pay rent for. Today the street is deserted, people don’t go there anymore. It became another Disney World that could no longer compete. The point I am making here is that we ought to be sensitive when designing our streets, let’s design streets that accommodate what we do, not streets that dictate our fairytaled actions.
The private car is probably our biggest enemy in our fight to produce liveable, rich and humane streets. I think we should strive towards making use of mass transportation. A car more often than not transports a single person, whereas a bus or a tram could transport a far larger amount of people in the same amount of space. During my holidays I often walk home from work in the course of rush hour traffic, and can’t help but notice the expressions on the drivers faces’, they all seem like they are ready to kill someone, infuriated and frustrated with the bumper to bumper traffic jam they find themselves in.
I walk past these almost stationary vehicles at a leisurely pace and smile knowing that I will probably get home faster than they will. Surely it is blatantly obvious that something is wrong there. In addition to mass transportation what I suggest is the use of more delicate forms of transport like bicycles. Let’s incorporate bicycle lanes into our streets. There is something quite personal about a bicycle; it doesn’t have that brutality found in cars. Could you imagine a city without cars? With streets of people and bicycles? A friend from another planet tells me that they exist.
We have a massive highway that connects the northern and southern parts of the province. Up until recently most developments that have taken place along this highway have chosen to turn their back to it. It was considered an ugly and unpleasant abscess to our environment. I am not sure what changed peoples’ associations, but for the first time we are celebrating this highway. Currently the most popular coffee shop is one that over looks the busiest section of this highway. The trendiest restaurant is a sky-bridge built across this once hated piece of infrastructure. Property prices along the highway’s edge have soared to unheard of prices. What is it that has made such developments so popular? Is it the fact that people sitting at these coffee shops overlooking a congested highway enjoy watching the annoyed drivers? Do they say to themselves: “Gee I’m glad I ‘m not in that mess”.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons, but another convincing argument might be that it’s simply the dynamic quality of moving traffic, of a changing view that attracts them to these places. Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that we should build massive highways with coffee shops and buildings fronting onto them. What I am suggesting is that we create streets that are like stage sets, continually changing, altering, and morphing into exciting spaces. As directors, in this play we call life, we are lucky in that we already have our actors (city users) for free, so the least we can do is provide the right props (our streets).
The question arises: How do we take these ideas I have mentioned and make them happen? It is unfortunate that our society, generally speaking, measures the success of a person, proposal, or an idea in monetary terms. A person is judged by the car that he or she drives, the make of mobile phone he or she uses, it is all about the money. Let’s not see this as a disadvantage, let’s be practical and prove that these ideas are profitable (monetarily and otherwise). By providing streets that contain some of the principles I have outlined we can undoubtedly start creating the arteries and veins of a sustainable city.
The challenge we are faced with is that to design with sustainability in mind often requires additional initial capital investment and is why most of us choose to ignore that variable. We need to broaden the minds of the designer/developer, we need to convince them to look beyond short-term gains and show them that there are massive long term benefits that far surpass the interim ones when designing sustainable streets. To delve into the ways of proving the viability of such projects goes beyond the scope of this essay; perhaps it is something I will pursue in the near future.
Finally and possibly most importantly would be the intimacy of the street, the personalisation of the street. I was having a drink with a few classmates not so long ago. There we sat drinking on the pavement of this coffee shop on a typical hot Maltese summer’s day discussing architecture. “What made this street so popular?” someone at the table asked. What brought thousands of students here everyday? Was it the quality of the restaurants? Was it the quality of the goods one could buy? It was none of the above but it was the closeness and human scale of everything. Pavements were small enough to ensure that you would brush against the person passing by. The streets were narrow enough to ensure that vehicular traffic was slowed to an acceptable pace. There weren’t any massive overpowering skyscrapers but instead there were low relatable buildings. So I propose a return to the human and intimate scale of streets (streets for people not only for cars), streets that are unlike the vast and empty city streets.