The state of governance

- If local councils worked, what would they be like?

Democracy in action
As the democratically elected representatives, politicians have absolute say on what goes ahead and what does not. However, the four-year political cycle is relatively short term when thinking about regeneration and how neighbourhoods evolve. Whilst there should be ongoing support and maintenance, as well as regular delivery, of facilities, amenities and services, this needs to be within coherent mid- to long-term thinking.

Because of political interplay, the result of this situation is significant waste of resources through projects being developed then shelved. This indicates a need to address and counterbalance both the result of four-year (political) cycle and the annual budget cycle that further exacerbates this issue.

The state of affairs
Local government has become very focussed solely on internal processes. This may be at least partly the result of being a large and complex organisation, existing over many generations. But the outward result is the same, seemingly out of touch with the people they serve, typically lacking in impetus to resolve issues and improve neighbourhoods, despite the best of intentions, as fulfilling internal procedures has become a higher imperative.

One result of this internal focus is that many council staff lack the skills to achieve outward objectives, although they may have become experts in internal procedures. Prioritisation of objectives has become confused, with little basis to genuinely re-prioritise towards these ‘on the ground’ results.

What kind of ideal is the private sector?
Currently, many of the services of councils are contracted out to the private sector. Whilst often portrayed as being more efficient, the private sector should not be held up as an ideal - as some politicians do - there are criticisms there too, although private sector consultants can often become entangled in the internal processes of local government, which prevents what could be a more efficient delivery.

There would inevitably be criticism of more use of the private sector (and the private profits that go with that) to deliver public services, but if there was a way not just to bring more efficiency but also fundamental change in improving public services (through a more consistent decision process with a reduction in wasted resources), then there is good reason for considering it. There needs to be a balance of the responsibility of the public sector with the efficiency of the private sector.

The strive for efficiency has its natural limits, and should not be seen as a goal in itself; better neighbourhoods are a higher priority. Where people are involved in often conflicting priorities there are bound to be 'inefficiencies', but the dialogue and arenas of this is democracy too – interaction of human nature. With the entrenched four-year political cycle, has the definition of democracy become too narrow? There are many sectors of society that seem marginalised from genuine input to shaping how we live.

What do we want?
What is needed is a re-formulated interface between local government and the public, whereby the needs of each neighbourhood or district is appraised, efficiently communicated and acted upon in an integrated manner and with reference to higher level strategic considerations.

- Outwardly relevant;
- Achieve more results ‘on the ground’;
- Responsive: ‘pro-actively reactive’;
- Supportive.

The right to govern – a proposal
The proposal for a revised local government structure is summarised by four main aspects (further detailed below):

  • Reduction in size of the council as an organisation;
  • Introduction of non-political area advocates as the public interface;
  • Increased outward delivery and support;
  • Constitution of a forum of mixed representatives, political and non-political.

click to enlarge

This model would bring savings in efficiency (when real world results are also factored in). Such a proposal would tend to mitigate the lack of integration between (political) boroughs, which are, after all, arbitrary political lines often with little direct relevance to most people. This would also address the issue of being too focused on a borough as a geographical vicinity, to the detriment of areas smaller (neighbourhoods) or larger (regions).

This structure should not be set up so that individual areas compete with each other or ignore other areas, but work more closely in an integrated way, an issue which is addressed by the forums. The structure needs to mitigate the danger that such a structure just multiplies inefficiencies.

- Reduced size
The council as an organisation is shrunk in size so its external interface is minimised, and it focuses on background work and baseline information gathering.

It would stick to core functions as a provider - akin to a queen bee - providing the key resources. This is a distillation and concentration of its ‘nature’ – being internally focussed, which to an extent is necessary as a council is a large complex organisation with many seemingly disparate objectives. But that cannot excuse outward results becoming secondary or being less than responsive to the balance of genuine needs of the neighbourhoods and communities they support.

- Area advocates
The re-structured organisation would have an outward interface of neighbourhood or district based leaders/ managers, or ‘area advocates’. They are responsive in the short-term, and strategic in the mid- to long-term, to complement councillors who they would work closely with.

They would each act as central hub in contact with all council departments, key stakeholders, residents, local people and businesses - essentially a local conduit. Reciprocally, all council departments would go through area advocates, who maintain contact with their area and know all that goes on, and relays that back to the council when relevant or required.

These area advocates would recognise and highlight issues, appraise proposals to ensure relevance and value for money, as well as prioritise objectives between local, often conflicting, priorities, as well as local need versus more strategic or infrastructure requirements in dialogue with the wider forums outlined below.

The designated areas for each advocate should be small enough so as to be able to communicate effectively with people in that area.

- Delivery and support
Delivery of facilities, amenities and services is in conjunction with a range of intermediaries (associations/ institutions/ NGOs/ consultants/ local groups) who are firmly embedded in, and drawn from, the community.

This array of intermediaries would range from research foundations for social innovation initiatives to delivery agencies for actual implementation of services and ongoing management and support.

- Forum
With a forum of mixed representation, combining politicians, council officers, area advocates, and direct local representation, decision making should become more consistent and responsive to genuine need. People can become representatives of groups through consensual processes that broaden the definition of democracy. There could be a range of forums from the very informal to more constituted formal arenas akin to democratic bodies. An association of advocates could represent areas larger than boroughs to expand knowledge and gain experience from other parts of the country.

The number of advocates in each forum should be small enough to be able to communicate effectively and know many other advocates personally.

Through the key forums, area advocates maintain contact with each other and council departments, to share experiences, discuss resources and communicate in both directions, towards economic and social objectives, that complement physical/ spatial initiatives, and achieving genuine sustainability.

When weakness trumps strength

- Why most politicians are not fit for purpose.

In their careers, most people expect to advance or be positioned in relation to their knowledge, skills and experience: ability.

There then exists those who feel their advancement should not be subject to such criteria. To achieve advancement, less than professional methods need to be employed - sub-consciously or not - or perhaps just having the drive to advance as a goal in itself, as divorced from all else.

The more professional amongst us tend not to want to engage with such practices, or even be involved in such environments, so the less professional, or weaker: those that just have empty drive, are left a clear path through. On occasion, when no such clear path manifests, those less than professional ones amongst us employ methods to create such paths.

It is no accident that understandings of being 'political' tend to be negative, with Machiavellian undertones.

Politics tends to attract those seeking power for its own sake in equal measure as those who genuinley mean well. If, say, half of those well intentioned actually have the wherewithal to achieve balanced benefits, then that is only a quarter overall.

Also, at a local level, if a councillor is, for example, a teacher or shopowner then that is fine; genuine members of the community. But, once councillors have a portfolio - responsibility for finance, housing, or regeneration, amongst others - does that same background mean they are necessarily experienced and/ or qualified to make strategic decisions affecting many people in the area they represent?

The actions of many politicians are akin to those of a typical child: short term, immediate effect, attention seeking. Rarely the notion of delaying an experience to enhance it, for example, if a child has a sweet and has been told they can have it, they are unlikely to leave it until after an unpleasant task for them such as bath-time, homework or bed-time.

The end of megalopolis; the rise of the human

If population is expanding and more people moving to urbanised areas, how can governments allow some of these areas to become semi-abandoned or even ignored, resulting in one of the fastest growing urban typologies being the shanty town?

There are natural rhythms to any area, but this abandonment points more to financial reasons; a lack of responsibility that allows easier land to be developed over land that has already had development. Or worse, ignoring these areas until the value gets high, when all the residents get swept away to make way for 'regeneration'.

This can only have knock on implications, which we are seeing in abundance; whole swathes of cities becoming run down with huge areas being inhabited informally, without basic services or official recognition. Good management could stem this tendency: proper and regular investment to services, facilities and amenities.

Differentiating between the megalopolis and the megacity, the former is superceded never having should have come about - a mistake of the mid-twentieth centrury; the latter is the exploding reality, but which has much potential to become a decent living environment.

What is common to all urban typologies and various combinations is the human, which sets a scale. If the nature of types of connections gravitate around human scale, then the linking of these different fragments can be viably and sustainably integrated.

Advertising, politics and architecture

This editon will be a guest piece by Dr Graham Cairns on contemporary visual literacies
The world of political communication is a realm of controversy, creativity and inevitably at times, a realm of public manipulation. It is a sub category of political science which has given rise to an almost infinite number of publications, studies and research projects aiming at understanding and improving the ability of politicians and political parties to “get their message across”. Given the mediated nature of contemporary culture these studies have primarily focused on visual methods of mediated communication; the TV photo opportunity, the political broadcast and the campaign advert generally being considered the most important.

Given the similarities between political communication in these formats and other more commercially orientated forms of communication, such as advertising, it is perhaps inevitable that a certain cross fertilization has occurred.  What this paper intends to do is draw out this parallel through a brief overview of the development of this relationship, followed by a direct comparison between a standard commercial advert and a recent political image.

It will use a standard advertising methodology of analysis with the aim of underlining its central argument; that that during the past 50 years the techniques used in politics to “communicate” with the public have become, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the techniques used in standard commercial advertising. The images concerned are a typical semiotic advert promoting a branded car and an image of Barack Obama manufactured during the 2008 Presidential campaign. In both examples special attention will be paid to the role of architecture, thus setting up a tripartite analysis of advertising, politics and architecture.

Advertising as Political Promotion
In the first of the images we will discuss we have an advert for an Audi 8 series car placed in an architectural context resonant of Santiago Calatrava’s Lisbon railway station. The car is simply placed in the centre of the image so as to become the focus of the eye and sits in front of the emotive architectural backdrop. In this case we have one referent and one product. Figure 1. According to standard semiotic analysis, the values associated with the referent will simply be transferred to the product in question.

 figure 1 (click to enlarge)
In reading the advert the first thing to identify are the anticipated values associated with its architectural referent backdrop; modernity, strength, power and agility etc. (its connoted signifieds) These then are the values directly transferred to the product which, in turn, becomes associated with those same values. In theory, this process occurs automatically whenever a referent is placed next to a product. However, as identified by Judith Williamson back in the 1970s, the process is much more fluid if the product and the referent have some connotative and aesthetic similarity.

In this case this is manufactured in two principal ways. Firstly the colour combinations of the image are coherent; the black car blends naturally with the grey background and secondly, the referent and the product are made to be perfect compositional fits; the organic forms of the architecture wrap around the curvilinear form of the car. Thus, what we have is a standard semiotic advert which uses an appropriately connotative background and reinforces or facilitates the transference of the values associated with that background by ensuring aesthetic equivalence through a combination of colour and form.

However, there is also one more thing the image does; it introduces text which, in this case, invites us “to take a test drive”. This use of text corresponds to what Roland Barthes called anchorage; the introduction of a phrase that adds a layer of meaning or makes a connection that would not be made through reading the image alone; in this case, that we can own the car. The advert thus becomes a classic example of semiotic advertising techniques on a whole series of different but related levels.

These techniques are clearly repeated in the image we will examine next; an iconic photograph of Barak Obama on the campaign trail in the months leading up to his 2008 election victory. Figure 2. In this image the product, in this case Barak Obama himself, is again placed in the centre of the image. Here however, he is positioned in front of two referents; a backdrop of classical architecture and a number of United States flags. At the simplest connotative level he is placed in an architectural setting resonant of values of power, authority and tradition. 

figure 2 (click to enlarge)

Following a standard semiotic reading, these values are directly transferred to Obama through a process of association. However, there is more to it than such a one dimensional semiotic reading would suggest and, to truly understand the logic behind the image, it is necessary to comment on the cultural-political context around it. This image was produced in the aggressive political climate of the race for the White House. Obama was a newcomer to the political scene and whilst this was seen as his greatest asset, his relative inexperience was identified as his Achilles’ heal. It thus formed the basis of most attacks upon him from his rivals, firstly Senator Clinton and later Senator McCain.

This image is a direct attempt by the “marketing team” of the Obama camp to counter these criticisms. By placing him in a backdrop resonant of tradition, power and longevity, they are using the most basic semiotic advertising technique in the cannon to promote their man. However, the architecture chosen is not an abstract representation of power, it also functions as a direct representation of the White House itself. Thus, one can also say that in the context of this image, architecture functions at a denotative level; it refers directly to the seat of US political power and, as a result, places Obama in that seat long before the electorate have made their decision. The image is intended not only to transfer abstract values of power and authority, it is intended to transfer values directly associated with the US presidency.

Following the standard semiotic template however, the marketing team have further reinforced this transference through the typical aesthetic trope of aesthetic coherence. Here it revolves around the colour coherence maintained across all elements of the image. The podium design is a combination of red, white and blue. This is linked to Obama’s blue suit and red and white striped tie which, in turn, aesthetically link him to the US national flag behind. Obama becomes associated with an image of political authority but also the most obvious symbol of US patriotism. Another knot is neatly tied in this strictly controlled promotional image.

Again, to understand the relevance of this it is necessary to understand the political context in which the image was produced; the election campaign of first serious Afro-American candidate who, in addition, was brought up for long periods outside the US and has what for some for some, is an “Islamic sounding name”. All these issues led to his patriotism being constantly brought into question by the political right during the “War Election” of 2008.

In bringing together the final parts of this promotional image however, the organisers of the convention have done one more thing. In the foreground are members of the public holding placards with the campaign slogan “Change”. Positioning these people so that they appear in the shot ensures a textual insertion into the image which functions as a form of anchorage. It thus ensures a perfect balance in the “product image” which is presented as resonant of tradition, experience and authority on the one hand, but does not lose sight of its freshness and presentation as “new” on the other.

What we have then is an “advertising image” that primarily uses architecture to cleverly and skilfully navigate the multifarious issues of the political maelstrom of election campaigning. It is a highly sophisticated semiotic construct that not only uses standard commercial advertising techniques but does so with a level of astuteness that the best advertising executives would be proud of. It is a perfect example of how integrally interwoven advertising techniques now are with political campaigning.

On the job

Between subsistence and sustenance:

The question of why we work taken at face value can seem trite. There is, perhaps, however a more fruitful underlying notion. If we do not supply sustenance, as in mental nourishment, how can we be sustained in any way that is more than mere existence: subsistence. 

The  act of work naturally dominates our lives, but considering  the question of why we work perhaps offers a way to more actively balance the vagaries and vicissitudes against the moments, events or mere joyful happenstance, within or without the workplace, that can address the more important aspects of our being, that will allow us to remain interested in the world around us, and from that draw the required sustenance that we sometimes forget that we need.  

See Id of the Ingenu, November 2010, Loo's and Colomina's - On mediated consumption:
'Experience has the built in notion of chance. If it is true that we can only really control half to three quarters of our outcomes, the other part is relevant. But we usually assume its influence will be bad. Perhaps that smaller part is sometimes actually the most interesting and more important bit that provides path splits and tangents as we meander through life.' 

On human activity

At a recent lecture on planning and urban design at the London School of Economics, with Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Design) and chaired by Richard Sennett, it was good to see continued momentum of acknowledgement of the existing situation of our living environment as a starting point (which seems to be a relatively new phenomenon in the main). However, with all the human activity implicit within that, human activity itself, generally, seems little discussed.

Is it possible that the human is the elephant in the room?
If human activity, with its concomitant implications and necessities, sits at the crossroads of the constituting strands of our living environments, how can human (with plant and animal) activity be made more explicit (and central if the above assertion is true)?

Putting human activity at the centre of consideration is in some ways a conceit; whilst it can be interpreted as an arrogance, indeed a root of the problem that we do not factor in the rest of the planet on at least an equal standing, it is at the same time apparent that an acknowledgement of the necessity of recognising this existing situation leads to more implicit consideration that it is the nature and implications of human behaviour that needs to be mitigated. However, acknowledging the considerations of human activity as central, does not necessarily lead to an holistic representation of our overall living environment, but more of how we may begin to think about living as more responsible human beings.

Actively human
Whist human activity, with its concomitant implications of activity, may dominate the planet, this does not alleviate the need to be responsible for the results and implications of our actions, which is apparently the case currently – therein lies the conceit. Moreover, that is all the more reason why a more harmonious and integrated manner of existence needs to be achieved.

Can there be a place for a renewed sense of altruism; an evolved sense of the civic? If so, what would be the nature of it, and how would it manifest?

There will be no magic or instantaneous solution, more likely a gradual but definite and significant change in behaviours, stemming from an increasing shift in perspective away from that of ignorance and selfish greed as a resultant aspiration of our modes of living.

The diagram below, which is in some ways no more than a platitudinal statement, is warranted by the apparent need that certain basic positions need re-stating.

click to enlarge
Some examples of each of the four constituting aspects of our living environments:

- Spatio-physical:
streetscape; building; square

- Spatio-temporal:
transport (infrastructure); development phasing; neighbourhood evolution; daily/ weekly/ seasonal/ annual cycles; time passing/ strolling – realm of the flaneur

- Socio-environmental:
ecology, food, waste, energy, water - more cyclical, less linear

- Socio-economic:
social infrastructure; community; economic activity; bartering; community currency

If buildings are merely nested containers of activity - a sequence of envelopes - so merely a series of thin thresholds with different functions: some to divide activities, some to provide acoustic division, some to provide transition and some to provide shelter, the outer shell can be thought of as mid-hierarchy and mid-spatial (between activities happening 'inside' and 'outside'), then the notion of building as an object is dissolved. With activity as first in the hierarchy of considerations, function second, building as ‘object’ sits third, emerges an evolved basis for consideration of how we affect how and where we live.

Social and economic sustainability should be considered as a twin primary strand to more usual spatio-physical based design work of new neighbourhoods, but particularly of regeneration. Human activities and their implications need to be the basis and driver for that spatio-physical design based work that should flow from that socio-economic understanding. Healthy socio-economics is surely the ‘fuel’ and ‘lubricant’ that makes neighbourhoods run smoothly.

Turn around
We often hear the now platitude that ‘half the world live in urban areas’, but this leaves some three billion people in a ‘rural’ situation. Moreover, this is usually portrayed with an underlying tone that being urban necessarily represents progression. But what is the quality of most people’s life in this urban situation? The shanty town/ favela seems to be the biggest growth area of urban typology, when often they go un-recognised by local municipalities, so lack basic utilities and services, and their rights dismissed once areas are ripe for redevelopment. How often does redevelopment become genuine regeneration?

If the intensity of human behaviour at large scales is at least a partial cause of un-sustainable practices, then, rather than trying to explore ways to resolve the exodus to the cities, could we address the issues at cause, rather than try to resolve the symptoms?

Could rural areas become more a focus for consideration, in that they could be a way to:
- stem movement to city, so relieving pressure on physical and social infrastructure;
- take people closer to agriculture rather than inserting that into city;
- provide an alternative to bluntly 'densifying' and making more compact;
- shift the balance between rural and urban towards more cyclical practices and better integration between the two.
Although, the danger is that we just carry existing bad practices to more places.

This is not about ‘down-shifting’, retiring early or escaping the ‘rat race’, but reinvigorating places that currently often struggle to maintain critical mass for basic services and amenities, so that the range of viable places to live is generally broadened.

Whilst exploring innovation through dialectic consideration and analysis of the existing situation, and implications of conceptual utopian ideas is laudable, the utopian alone is dangerous. We are still dealing with the inter-generational deprivation fallout of well intentioned utopian housing estates from half a century ago.

[Ironically, it seems the root of word utopian means non-place: The word comes from the Greek: ο ("not") and τόπος ("place"). The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek ε ("good" or "well") and τόπος ("place"), signifies a double meaning: "good place" and "no place" - Wiki]

The difficulty is really how to get from the existing to the proposed, as viable proposals emerge. But using scales of intervention (time and spatial) as a design tool means living environments undergoing change through gradual morphing including programme and activity, not just from physical (utopian) objectives.

See also:
Id of the Ingenu

June 2010 – Galería FAR; Out in the Country
How to invigorate struggling rural economies

August 2010 – The Art of Nesting
‘Bringing art to the masses’


 - Out and about
We live across wider and wider distances, both in a general and a daily sense; we reside a long way from other parts of our families, and travel further to visit friends, either across town for a meal, or across a continent.

Whilst it is easy to view this as the ‘break down of society’ and lament the loss of ‘traditional community and values’, such an outlook is at best platitudinal, and at worse myopic and sentimental.

 click to enlarge

See Id of the Ingenu, October 2010, Helix street: 
‘Even though how we live is shifting, and the traditional idea of community is perhaps less common - where most people in an area work and live there - it is still important that the evolving notion of community is cultivated. We increasingly have a much wider movement ‘net’ with nodes further apart, in that we live, work and socialise in many different areas, so there is a rich nexus of overlaid social ‘nets’ that constitute places. Merely because people in a place have not come from just that locale, does not invalidate it as a cohesive [and valid] arena of activity, it just means we need to acknowledge that evolved sensed of community.’

These wider living ‘networks’, comprised of nodes more spread apart, also means that groupings are less isolated, in that certain aspects of us are plugged into a groups which are further afield. So whilst we may be less integrated from a ‘traditional’ perspective, we are actually immersed in a greater variety of arenas, which is more attuned to emerging social networking sensibilities.  

 click to enlarge

As such, places are constituted by nodes made up of parts of a whole distributed across larger space, but each individual place is no less valid, just made up of sub-nodes whose siblings are elsewhere. So the question before us is how do we live as part of this evolved notion of community, and what are the latent tensions and their implications between the typical (accepted traditional) and the emerging living environments, and how do they overlap, as we shift from one to the other?

Further reading
For a more academic take on it, see Urban Design journal 114, spring 2010, p33.
For an environmental angle see:
Lim C J & Ed Liu, Smart Cities + Eco-warriors, 2010, Routledge, Abingdon/ New York

If the virtual world and physical world are to engage, as they should, even just from the point of view that we should strive to live in an integrated albeit heterogeneous manner, we need to find an evolved notion of virtual space; current gaming for example is not allowing the virtual realm to develop as a medium to become and fulfil it's own nature. We have merely used it to make a representation of the physical world as an escapist sideshow.

The start of the end
Despite having many areas of vitality, the UK is a dying organism*. But the key question at this crucial point in time is, are the areas of vitality going to continue on their current path to be as parasites, feeding off the dying ‘flesh’ and pushing the country into terminal decline past a point of no return, or can these hotspots of health be enticed to return the whole back to good health?
(* in a way all organisms are dying, but there is healthy and ill. Healthy is more a state of constant renewal)

The end of the end
Fifty years of poor stewardship by misogynistic and selfish mid-twentieth century baby boomers, who (not so) incidentally have also hoarded the family silver, has left key elements of infrastructure: health, housing, education and transport, in a woeful state after half a century of minimal investment, ceding the impossible task of playing 'catch up'.

More fundamentally, the environment, the mandate having been sidelined and ignored in any meaningful sense, may now have passed a point where many options that even recently would have been available to us, have now moved beyond possibility.

There still remains twenty years of draw on health resources in their twilight years, but at least thankfully they are now retiring from positions of power and responsibility to finally allow others through.

The start of the start
These others are those currently in middle age, who will need to form a bridging generation that can peg the decline, but ultimately this can be little more than a stop-gap. At best they can perhaps begin to think, and lay in pathways or some kind of foundational framework so that the current emerging generation, free of infected thinking, can fundamentally re-consider and re-structure a way through our dire situation. Additionally, this middle generation are tasked with supporting the current graduate generation in terms of space to think freely. The beginning is merely to acknowledge that the starting is point is the nature of our current situation.

Our way forward will need to be considered from first principles, and even those need to be well reflected upon first; greed and selfishness at an endemic level cannot be part of the future. A renewed sense of the civic will probably be part if it in some interpretation.

The end of the start
It is necessarily at least a double generational task ahead of us; any less would probably mean we have not cut deep enough and any such solutions would be too superficial. 

On Representation

- Between observation and solution
At the beginning of the third annual series, it is worth noting that series one was observation and series two solution. This series is to be representation; to distil any given situation that we find ourselves living with to a simple diagram allows us to better understand the shifting environment in which we exist.

Binary minded

- The end of the line

If we only consider things from the polarised view of entrenched thinking, we can only see in two dimensions. Binary thinking cannot help resolve the misdirected situation we have got ourselves into.

If, for example, we only try to address poverty through wealth creation, this is really providing more market fodder; just feeding the machine.

New perspectives around quality of life, self-sustenance and genuine sustainability are needed. But we know that already; it is little more than wheeling out tired platitudes.

How can we re-configure, to use aspects of current practices to achieve positive synergy rather than spiralling downwards with depleting finite resources?

After thousands of years of civilisation is money worship, leisure shopping and celebrity reverence really the best that we can do?


Loos' and Colomina's

- On mediated consumption
It is important to consider that we are increasingly watching the world from a mediated perspective, rather than the actual. How often are we somewhere special, take a photo, then look at the shot on the camera screen, rather than the actual thing or place still in front of us?

This dictates that the mediated experience means we not only miss much of the detail around us, but more importantly the overall experience, which would include sounds, smells, context, and even the experience of how we arrived at such a place, so we lose out on the arbitrary possible occurrences that we had not planned for, which can lead to alternative experiences, events and even life paths.

Experience has the built in notion of chance. If it is true that we can only really control half to three quarters of our outcomes, the other part is relevant. But we usually assume its influence will be bad. Perhaps that smaller part is sometimes actually the most interesting and more important bit that provides path splits and tangents as we meander through life. 

In our heads we direct our lives very closely, but that is not really the case. It is our socially conditioned outlook that will not acknowledge the reality, and so our mind edits it out. This in turn accumulates and resists the 'random', which we perceive as ‘other’ and so our base senses harden against it.

The Winchmore Hill shoot:

Helix Street

- Ode to the flâneur

click image to enlarge
Just passing through
With pressure of seemingly ever increasing population numbers in urban areas and the resultant expansion, the distances required to travel are pushing moving around to levels where they are too dominant a proportion of time spent. (Although global population growth could be stabilising - see Pearce F, Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash, 2010, Bantam)

We are experiencing many cases of ‘urban sprawl’ type expansion of cities which brings issues of lack of access to basic facilities, as they are often not ‘officially’ recognised areas, as well as the travel issues. Sometimes these areas can function quite well from a socio-economic despite poor physical conditions, so should not be written off as areas just for clearance and re-development; whatever they are, they are people’s homes.

Enforced commuting of large numbers of people over large distances is unsustainable, both in terms of people’s quality of life and in level of transport required to support that volume of daily movement. So there is a need to find ways to reduce the amount of enforced travel; to allow a higher proportion of travel by choice (within a reduced overall level) and for it to once again become part of a pleasurable pastime or experience, be it by car, bus, train, bicycle or on foot. [For the ‘on foot’ consideration - in many ways the most important - see additional reference texts for flâneur and psychogeography, below.]

Whilst wandering and promenading are laudable and worthwhile pursuits, here we do not seek directly the notion of the flâneur, but that of being more conscious of experiencing a shared sense of place along the street as a richly layered active space, rather then merely being a route; the traditional difference between a ‘street’ and a ‘road’.
Out and about
We increasingly no longer relate to the street as a space in itself, but more just as a means to get to a specific function, which actually diffracts our notion of a 'street'. Therefore, the starting point for the design of the helical street is to explore how to re-link the disparate elements, aspects and activities that constitute the street as a dynamic place - integrated yet layered; the mandate being to re-establish the core aspects of the street, which will cultivate better awareness of others around us and address notions of isolation. This sense of isolation leads to a reduced sense of connection with places we use and the people that constitute them, that itself leads to a reduced sense of community.

Even though how we live is shifting, and the traditional idea of community is perhaps less common - where most people in an area work and live there - it is still important that the evolving notion of community is cultivated. We increasingly have a much wider movement ‘net’ with nodes further apart, in that we live, work and socialise in many different areas, so there is a rich nexus of overlaid social ‘nets’ that constitute places. Merely because people in a place have not come from just that locale, does not invalidate it as a cohesive arena of activity, it just means we need to acknowledge that evolved sensed of community.

If we are more aware of those around us and we operate from a sense of awareness and respect, we can embrace a new sense of camaraderie without necessarily needing to know, or even recognise personally, most of the people around us. This issue relates to the current reduced sense of the ‘civic’, in parallel with the above mentioned isolation, but also from the perspective of reduced governmental investment in civic infrastructure, as some regions, particularly the UK and already to a greater extent the US, become more commercially operated. Where solely in response to unsustainable urban growth, wider nets should be countered; where out of choice or genuinely diverse neighbourhoods, it is more acceptable as a general trend of how society is evolving.

The traditional high street serves as the ‘spine’ of a neighbourhood and, ideally, is ‘mixed-use’, with residential flats over a commercial workshop, studio or office, with retail at ground floor. Although many high streets have much empty space above the ground floor, this is more often to do with concerns such as access and loss of retail width - which is easily resolvable - rather than accumulated commercial reasons. (Many high street situations would not see a reduction in commercial value for a slightly reduced retail width to allow residential access from the front, rather than the often unpalatable service area at the rear.) It is the holistic re-establishment of how a street functions that the design seeks.

Each ‘neighbourhood’ of the helical street has a good mix of functions to ensure they can evolve sustainably. Furthermore, different areas can be more focussed to provide a greater diversity of places overall: quiet, busy; cultural, retail; working, residential, which gives a richness and variety of encountering different people and neighbourhoods as when walking through our best cities.

That sections can be chosen as certain distinct types of area with more direct access means overall the helical street tower can support a longer high street equivalent than would be the case at ground level, and still be within walking distance (including use of lifts).

Whilst a key difference is that whilst it is not a through route per se, this is mitigated by the more focussed mix of amenities. Although it could in one sense reduce the breadth of range of people types for chance encounters in any particular place - as people will tend to choose their preferred section and not pass along the whole of the street - this does not reduce the experience of encountering people generally; this will be the same or better, with the more vibrant neighbourhoods encouraging promenading. This is further helped by there being no vehicular traffic (deliveries with the lifts), although cars are not necessarily a problem and can be a benefit in a normal street situation, but are often managed badly. Overall, the three dimensional movement makes for a more cohesive destination.

On the street
The ‘vertical street’ is formed by taking the pavement of a typical street and its adjacent buildings and spiralling them up and around to form a (partially open-sided) tower with the pavement as a helical ramp - the building fabric forming the outer shell of the tower - where pedestrians can walk at their leisure. A central atrium space with lifts (shown as three pairs of circular lift shafts on the model) allows direct access to different ‘neighbourhoods’, analogous to bus stops along a high street.

The vertical street allows visual connection across the central atrium space and along the curve of the street, which creates a sense of place as it ‘contains’ a rolling space as people progress around. This counters the effect of overly straight streets that allow the eye to wander to infinity and thus people to become more psychologically removed. At intermittent intervals up the ‘street’, there are central platforms forming areas of respite within the central space, akin to parks and squares stumbled upon, adding the prospect of surprise to our meanderings.

Inevitably there will some comparisons between the helical street and the ‘streets-in-the-air’, which were part of many housing estate projects built, often in outlying areas, during the 1960s and into the 1970s, particularly in the UK. This isolated people as it was based on divorcing different types of routes so lost ‘critical mass’ and lacked the density of numbers of people, but the helical street has all movement still together and the concentration of functions achieves a higher intensity of use.

Another related phenomenon is shopping malls. The helical street takes some of the better aspects of shopping malls - in principle an active destination - but without the unsustainable weaknesses, such as being internalised and mostly only retail; at best not linking out to the broader community, and at worse, actually taking life away from the main high street (whether adjacent or not). Although, there are street based examples of the ‘out-of-town’ shopping malls in city centres: Liverpool One, which stitches together the main centre with the waterfront, although the highway in between was inexplicably left out of the scheme. Out-of-town ‘works’ (for itself – not surrounding neighbourhood) only until the next one is built nearby which is ‘shinier’. Therefore even developers building malls that are more street based with a broader mix of uses would see a better overall return from this more sustainable version, as long as they retain a longer term interest (which they should) rather than just sell off post-construction.

The modular nature of the helical street could support some ‘chain’ type shops (‘nationals’/ ‘multiples’) in multi-width units, but the small unit layout and step would tend to act as a natural limiter. A few chain type shops can act as a draw, but this needs to be balanced with independent shops and mixed together. So the modular unit being well suited to smaller, typically more independent, shops and activities will be the natural tendency, as well as being part of the management criteria.

Towers, in principle, could be an appropriate typology to help address some current issues, such as urban sprawl. However, ‘skyscrapers’ have not really evolved as a typology since their inception; essentially accommodation in the tower just ‘fills up’ a structure primarily conceived to be tall. They may have developed almost unrecognisably, but this is really little more than a multiplication: being taller with faster lifts, rather than evolving as such.

One of the key problems with most towers is that of relating to human- and street scale at the base: a lobby in scale with the tower is often out of scale with the human, which then often presents a harsh and unwelcoming environment; the notion of an imposing entrance being impressive having been, thankfully, superceded with a general move towards human centred development, although such anachronisms do persist in too many places. (see Out-of-Scale: Rapid Development in China, Urban Design Journal, issue 99, Summer 2006, Nuffield Press, London)

The second aspect is that of scale and integration of massing. Typically, good high streets would be constituted by four to six storey buildings as a general principle, so a tower touching directly down at ground level would again present an inappropriate scale. Towers emerging from a more human scale podium base of four to six storeys gives a much smoother transition, so integrates better to the adjacent street.

The proposed design may initially appear like a conventional tower. However, as discussed above, it has a fundamentally different access due to the helical ramp, and lifts, which means the way it is used and experienced sets it apart from conventional towers. This is further augmented because the structure is a relatively closely spaced vertical frame between each stack of accommodation spaces, so allows some sections or individual elements to be removed, vertically or horizontally, to form spaces for parks, terraces, light and views out. This configuration can achieve a series of cascading spaces either for an internal space, be it a flat, studio or shop, or as an outside space, such as a park or square. (Ken Yeang has been developing such ideas since the last quarter of the previous century.)

The structure ensures that the whole can evolve sustainably at a variety of scales over time: the whole tower could be replaced in phases, or over a longer period of time in smaller stages. Also individual units can be removed, at construction or later; spaces can be plugged; floors can be joined up or knocked through - horizontally or vertically. Such flexibility and array of spaces can be explored to develop an experience of the tower itself, rather than being merely a function of its height.

Light, air and orientation will be important and are integrated, partially through the openings already mentioned, although these are more for spatial and functional reasons, but primarily through three vertical slots: one double unit width to the North, and two single unit width slots to the South East and South West, all being adjacent to lift lobby platforms so providing views out and clear orientation for people (an issue with circular constructions, particularly when use as navigating landmarks around the city). Detailed light and wind studies will suggest further refinements towards a good overall environment. Lifts are placed at thirds of a revolution around the street, with a full circumference of 150 metres, providing vertical access every 50 metres, in line with good urban design principles for rhythm of cross streets along any conventional high street.

The actual configuration of the street proportion is based on a three storey high building (10 metres) and a 9.5 metre wide street, giving a roughly 1:1 proportion of space, (in section through the street). The street itself will feel wider due to the open inner side, so psychologically push more towards a 1:1.5 wide proportion, both of which are considered decent proportions for high streets. The geometry derives from a series of interconnected variables that need to be finely balanced so that steepness of slope, distance around the circumference, view across the central atrium and height of buildings, achieve a good overall equilibrium.

It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic; of all things physical and metaphysical;  of all things human and all things super-human; of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul; that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function.
– Louis Sullivan, 1865 – 1924

Related references
(drawn from Wiki)

The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun ‘flâneur’ - which has the basic meanings of ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’, ‘saunterer’, or ‘loafer’. Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of ‘flâneur’ (originally from the verb flâner - ‘to stroll’) - that of ‘a person who walks the city in order to experience it.’

While Baudelaire characterised the flâneur as a ‘gentleman stroller of city streets’, he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. The idea of the flâneur has accumulated significant meaning as a referent for understanding urban phenomena and modernity. A flâneur thus played a double role in city life and in theory, that combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace.

David Harvey asserts that ‘Baudelaire would be torn the rest of his life between the stances of the dandy and flâneur, a disengaged and cynical voyeur on the one hand, and man of the people who enters into the life of his subjects with passion on the other’. (Paris: Capital of Modernity 14).

[The dandy aspect of flâneur achieves new relevance with shopping emerging as a leisure activity and increasing celebrity reverence as an aspiration, which twin pursuits continue to supplant both faith and ritual. These two notions being a ‘hard-wired’ part of our social cohesion, but have been so dominated by religion we treat them as synonymous with it. But as religion wanes, a vacuum is left, which shopping and celebrity reverence rush into to fulfil these notions of faith (hope) and ritual (celebration) - Ingenu]

The observer-participant dialectic is evidenced in part by the dandy culture. Highly self-aware, and to a certain degree flamboyant and theatrical, dandies of the mid-nineteenth century created scenes through outrageous acts like walking turtles on leashes down the streets of Paris. Such acts exemplify a flâneur's active participation in and fascination with street life, while displaying a critical attitude towards the uniformity, speed and anonymity of modern life in the city.

The concept of the flâneur is important in academic discussions of the phenomenon of modernity. While Baudelaire's aesthetic and critical visions helped open up the modern city as a space for investigation, theorists, such as Georg Simmel, began to codify the urban experience in more sociological and psychological terms. In his essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, Simmel theorises that the complexities of the modern city create new social bonds and new attitudes towards others. The modern city was transforming humans, giving them a new relationship to time and space, inculcating in them a ‘blasé attitude’, and altering fundamental notions of freedom and being.

- ‘There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savouring the multiple flavours of his city.’ - Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962, Houghton Mifflin, New York

- ‘The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque”’ - Susan Sontag, 1977 essay, On Photography

Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ Another definition is ‘a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities... just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.’

In 1956, the Lettrists joined the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus to set a proper definition for the idea announced by Gil J. Wolman, Unitary Urbanism – ‘the synthesis of art and technology that we call for must be constructed according to certain new values of life, values which now need to be distinguished and disseminated.’ It demanded the rejection of both functional, Euclidean values in architecture, as well as the separation between art and its surroundings. The execution of unitary urbanism corrupts one's ability to identify where ‘function’ ends and ‘play’ (the ‘ludic’) begins, resulting in what the Lettrist International and Situationist International believed to be a utopia where one was constantly exploring, free of determining factors.