Friday, 14 October 2011

Gillett Square- Art and Context in Urban Spaces/ Places

In the quest to uncover what makes a 'space' a 'place', or if there's any real difference between the two terms I elected to explore Gillet Square in Dalston, Hackney.

Dalston is renowned as a vibrant cultural and social hub concentrated principally along Kingsland Road. There is are few open spaces or public squares. Gillett Square was devepoed on the site of a former car park as part of ken Livingstone's public space strategy.


The scheme consists of a 1500 sqm open space fully enclosed by built mass on three sides and a one metre high fence partially enclosing the north side. There are three entrances to the site, indicated below:

The scheme was initially devised to act as a cultural hub for the area, with the construction of "Dalston Culture House" on the western perimeter, now serving as the home for the Vortex Jazz Club (previously sited on Stoke Newington's Church Street). The block on the southern edge is owned by the Hackney Community Cooperative and comprises a parade of shops and a bar on the ground floor (all of which face out of the square and on to neighbouring Bradbury Road), with apartments and artist studios on the first and second floors. Balconies from the uppermost floor overlook the square., as indicated below.

The scheme has been criticised by the local free press as being contrived and clinical, with critic referring to it as "Stasi Land", presumably referencing inhuman eastern bloc urban design.. Certainly, on previous visits to the site I have found it to be lacking human activity in spite of the cultural programme. for this reason I thought it would be an interesting site to critique in terms of the space-place axis. It is also popular with street drinkers, who are widespread feature of city life, if often considered a negative aspect.

The social acceptability of street drinking (or lack thereof) is an interesting consideration in the use and design of public space. The gentlemen in the image above might be considered negative or undesirable, but are certainly enjoying a bit of landscape architecture. Public perception does tend to hinge on valued judgements concerning social class: ultimately, the two men above ware no different to a mature couple enjoying champagne from their Fortnum and Mason hamper on Parliament Hill.

Hoping to observe how street drinkers used Gillett Square at night I ventured there on Monday evening, expecting to witness one or two seedy groups of middle-aged men sharing cans of cider. Instead, a quite different scene unfolded before me.
A group of four or five skateboarders, aged 25-40 had monopolised the centre of the square, skating around an upturned plastic crate. It was a constant ballet, with the skaters using the raised deck in the west as a kind of launch platform, rolling around in wide circles observed by other users of the site.

The atmosphere was warm and pleasant. Outside the Vortex groups of people sat on tables drinking, talking or watching the skaters. Beside the skateboarder-launch pad-cum deck a group of seven or eight middle-aged men gathered, drinking from cans and talking about nothing in particular. I tried to record their conversation on my phone but haven't quite worked out how to upload it here. Additonally, there were scattered couples enjoying the evening, some on the steps by the southern edge and some on the raised deck.

Along the southern perimeter some kiosks have been erected, housing a phone/ internet shop, a coffee stall and an Afro-Caribbean barber shop. The coffee stall was shut but two quite separate but adjacent groups of young men congregated outside the two other stalls, sat on deck chairs, drinking and smoking.

To complete our mise-en-scene, the most curious addition of all: a ping-pong table (sometimes referred to as a "table-tennis-table", which strikes me as a pleonasm). Two young men were playing table tennis, watched by a kid of a bout ten or eleven.

Two things struck about this the square...

Firstly, most people were drinking alcohol. In terms of the social acceptability of this, there was definitely a hierarchy. The group outside the vortex imbibed cocktails purchased from a licensed bar, on seating provided by the venue. To their right, the men outside the kiosks were somehow affiliated to the business operators of the kiosks, and were lent some degree of legitimacy by this. Finally, the men drinking beside the skateboarders were using informal seating, had no business connections and drank alcohol of higher potency.

Of course, I'm breaking the ethnologist's golden rule by immediately imposing my own value system upon the study group (or at least what I consider to be the value system of the society I inhabit).

SECONDLY, I felt very much that this was a "place", because Gillett Square was somewhere something might happen.Indeed, something WAS happening. The skater, as I've stated, were engaged in a kind of impromptu performance- as I described earlier, a ballet. And like every good performance, they had their own audience. The ping-players were performing, too. Gillett Square was something where people did something in time.

Whilst this same argument could equally be considered as an argument in favour of labelling Gillett Square as "space" (in euclidean terms, the four dimensional matrix in which physical processes occur), maybe space can be considered as something where an event or performance might happen, whereas place is where something has happened or is happening.

I think of a court room drama: the defendant is asked where the event occurred. It is more likely that s/he would be asked to describe a place rather than a space, unless of course they were being asked to describe the dimensions of the box in which they had been unlawfully imprisoned.

Space/ event/ performance/ place- there's a lot of this in architecture theory, with performance and event often being synonymous with any human element, and gave rise to the concept of space being people. Like the tree that falls down in a forest, if no-one's there to see the landscape does it actually exist?

Of course, Gillett Square is also a cultural centre, and when the programme dictates the performance of everyday life is often subsidiary to programmatic performance. This was the case on my visit the previous Sunday, when a concert and film festival was held at Gillett Square to... celebrate (?) World Mental Health Awareness Day.

As part of the day's events a very good reggae band were performing on a stage erected on top of the deck in the western part of the square. Family groups had gathered to watch. It was interesting to see how the centre of the square remained relatively empty, dominated by the performers sound in the same way the skateboarders had colonised it with their performance.

I'm interested in the idea of everyday life being a performance, and unfolding ballet or play exercise by members of the public, with the landscape operating as their stage. As I explore this site further, i'd like to look into graphic scoring and notation to document how people use elements of the landscape and how their actions define the space or create places. I'm also keen to look into how sound and acoustics define an area by providing the soundtrack, how this can be scored.

I'm told Lawrence Halprin is worth reading on this particular subject.

As a footnote, here's the blurb about the square the Gillette Square website:

Gillett Square

A public space animated by the creativity of the surrounding community

Formally opened in November 2006, Gillett Square is a simple, hardwearing and flexible urban space for Dalston. It is bordered by the Dalston Culture House - home of the Vortex Jazz Club, the Bradbury Street Workspace and a number of small retail units. These have been developed and are managed by Hackney Co-operative Developments. On its northern side there is a public car park.

The square has been developed by the Gillett Square Partnership, which currently comprises Hackney Co-operative Developments, Groundwork East London, Hackney Council and Design for London. This partnership operates as an overarching strategic body for all aspects of the square’s function and development. Whilst this space is owned and maintained by London Borough of Hackney, its cultural and enterprise uses are the responsibility of the ‘Gillett Squared’ management group led by Hackney Co-operative Developments as its public entertainment license holder.

Gillett Square is a genuine community asset. It provides an accessible outlet for this area’s abundant creative talents and energy, promotes social cohesion, invites cultural exchange and education, and presents market opportunities. The process behind the building of Gillett Square, its current usage and prospects, are the foundations upon which a remarkable transformation is taking place in Dalston.

"Our ambition to take our programme outside the Centre's walls to audiences in the east reached new heights this year...with Hackney Co-operative Development's Gillett Squared project."

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