Walking across British Land’s Paddington Central takes you from the train station, along the canal, past the amphitheatre, through a relaxing greenway amidst the growing campus development and, eventually, to the newly-opened Storey Club. Those with a better sense of direction than this writer may have suspected they’d be beside the Westway Flyover. Still, many will have been surprised at the empty view, the eerie quiet: the thoroughfare, normally draining London of cars at this hour, were closed. This unexpected juxtaposition of a Rut Blees Luxemburg urbanscape with active placemaking was where our nomadic PlaceLabs forum pitched up, and whither we beckoned the talented and the curious.
The theme was Curiosity. The question: how can we design places that keep curiosity alive? The speakers, a curious cast of characters — or should that be a cast of curious characters? — eluded clear categorisation but certainly stimulated the mind.
Kickstarting the familiar format of three PechaKucha-inspired presentations followed by an open discussion was architect Jenny Jones. For Jenny, curiosity equals questions and questions form the core of what she calls her “socratic approach to innovation.” No presupposition remains unchallenged by her why-how-what: going as far as ignoring the brief for a sports centre because her team’s analysis concluded an open park best fitted the needs of that particular project for that particular community. This idea of feeding intuition with analysis formed the core of Jenny’s talk.
Next up was Hideki Yoshimoto of Tangent. A background in aero-astro engineering and behavioural AI is not what you’d expect of a designer and installation artist. While Hideki’s approach to design is steeped in technology and motion, his ideas come from a place of curiosity. “Hideki, you must stop thinking and feel,” his professor advised him when he tried to break a creative block. It prompted Hideki to do “literally a hundred experiments” in his studio. However, it is perhaps his company’s name that holds the key to Hideki’s curiosity: allowing himself to go off on tangents, to let stories and folk tales penetrate his thoughts, to leave space for silliness. Looking at swaying rice plants and seeing a design for lights; watching the morning’s first gondola stir up mud in Venice’s Grand Canal and capturing the movement in glass; blowing air through a straw into a jar of honey and converting the viscose bubbles into a coffee table design.
Here Hideki seemed to echo Jenny Jones’s mantra that placemaking should capture “that feeling we have from really looking,” consider the sensory impact of a space, and “choreograph the unedited,” which we took to mean something akin to guiding the senses loosely so as to foster imagination with subtle prompts. Allow people to roam physically and mentally. Our third speaker would take this idea even further.
Cat Le Huy was introduced as the “wild card speaker, a technologist, lay-buddhist priest and catholic priest-in-training,” and he chose to look at the design of sacred places. Acknowledging that, historically, places of worship had also been built with dogmatic control and power politics in mind, Cat urged us to “draw the positive out of spiritualism.” Gothic cathedrals, rococo churches, Hindu palaces, he said, were designed to be uplifting, to provoke awe and to feel the divinity in and around us. Nowadays, in a time of widespread literacy and democracy, the aim of such places — here he showed us an image of the light, warmth and openness of Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas — was to elicit engagement with the self, playful contemplation, bring us to embrace “the divine aspects within ourselves.”
What seemed to unite our speakers was the idea that places which keep curiosity alive make the gift of space (as opposed to shaping it). The move must be away from top-down and towards bottom-up: in short, nothing new but worthy of repeating, putting humans (the people, the inhabitants, the users) at the centre of our design process. As Cat said, “community defines the needs of the built environment.”
One of the needs that emerged in discussion was to have space for ennui (the mother of inventiveness) or idleness, for child-like silliness; and PlaceLabs’s Payal Wadhwa reminded us of so-called “evolving spaces” such as Assemble’s Brutalist playground and New Addington Sq in Croydon, that took their final shape from observing how children used the space: bottom-up design in action!
Further thoughts, briefly mentioned but left quivering for lack of time, included taking ‘curious’ in its other sense of ‘strange, unfamiliar,’ and incorporating surprise. Another one was to adopt a literary editor’s approach of ‘killing your darlings’ — which echoed a previous PlaceLab theme, “Trust”: trust in the users and trust in the clients.
For, as always when idealism is confronted with pragmatism, the two inevitable questions arose: firstly, how much can one really design for curiosity? How much of it is down to the user? In Jenny Jones’s words, who also reminded us of New Town Utopia and failed design dreams, “we can only design so much, if people don’t use it as such…” Or, in other words, even Wifi itself can destroy curiosity, if people feel bored rather than idle. One remedy might be to include the user from the beginning and to accompany places long-term with reiteration, feedback and observation: all to nurture potential rather than limit or impose.
Secondly, from a commercial point of view, “how can we sell the idea of ‘undesigned design’? How do we educate our clients?” It was suggested that analysis, data, new psychological research, substance might help convince developers — previous PlaceLabs speaker Josh Artus of Centric Lab came to mind. Yet, isn’t it perhaps also our responsibility to choose clients based on such criteria? To trust ourselves, our own ideas, and to defend them? Or, as Jenny and her team did, even to ignore the brief? Clients may not know what they want and may be curious, too. (On a side note: Investment, incidentally, was the theme of the following PlaceLabs on 19 November, where we discussed such questions and issues.)
So we return to curiosity in all its forms as the starting point of the design journey: open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, “faith in human awesomeness” (Cat), exploring an approach which is not solely goal-oriented (flâneurs know that nothing creates tunnel-vision like having a destination) but which, as Hideki Yoshimoto’s, goes off on tangents at the risk of getting lost.