The role of culture in creating new places has been discussed at two recent conferences in London. Both the Royal Academy's ‘Humanising Infrastructure: Connecting to Culture in Major Projects’ and the NLA’s 'London’s Future Cultural Offer’ raised important questions about how culture should be embraced in architecture and place-making.
Too often culture is seen as synonymous simply with the installation of public art - an activity often done late in the process and with little connection to the intention of the architectural design .
We contend that a broader and deeper perspective on culture is needed, one that focuses less on the higher arts and instead sees culture more broadly as the way in which people behave and express themselves. This richer perspective can inform architecture and design from the outset, and not leave culture to be either a detached or later ‘add-on’.
The Slipstream sculpture at London’s Heathrow T2 is indeed a beautiful spectacle, but was the result of a commission to fill an otherwise gargantuan empty space left by the original terminal design. However its influence on the 'culture of place' in terms of how it may affect the way people behave and express themselves is less clear (other than for them to bump into other travellers as they look up at it). In contrast, the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners designed terminal 4 at Madrid’s Barajas airport shows how architecture and design can dramatically affect the culture of a place in a very positive way. It utilises the natural material of bamboo and bright friendly colours in an artful, humanistic way within the architectural form. The resulting building resonates well with its users, encouraging them to feel more at ease (as well as move more efficiently) in what often can be a stressful environment. It changes the way people behave and express themselves in that space.
The Olympic Park arguably demonstrates successful place-making where art and architecture have been developed together to create a culturally-oriented space. For example the considered form of the aquatic centre - inspired by the fluidity of water in motion - reflects the surrounding river landscape and exemplifies the building’s function. Architectural form, landscaping and public art combine to create a strong cultural sense of place, and in turn affect how people feel and behave whilst there.
The RA event included discussion about London’s Crossrail, the biggest construction project in Europe. Whilst first and foremost an engineering challenge, nevertheless the architecture and design will play a critical role in influencing how users will relate to the experience of using it. It is hoped that the architectural design will utilise space in imaginative and thoughtful ways to help create as enjoyable an experience for travellers as possible; that enriching the culture of the place has been embedded into the core design principles. The commissioned "culture line" involving 8 stations, galleries and artists should enrich the cultural experience.
As well as shaping the environment, architecture and industrial design shape how people feel. Space should be perceived as a form of cultural campus, a means of expression. Projects which embrace this thought early in the planning and design process and which bring together different disciplines in an integrated fashion, can produce create buildings and places which are not only designed to look good but make us feel good too.
Author: Nick Jones