What is it that makes cities thrive? What are the biggest drivers for success and prosperity in the city, the agents for change? Where does the real power and capital reside? People. Not individuals, not corporations but the connectedness of people. Cities wouldn’t exist were it not for the strength that comes from human collaboration and from that civilisation.
We have a tendency to see our cities through the prism of their buildings – admittedly architects more so than most – but that is to misunderstand an essential truth, that the real city is made not of concrete but flesh.
The history of humanity is revealed in architecture, nowhere more so than in Rome. But there Nolli’s 18th-century map gives a different reading, where public spaces within buildings are described as part of the urban fabric. From that you understand a network that mediates between public and private, one that makes connections between people possible. Rome offers a sequence of scenographic spaces where you drift from public square to semi-public courtyard to a space more private.
We love to wander around that city not just because of the magnificence of its structures but because of its spatial interconnectedness. The network of Rome is the result of centuries of reuse and reappropriation. Finding the right balance between preservation and change will never be easy – but too little change and the engine for prosperity stalls. The key then is to create leverage from those spaces that can change. At a modest scale, our scheme for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London extracts maximum value from a new public place. It is a response to a visionary brief from the museum, to create a new courtyard on the Exhibition Road site, previously to be the destination for Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral extension.
The recent landscaping of Exhibition Road, giving it a kerb-free single surface, has already significantly increased the number of pedestrians who use it but that is just the start of a more ambitious intention to make the road a place where culture and learning are accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.
To unlock this potential to bring in new audiences, we have proposed a more open relationship between museum and street. The stone plinth of the Aston Webb screen currently forms an opaque barrier on to Exhibition Road but by negotiating this threshold and altering the screen to reveal previously hidden views of the museum’s historic facades, we have re-imagined the dialogue between museum and street, one that invites pedestrians to drift in off Exhibition Road to a place for potential appropriation by the public.
Most of London’s places for public interaction are not so planned or designed, be they food markets, garden squares or the insane urban density of Soho’s narrow streets – but they create tangible benefits for large numbers of people, reflecting the diversity and vibrancy that makes the capital so pleasurable. But there are many more lost opportunities, bad projects created somewhat cynically as part of a payback to the city in return for permission for profit-driven development.
Every borough has its specific needs that can be met in part by financial contributions in return for these consents, but where there is a need for more public space it’s not good enough to create a plaza or forecourt and hope that people will use it. There needs to be some coherence, a strategy for connectedness, expressive of the tension between planned and organic that links and gives meaning to places, however small.
An audit of public places, a 21st-century Nolli mapping exercise, would be a start – it would cost almost nothing but begin to recognise the value of unbuilt spaces where wealth rubs up against poverty, where friction generates energy and excitement, creating places where chance human encounters lead to the kind of breakthroughs we need.
Any downturn challenges a city so we should be focused on creating places where collective intelligence will gather and eventually produce another boom.
Amanda Levete is the director of the architecture practice AL_A which recently won the international competition to design a new gallery, courtyard and entrance for the V&A