October 2007

Designing the perfect city.

What makes a city work, what makes it livable, what makes a city inspired, what makes a city stand out from other cities?

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At the heart of any city is its community. Community is the intangible factor that a destination has at its core. Parisians cherish their Paris, New Yorkers write and sing songs about their New York, Amstel‘s are enormously proud of their Amsterdam. People of these cities use it to parade it as their life back drop, so to speak, they assign landmarks to important moments, they mature in its parks, cafés and meeting points. The individual’s city is a reference point for a career, existence, and or life choice.

Holland‘s land mass is mostly of a river delta fan that serves the Rhine and Maas Rivers. Half of Holland is just above sea level and one extreme, Amsterdam, is nearly four meters below sea level. Being below sea level is a strange vail that hangs over the city; its people and community are constantly at odds with nature. It is not difficult to travel around the city and imagine it shrouded in water — oddly one feels that this experience is fabled; as if Amsterdam is a modern day Atlantis (the ancient city taken by the sea).

The prominent aspect of Amsterdam is that the city has a place/space for all its citizens — living and material. Pedestrians, canals, bridges, buildings, boats, trees, cars, water, and cyclists in an organised maze — slot in, duck and weave, sway, flow by, stop and give way.

The city has more bikes than citizens. Girls in high heal shoes and ladies in business suits cycle, old men in jeans cycle too, couples dink (one peddles while the other rides aside or astride on the luggage rack as well), or there are bikes with boxes up the front with kids in them or groceries. A bicycle is bicycle, rather than a status symbol, (unless you expensive ride road bikes with lawyers or doctors that drink latte coffees at groovy post ride cafes). Countless people cycle by and one can not possibly tell if one owns the whole street or rents; they could be unemployed or an city employed lawyer, if they are environmentalist or late for an appointment. Cycling democratises its people.

Amsterdam is a city where the car is not the prime occupant. The trees are allowed to be wayward, bridges are tight, and streets are narrow. Amsterdam lacks the din of a city over run with traffic jams, the air is clear, people spill everywhere, eyes meet, the pace seems right, natural.

What makes Amsterdam work is that it is a mature city. It has been built up and torn down, it has been under siege, it has been planned and altered, improved and reconfigured. The city shapes itself with history, it doesn‘t need to modernise, it simply shifts and evolves as time dictates.
Do cities need to grow in population to be desirable? Or are desirable cities a place where it citizens feel like they can grow? Amsterdam has it’s fair share of negative points, never-the-less it is a place where the car has been put in its place. People travel and commune in Amsterdam with a sense of freedom that has been overlooked by progress which leaves strangers no choice to connect in one form or another again.

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Next stop Flagstaff Station

Flagstaff Station is an underground city circle station situated in the city of Melbourne. The station is an oddity as it operates during weekdays and is closed most weekends. Like its fellow city circle stations Flagstaff Station was designed between 1979 and 1981 by Melbourne based architects — Stephenson and Turner.

The interiors and fittings are a wonderful and intact sample of the design movement circa early 1980s. The lines are organic, informed by an off white and contrasted with ribbed mid tone brown pressed metal panels with flashes of stainless steel. The finishes and fittings are modular like, clunky yet elegant, man made.

The signing is one of the facilities great features (from a communication viewpoint), the design is bold, prominent yet restrained and spare. The system has a refreshing lack of the presence of its designer, as compared with many samples of contemporary design. The forms and objects are functional and simple, the colour palette is limited (probably due to budget and available technology). There is little line work, no multiple colour panels, a small selection of point sizes and typeface weights are on offer and there is a refreshing lack of branding. A rigor is present with the few elements available, the system is prominent and compliments the architecture.

As the station approaches its forth decade, it stands as a great example of public architecture and signing that predates focus groups, branding hype and vinyl lettering. It is clear that the operation of modern stations has superceded the functionality of facility. Ticketing booths, timetable displays and ticket collection areas are redundant. Traffic flow and paths have shifted. In the wake of these changes additions have popped up that pay little or no homage to the design.

Let‘s hope the Station‘s design integrity wards of the lure of last minute quick fixes by paying lip service to the notion modernisation. Many such spaces are facing the temptation of transforming public space into a retail and advertising opportunity. The space has been detailed to last. The lack of retail and advertising and abundance of open spaces is welcome. It gives citizens a chance to experience a cross section of people. The generous space allows passers-by to enjoy the energy of peak times and the tranquility of chancing upon off peak times.

Flagstaff Station and a new City of Melbourne gallery or cultural space is a possibly for modernisation. Visit a Spout tram stop, The Hague, Holland for details.

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An afternoon with Paul

During a jam packed week in London this September, Paul (Davis) had a few hours to spare.

Paul showed some wine packaging he was developing, there was some revered English design people Adrian, Stephen (who didn’t take a shine to my over sized business card) to meet, we shopped for small electrical goods, we talked about robbery, looked at notable sights around Shoreditch, Paul shared this wonderful sculpture by Fernando Botero at the back of Liverpool Street Station, there was this curious screen test like poster on the street, a lunch that went till 3.30pm, we saw some art in the White Gallery, dry cleaning to pick up, last stop Richmond, a date to cancel and an early night to bed.

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The pixelmania continues Hans

Designer Hans Wolbers of Holland at the recent AGI congress in Amsterdam put together an excellent presentation titled ‘Pixelmania‘ which investigated pixels in day-to-day contexts. The presentation was wonderfully captivating, exploring the pixel in mediums that included sky writing, water, fire, to start with.In the spirit of this pixel obsession, one cast back to seeing ‘Death From Above 1979‘ at a Vice party gig in Melbourne three or so years ago. A to-the-point pixel like act; vocal, drum and electric bass, who rocked the Mercantile to its foundations. Their single ‘Romantic Rights‘ also happens to be pixel like in look, timing; a concise 3.15sec and raw and simple in delivery. If you are watching Hans this post is dedicated to you.

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An afternoon on the north bank of London

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