WAF Newsletter Letter from London May 2021

Letter from London

Paul Finch, 19 May 2021

Public space is for everybody

‘Queering public space’ is the rallying cry of a report from Arup and the University of Westminster. What does it all mean, wonders Paul Finch.

What would Ove Arup, Sir Philip Dowson, Peter Dunican or Jack Zunz have made of the clarion call for transforming the public realm in favour of anyone other than the ‘heteronormative’?

They would probably have been baffled. After all, hasn’t it been the case since the Greeks that in public space all citizens are equal? Didn’t the Renaissance piazza allow prince and pauper to occupy nature as equals, at least for a while? Hasn’t the entire Enlightenment programme of city development been about equalisation of access and behaviour?

Apparently not, according to the authors of a report which suggests that the design of our public spaces, from routes to lighting, has been geared towards discriminating against members of the ‘alphabet’ community (LBGT etc) by omission or commission.

Anyone who suggests otherwise will be abused by Twitter-trolls, but that does not, of course, validate their argument, or the rather feeble design responses proposed to deal with the gigantic (or not) problems they have identified. The bleatings of victim-culture proponents frequently revolve around the usually untested proposition that an existing condition ‘discriminates’ uniquely against their particular interest group.

It is hard to buy the argument (especially from engineers) that somehow introducing more curved buildings would make everything ok. On the other hand, the report makes some very sensible suggestions about how public lighting, for example, might help to avoid street violence. But you have to ask yourself: wouldn’t this be of benefit to everybody, not just the alphabet community? And anyway, isn’t this about behaviour rather than building stock? Wouldn’t more police on the streets be more useful that some dubious determinist-based proposition about building design?

Yes, why not commemorate the lives and achievements of the ‘queer’ community individuals who have contributed to the lives and culture of our cities – but doesn’t this happen already? My only experience of the difficulties involved concerned the attempt to mark the life of Derek Jarman, gay film-maker extraordinaire, by placing an English Heritage plaque on the outside of the flats in Charing Cross Road where he lived for many years. EH were very happy with the idea of a plaque, but less so about placement in Soho, because it had ‘too many plaques already’. Instead it had to be located south of the river on a building replacing one associated with Jarman, now demolished. This was totally inappropriate, but would ‘even up’ the geographies associated with the blue plaque programme. Dishonesty neatly applied to history.

Frankly, the Arup/Westminster report reads as though it was produced by a computer from Woke-Central. I wonder if they have thought about how to memorialise, for example, the famous ‘meat rack’ of rent boys just off Piccadilly Circus in the not-so-distant past? How will they mark the old Swiss Centre next to Leicester Square, where the 1960s art dealer Robert Frazer, plus various architectural types, would throw down the keys of their roof-level apartment to the eager meat-for-hire waiting in the street below?

Perhaps they have ideas about blue plaques for the ‘molly-houses’, which famously involved the rich and famous in Cleveland Street, and other addresses quite close to the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Anyway, see what you think about the report, ‘Queering Public Space’. It is a document which is aspirational and benefits from considerable professional input, but seems to me to imply too much of a causal relationship between the design of public (not private) space and behaviour. Is it the space or is it the behaviour of other people which is really the problem? The point at which yet more special hurdles are inflicted on designers to ‘deal with’ this or that problem, the greater the chance of ending up with bland mediocrity.

The big exception to this is the regulatory requirement to deal with access and disability – not only essential, but of benefit to everyone. Of course these subjects are blind to gender and sexual orientation.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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