Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Loitering with intent

Readers of The Year-long Lunch Break may remember an elderly gentleman I used to say hello to every morning, very early, on my way to work. Taking a cushion with him, he would quietly let himself out of the old people's home in which he was incarcerated, and sit on a wall on the street corner to watch the world go by.

Here is the wall in question:

The busy junction it overlooks has recently undergone its second massive reworking in the last three years. I happened upon the team of workmen who were installing the strange pebbled surface next to the wall, and asked them what it was for.

"It's to prevent loitering", replied the workman, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. And as if, might I add, the prospect of having people pause at street corners and use the space to have a chat was somehow abhorrent. After all, while chatting they could always smile and wave at the CCTV that overlooks the junction, and on days when the technology wasn't working they would be useful as potential eyewitnesses to the many traffic accidents that (still) occur there. But non-moving people, especially those too old for the playground but too young for the pub, seem to be unwanted in urban design.

Now supposing town planners and architects took this anti-loitering idea to its logical conclusion. What we would find, as we walked through our towns and cities, would be a succession of spaces each trying to discourage a pause in our journey by being more repulsive than the others. But that couldn't possibly happen in real life, could it?

Monday, 28 June 2010

Street games

I can’t claim to have helped organise the Conference. I can only claim that I offered to put the spare bedroom, and indeed the pleasant space that is our living-room floor, on a register of places to stay for delegates whose budget was unable to stretch to our country’s extortionate hotel room rates. I got assigned an Architect from Germany, who was due to turn up on the Sunday evening.

In the event, he was unable to attend. Which was probably just as well given that Germany were not exactly flavour of the month around here last Sunday night. I suppose it could have been worse: he could have been from Uruguay.

All that I could have been said to provide, therefore, was peace of mind for those whose job it was to organise accommodation. Spare capacity can be useful like that. It also entitled me to turn up for a day to listen to other people’s academic research findings. Everybody has their vice.

Leaving aside for now the main subject of the conference, one of the more lively sub-plots was the way people notice, and use, space. An "outdoor workshop" on this topic was being held that afternoon, so I signed up.

We were all led to the city's main pedestrianised shopping street, and asked to stand in a circle and call out our names. After this I was expecting a quiet spot of something like psycho-geography, but things didn't go quite that smoothly.

We paired up and did that party game where one person pretends to be the other's reflection in a mirror. Then we got into groups and did sequences of poses. Some of the delegates had their cameras and took pictures, so at least this made us look like normal, if slightly amusing, tourists. Finally two lines of about 15 of us each played follow-my-leader all around the street. At this point we really did get some funny looks: someone called out "What are you doing?" and I felt honour bound to give them an explanation. "Street games!"

I suspected some people might have been looking for a collecting-tin to drop coins into. Two onlookers even joined in.

I could tell from the variety of accents I heard during the first exercise that none of the others taking part would ever have to be seen in this street again. But that's not so for me. This street is the venue for our family shopping: every time we need clothes or other mundane stuff, there we go. I had always found it rather boring.

But once something "a bit different", whether surreal, bizarre or exciting, has happened to you in a particular place, have you ever noticed, that place is never quite the same again? I had never noticed until that day, for example, that the fairy-lights in the trees there remain in place all year.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Car adverts

We've all seen them. The sleek shape of the new model glides effortlessly along the open road through spectacular scenery...mountains, deserts, coast. It's just you the driver, and the elements of Nature. One of which is, of course, the empty road. The scene bypasses all your everyday thoughts and goes straight to the back shelf of your brain, like a dream. There it sits, ready to soothe you during stressful or boring moments of your day, such as when you are stuck in a traffic jam. You might develop a passing fancy to buy the car. But that's not what's for sale here.

The advert's early pioneers shot their footage in the Scottish Highlands and islands. Then, to guarantee an empty road, they had to start filming at 4 in the morning in midsummer. Then they moved on to the deserts of the USA and Africa. Finally, in one notorious case, they flew a car to the Marshall Islands, just to the West of the International Date Line, to enable their latest piece of 100-year-old technology to catch the first sunlight of the new Millennium.

These adverts are selling Space. Which is getting more and more difficult to find. Nowadays they have to resort to computer graphics.