There’s something special about the Southbank in London. It has a certain buzz to it. I think of it as the city’s public living room. There are open spaces, sofas, chairs, tables. Basically a place to sit without interruption. It’s a place where you can and relax and think. Or meet people and chat without the pressure of buying drinks or being directed by the commercial context of a pub or coffee shop. I went there to write this essay.
There’s a subtlety as to why this place is different to a coffee shop. I could have gone and done the same thing there. But in a coffee shop you’re always aware of the nature of the transaction. It’s a place that you’ve paid to be and you’ll be welcome for as long as you keep paying to be there. You need to justify your usefulness to the proprietor. The public living room is the park when it’s raining. A place you can come and go as you please.
In places like the Southbank Centre, the British library, the National Theatre, the Barbican and to some extent local libraries you can come and go as you please. It’s your place. Because of that these places tend to be more inclusive. It’s a place to go for people whose lives might have no other setting than their own living room as much as it is for freelancers with macbooks. The mixing of different people, the overheard conversations, witnessed habits and general visibility of each other’s lives makes society better through understanding of each other. I listened in to a group of builders discussing their day at work, saying how tired they were and where to get something to eat. On the way in there was a shabbily dressed old man stuffing a bag of rocket into his mouth. A reminder that these people exist and are a part of our world.
These places are accidents in a way. Some are arts venues that happen to have enough space for people to linger in. Libraries are for quiet study, but support sitting and chatting too. But the results of the incidental experiment have proved their worth. We must deliberately build more of these spaces. Every city should have several buildings that are dedicated to this purpose. Designed to be prominent, accessible places that everyone feels comfortable going in and understands the purpose of. Perhaps with indoor and outdoor areas, connected to parks to allow for flexible choices as weather permits.
At present the policies of government are a threat to these places. The chance that anything like this will be built is slim. It just doesn’t fit into popular ideology. Even the places that do exist are under threat of encroaching commercialisation. The Barbican recently expanded it’s small gift shop to a multi floor bonanza. The British library has converted study areas to commercial office space and turned a ticket office into yet another gift shop.
The biggest danger we face is not crisis but mediocrity. Our cities will be fairly clean and orderly. You’ll be able to buy a drink in a bar or wander round Westfield. You won’t know the difference. Sometimes you might have a vague sense that there’s something rather bland about it all, a missing sense of magic, but nothing worth thinking too much about.
From John Grindrod’s Concretopia: