Adrian Forty: Give public spaces back to the people

From a talk by the Bartlett School of Architecture professor, given at the Royal Festival Hall to mark its 50th anniversary

Wednesday 16 May 2001 00:00 BST

The Royal Festival Hall is often described as being "democratic". Why do people say this? What does it mean to call a building "democratic"?

The Royal Festival Hall is often described as being "democratic". Why do people say this? What does it mean to call a building "democratic"?

The current orthodoxy in urban design is that this separation of urban space into specialised purposes is undesirable, and makes for lifeless, sterile city environments. Shopping centres may be alright for shopping, but they are nothing like the "democratic" space of the ancient Greek agora. It is said that cities need to have actively used public spaces, and that the only way to give these life is by ensuring that such spaces serve more than one purpose.

The normal present-day rule for the creation of public spaces is "multiple uses". Good examples of the application of this principle are the British Museum courtyard, which as well as providing a new means of access to the BM galleries, and some commerce, is also part of a new pedestrian thoroughfare connecting Great Russell Street to Montague Place. Another example is the new Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, which is both a museum, but also a covered pedestrian connection through the city.

Popular though these and other schemes have been, and successful as they are in generating a lot of pedestrian movement, it is worth asking exactly what their purpose is. Why is it desirable to have places full of people moving about? At one level, the answer is clear enough ­ if you live in a city, or come to visit it as a tourist, you want to have evidence of its populousness, of its buzz and vitality, so as to convince you that being in a city is worthwhile.

A city that is empty hardly counts as a city. But does a big crowd constitute "democracy"? Do numbers alone make a space "democratic"? If this were the case, then Camden Lock and Covent Garden would be "democratic" places, which they almost certainly are not.

Conscious of this, urban designers have tried to create parts of cities that are not wholly commercial but that at the same time are successful in attracting people in large numbers. Part of the difficulty with this is that the only real model for a large space for unfocused milling-about in is the ancient Greek agora ­ and this has become redundant, because all its purposes have been taken over by other buildings or technologies.

There is a real risk that these new public spaces become a pastiche, a parody of some previous form of urban life, produced out of a nostalgia for the supposedly more intense human contact of the pre-industrial medieval or ancient city. The disappointment of many new public spaces comes from this artificiality, from a failure to accept that all the functional uses that generated the Greek agora have gone elsewhere, and that open public spaces are, to a large extent, obsolete in modern cities.

The Royal Festival Hall is interesting in this respect, because it does seem to have been successful despite the apparent redundancy of public space. Maybe it's just because it is a warm, dry space. But maybe it offers something more than that. However much we are prepared to accept the relocation elsewhere of all the activities of the agora, and the replacement of its functions by technical means, there still seems to be an urge to be among crowds of people, to see other people ­ it is the Camden Lock/Covent Garden phenomenon. This urge is the last way we have of confirming that we still belong to a society, and it is an urge that can never be satisfied by TV or other electronic means.

Given this urge to go and see people in public, and be seen by them, the Festival Hall seems to offer some rather exceptional conditions for doing this. It provides a setting in which people can see each other in public under conditions of relative equality. What the RFH's foyer shows is that it is possible to create a novel sort of public interior and for that interior to be a successful public space. In that lesson, we can take courage.

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