The life, body and soul of the city

Saturday 20th Feb 2010

I saw this picture in a textbook when I was at primary school and I remember being amazed by it and shocked at the destruction it implied, and how St Paul’s came so close to being destroyed. Our teacher also showed us pictures of Dresden, Berlin and Coventry taken just after the war.

We were a bit too young to see pictures of Auschwitz and Birkenau, but we were told about them and how many people had died there, and how many had been killed worldwide in the war. It wasn’t long after the Falklands, and the country was still in the grip of that vile jingoistic fever, so perhaps our teacher had decided to counter that dangerous mood with some facts on how war isn’t all smiling troops and glorious victories.

The city is its citizens

Those lessons left a lasting impression on me. Not, oddly enough, the knowledge of the human suffering at the time, but the loss to humanity of all the art and architecture that was destroyed. The standard, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction to this is that buildings can be rebuilt, that a painting isn’t alive, which is true enough but misses the point. A city is a living thing, it is, to reuse a well-known phrase, for the people, and by the people, it’s a product of generations.

The city we see today is there because people made it — it’s physical evidence of the lives of those people. Individual buildings may start as the work of a single person, as an architect’s sketch, but rapidly becomes more than that as its occupants add to it, alter it and look after it — they live their lives with it and develop memories from it, it becomes part of their minds. New buildings near it are informed by its character, they are responses to its form and how people think of it: the building has become part of the life of the city.

Creative destruction

Destroying a building to replace it with another is a natural part of the growth of the city. The design of the new building is (usually) influenced by the character of the neighbourhood, itself often informed by the earlier building. The process alters the character of the neighbourhood over a period of decades, but it’s a gradual and iterative one — the ‘wound’ heals without a scar, and there’s a continuity of style, a progression of fashion and building technology, and the buildings remain relevant and useful as the city grows.

Desctructive destruction

War and terrorism may form part of the long-term story of a city, but only in the same way a dreadful car accident or an assault forms part of the life of a person. They cause injuries and leave scars and the harm is both physical and psychological. Just look at Coventry today, the areas around St Paul’s, the slow rebuilding of Dresden and the shattered remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, people still feel the loss keenly, they are still, generations later, grieving for their lost cities. I’m not denying that the rebuilding process can be enormously creative, the new Coventry Cathedral is a masterpiece after all, but was the suffering worth it? Did we really need to lose so much?

I won’t deny that human lives are important, but to the people who say buildings can ‘just’ be rebuilt, I say their argument is excessively simplistic and reduces all the products of earlier lives to be mere throwaway artifacts, of no worth or meaning. I could also suggest that we can always ‘just’ make more people too, but does that justify killing someone alive now?

The colour of grey

Thursday 18th Feb 2010

I grew up under grey, overcast skies, in a place with nearly two metres of rainfall a year and where the roads and pavements never fully dried out. A cloudless sky came once a year and had people talking for days, and hot weather was anything over 20° celcius. Funny thing is, it’s not even the wettest place in Britain, it’s just normal for the west coast.

It’s led to me having a little theory about perception, particularly the perception of colour. I remember having a conversation one day at school with a boy who’d moved from Gibraltar. He was moaning about how grey everything was, grey skies, grey buildings, grey landscape, grey people, even. I was surprised. I looked out at the same view he was looking at, and there seemed to be plenty of colour out there. The clouds had touches of pink here, blue there, purple on dark ones; the fields were a rich variety of greens, fading off to blues in the far distance, with dark green forests and ochre and fawn moorlands on the hills; even the limestone buildings with their slate roofs had their own palette of colour. Why this kid was saying it was all grey, I’d no idea.

Not grey.

So I’ve developed a theory, based on the idea of how salt affects your taste. If you add salt to your food, you become desensitised to it, over the years you need a tiny bit more salt every time you eat so that eventually unseasoned food tastes bland and unappealing. The same thing I think affects your sense of colour. If you come from a place with blazing sunshine, you’re seeing high-intensity colours lit up by unfiltered, full-spectrum sunlight. You become desensitised to the bright colours, they seem normal, you simply get used to them. However, someone who grew up in a grey place is going to be very sensitive to colour - bright things are going to appear garish, eye-searingly so. They’re going to go for desaturated shades in their clothing, housing and art.

As far as I can tell, my little theory of visual seasoning seems to hold out. Just look at the colours people where when it’s sunny, and when it’s not.

Brighton’s cardboard box architecture

Wednesday 17th Feb 2010

Brighton and Hove got a fair few new buildings during the property boom, and pretty much all of them look like white cardboard boxes. The Regency Society bitches and whines about the occasional daring or interesting project, while the council’s planners approve yet more short-termist developments too dull to inspire praise or passion.

Not every development can be a masterpiece, but what I’ve a problem with is the lack of any kind of minimum standard of design for the city. Why isn’t there a style guide? Why isn’t there any kind of standard model if a developer doesn’t have the imagination to think up anything new? These white cardboard boxes are all over Brighton now, from West Street through Jubilee Street and up to the New England Quarter, with yet more marching off into Hove, already looking shabby as their cheap rendering cracks off and the endless ranks of grey-framed windows get stained by seagull shit and sea air. It’s not a style of architecture that copes well with neglect under tough conditions, they’re identikit developments, straight from the catalogues of materials suppliers, not the minds of creative architects.

We could have had a 42-storey tower here, but we got a line of cardboard boxes instead. Now, rather than a view across Brighton as you arrive by train, you get these.

I think it’s about time we had a local style guide. I’m a designer by trade, so I guess I’m used to them - receiving one as part of a brief at the start of a project, or writing them for corporate identities I’ve worked on. They’re invaluable as tools for ensuring consistency and a minimum acceptability of design. At best, they form the starting point of a design, answering the basic questions before you start so you can devote more time to creativity and quality, and at worst, if you can’t think up anything creative or new, you follow the guide and it’ll be fine.

Towns and cities need styleguides, Brighton and Hove especially! It might be expensive initially; you’d have to identify the prevailing style in each area of the city and design exemplar buildings (or at least façades) for them, but ultimately it’d reduce costs and improve quality. Pre-approved styles mean that stocks can be maintained and contractors have incentives to develop specific techniques and skills for each style.

Sure, there are objections to the idea — you’d end up with a city full of safe, backward-looking, bourgeois buildings, never controversial, just dull and uninspiring. My counter to that is that’s what we have now — with a styleguide you could at least have some buildings that maintain the character of an area. Has the character of the North Laine spread out into the Jubilee Square area? No, not really. Has the New England Quarter developed into any kind of worthy extension to the North Laine? There’s an e-Kagen shop up there, but that’s about it. Mm, another Sainsbury’s, just what Brighton needed.

Not that generic architecture is anything new — and I don’t just mean the tower blocks.

These developments are ugly, out of scale, don’t suit the area, and if you stand in the middle of them, you could be anywhere in northern Europe. If you’re going to put a development up, and you don’t have a glorious architectural masterpiece in mind, it’d be best for you and everyone who has to live and work there that it quietly reflects the character of the surrounding area. A styleguide may not lead to groundbreaking architecture, but more often than not, that’s the last thing you want.

Thou shalt deal with it, verily

Tuesday 16th Feb 2010

One of the great things about Twitter is that it’s open-ended. You can use it how you want, it doesn’t impose any structures on you, you don’t have to do it this way, or that way, or whatever. Trouble is, there are people out there who don’t like things like that, they want control; they want to control you, what you write, and how you write it.

You know the sort, they write articles like, “10 things you shouldn’t tweet about” which listed a bunch of stuff that I’m sure I’ve tweeted about and may well tweet about in the future. I even say “I tweeted” something, rather than “I posted on Twitter” because, for crying out loud, why not? I retweet things, sometimes using the new built-in thing, sometimes, quelle horreur, “RT” and other times using “/via”, and I even used an em dash for a while. Big deal. Did anyone actually fail to understand what I was saying? I doubt it, and if they did it wasn’t because of the specific formatting I used.

Then we get to apps like Feathers. Sure, there are some issues around it if you write a word in the unicode equivalent of ASCII-art, there are people who won’t have the character set on their shitbox phones or whatever, or something’s mangled the formatting and it’s just garbage they’re getting. It’s a problem that they can’t read your tweets, but hey, they’re your tweets, you can write what the hell you want whether it makes sense or not. If you want to smack your head into the keyboard a few times and then click “Post” then so be it. No-one is forced to read anyone else’s tweets so if you’ve a problem, unfollow them, preferably without metaphorically flouncing out and slamming the door, but hey, if you want to do that, again, no-one is stopping you.

The rise of the machines

No, I think some of the objections to all the different formats, the character-art tweets, the retweets and all that, come from ideas of data-validation and cleanliness. Twitter could be a vast database of the thoughts and outpourings of online humanity, and with one query you can find out an aggregate opinion on Subject X, and with another the general mood of everyone in Place Y, and it’ll be amazing and we’d have created a great new thing, a record of our collective lives, a great social encyclopædia, of incredible use to future historians! Using different formats, screwing around with how you write words, posting garbage, dingbats, retweets, they all add noise, duplication errors: unindexable data. We’re making it hard for machines to work out what we’re saying.

I call bullshit on this. If we want to index Twitter, then we index it as it is. The 140 character limit is enough of a restriction already - and besides, if you do want to use Twitter as some kind of historical resource (and I’m sure it will be) then all the noise, all the varying forms of retweeting are just as important as the tweets themselves. Twitter is full of crap, and it will stay that way. Moaning about “unicode spam” (whatever that is) and how you’re “not tweeting properly” isn’t going to change that one bit - just follow the people who don’t post crap and unfollow the ones who do, if that’s what you care about.

So there we go, a site

Monday 15th Feb 2010

There’s stuff I’ve been wanting to write about, stuff that doesn’t fit on Ministry of Type and needs more than 140 characters to explain, stuff that’s not themed in any way. Turns out I needed an actual blog-type thing, somewhere I can login and write what I want without it ever being ‘off-topic’. This is it.

It’s simple, maybe. Perhaps even a bit basic, but that’s all I need. I mucked about with Posterous and Tumblr, I’ve had a look at ‘throwaway’ hosted blogs, but I just wouldn’t be happy with how restrictive they are. They also assume a kind of posting behaviour that I simply don’t need, comments, categories, tags, voting, polls, crappy icon-filled panels linking to every damn social network and link-fetish site, no thanks.

Roll your own

So basically there’s no quick, off-the-shelf option, I had to make my own site. If a big part of your life is making sites for other people, it seems like the hardest thing in the world to make one for yourself, you’ve all these ideas, and because you’re the client you’ve got so many things you want to get across. Of course, after a while of mucking about and coming up with all sorts of overdesigned nonsense you step back from it all and apply the same logic you would to any client project. It’s not your site, it’s a site for a client who happens to be around 24 hours a day. That meant I could experiment with a slightly different way of designing a site, starting instead in the browser, with the plainest, most elemental HTML, reviewing each stage as I went along. I wanted to minimise the use of graphics, and rely on what can be done with CSS and by adding some nice typefaces from Typekit. When Fontkit launches I hope to switch over to that instead, but for now I’m using the beautiful faces Masala and Proxima Nova.

It’d be nice if you like the way the site looks and works, but if you don’t, well, sorry about that. If anything is actually broken though, please let me know.