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S1 — EP19

Edwin Heathcote

To celebrate the London Festival of Architecture’s 20th anniversary Tim met Edwin Heathcote, the Financial Times architecture critic, in a small podcast booth built underneath the Lloyd’s building in London. Designed by Urban Radicals, the booth was the perfect place to talk about public space in London and Eddy’s book, On the Street: In-Between Architecture published by HENI.

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Podcast transcript

[00:00:00] Nasios Varnavas: I am Nasios Vernavas. I’m a partner at Urban Radicals.

We’re an architecture and design studio We are at the base of the famous inside- out building, the Lloyd’s building, here in the city of London.

We’re sitting in a cork pod that has been inspired by John Hedjuk, I would say. So it’s part of three other projects. under a larger framework that the London Festival of Architecture commissioned for their 20th anniversary for the square mile. All projects look into the idea of parliament and dialogue.

The pod that we’re sitting in, is about intimate conversations between two or three people the project was about enabling democratic discussion, even though we’re at the center of finance.

[00:00:49] Tim Abrahams: Hello, Superurbanists. It’s been a while. Thank you for your patience. This episode has been worth the wait, I promise you. It’s the 20th anniversary of the London Festival of Architecture and [00:01:00] I have been out and about in the British capital, hope you have too. This ever interesting event shines a light on the way in which architecture and design helps create a public experience in the city, which I thought was a great opportunity for me to talk to Edwin Heathcote, a writer who I always enjoy talking to and always gives me fresh insight into the world of architecture and design.

As you should know Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic for the Financial Times. He’s also, though, the author of the book On the Street, In Between Architecture, which is a modern day almanac of street furniture, an inventory of the objects that we meet in our day to day lives. Behind it all, a history of how our public space is evolving and how our design of a public space is evolving.

As anyone who follows Eddie on Instagram knows, he’s got a wonderful eye for the design with which we engage most . The benches, the signs and the lampposts, the manhole covers, the statues, that populate our [00:02:00] cities and make it a friendly and livable experience or not. One of my favourite elements of this year’s LFA has been a series of interventions by a group called Urban Radicals to throw a light on public discussions and public debates.

It felt fitting to have a chat with Eddie in a intervention that they designed in the undercroft of the Lloyds building in the heart of the city of London. It’s a place for podcasting and there, we met to talk about the design of the urban realm around us.

Was there a historical point at which you felt that your book should begin at?

[00:02:39] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think it begins at the modern world and, the modern metropolis. And it’s difficult to say when that happens, but it’s somewhere between, Georgian London and Haussmann Paris.

So somewhere between the 1780s, and let’s say 1850, 1860. It’s that period where [00:03:00] the modern city with street lighting, with, pavements with tarmac with the big slum clearances of the modern metropolis, which make way for this much broader, more avenue oriented city, which is, itself a It’s a political gesture.

It’s very much a emergence of modern capitalism expressing itself through the city. So I think that’s where it begins. But the idea behind the book was to look at the micro rather than the macro. There are a lot of books about the city development. The development of the modern city is super well covered by people who are much more read than I am.

But there is a point at which this stuff expresses itself through the small details. street lights, bollards, drainage coal holes mancovers

[00:03:37] Tim Abrahams: Corners

[00:03:38] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, there’s all this stuff which is the ephemera of the modern city, but actually which makes the city habitable.

So before that you have horseshit covered dirt roads, And, the city is almost impassable, it’s a sludge of mud and darkness and stink. Obviously it doesn’t all change overnight, but if we think of the city being opened up, for instance, at night by lighting, it’s [00:04:00] probably the biggest invention in human history in the city. It changes everything. Suddenly the city becomes 24 hours. There’s this idea that everyone loves street lighting because the city is now open. But of course as it turns out , a lot of people weren’t that keen on it.

Pickpockets weren’t too keen on street lighting, sex workers didn’t like it, because suddenly they’re visible. Looking at the micro details of the city brings up a lot of social history, a lot of interesting storytelling.

[00:04:25] Tim Abrahams: You, come from writing about the big stuff. Your career as one of the top architecture critics in the country. You’ve written about. Megastructures, big complexes,

[00:04:39] Edwin Heathcote: I’ve always been interested in the streetscape. So if you’re walking along the street and it’s buzzy and it’s active and it’s interesting and it stimulates you. What is it that makes it like that? And it’s not really the architecture.

It might be market stalls. It might be shop fronts. It might be crowds congregating. Something happening in the [00:05:00] street, or it might be a, an emergency, a fire engine, stopping for something. But it’s not generally the architecture that makes the city interesting.

It’s the things that happen in it. Architecture is background, I think, in a way. And this stuff, the small stuff, is also background. But the small stuff is able to animate architecture. And I think If we can understand these things, everything from a vitrine on a Berlin street to a, a particular design for a lamppost or a bench, I think if we can understand these things better with small steps, we can improve everyday life in the city in a socially equitable manner.

So I think architecture tends to be for capital. It’s built for capitalists. It’s a profit making enterprise. Street furniture is the opposite. Street furniture is built for everyone and it gives us an opportunity to tweak those things and to maintain them and conserve them and appreciate them and use them in such a way that allows the city to be open, accessible.

For and democratic. So a bench, for instance is as open to me or you or someone in the Lloyd’s [00:06:00] building or a homeless person. And that’s terrific. This stuff is the most public of all architectures. That’s why I like it.

[00:06:05] Tim Abrahams: The books broke it down into activities, verbs night-walking. I’m going to choose all the rude ones. Poling, pumping. My God. Punishing. Ah there’s some other seating, the, these activities in the section marking punishing, which is fascinating because you talk about the the way in which the architecture of capital punishment gives way to an architecture of surveillance, which I think is really interesting.

But you also mentioned a vicious and persistent erosion of the public realm. So there is also in this story about incidental street furniture being this thing that you can quantify or capture the real relationship between the material built culture and people.

There’s also a story where this is not heading the way in which you would like where does it all go wrong? Where is it right and where does it go wrong?

[00:06:54] Edwin Heathcote: Two strands,, let’s say, the public benefit and the private benefit, run in parallel throughout the whole history of , I call [00:07:00] it in-between architecture. . So there is a layer, which is really all to do with demarcating properties, indicating privacy, whether it’s barriers or markers in the street or anti skateboard studs, anti homeless fittings, benches that you can’t sit down on properly because they don’t want to make them too comfortable. There is a authoritarian strand that runs through this stuff as well as the common goods element to it.

There’s a , as you say, a fascinating way of reading the city through these things which Indicates the progress or the lack of progress towards a truly accessible city. Now it’s in particularly Visible because there are these CCTV cameras everywhere.

[00:07:39] Edwin Heathcote: There’s a lot of surveillance. There is the beginnings of personalized advertising, of things aimed specifically at you, with the big LED screens and people walk by, they harvest the data and then they throw back something that is based on your preferences.

[00:07:53] Tim Abrahams: There’s a strong London component to the book, you but you’re also comparing it all the way through. Is there a golden [00:08:00] moment for when the balance between the public and the private worked well in London’s history ?

[00:08:05] Edwin Heathcote: Oh, that’s a really interesting question, is there a golden age? There is a golden age, I think, in Paris and London at the end of the 19th century, around the 1870s, 1880s, when they’re building the embankment in London, when they’re rebuilding Paris, putting street lighting in, and in a way the two cities are competing.

Paris is the city of light. Paris is the more modern, always. London’s trying to catch up and all of these street fittings: the lampposts, the bollards the paving the pub lanterns, the shop fronts in Paris, the arcades, and so on, they all become urban branding and the grandeur is increased as the competition between the cities picks up pace in the, at the end of the 19th century. And possibly London begins to then overtake in sort of 1900 or so. I think that’s a very interesting moment. And then Chicago and New York come into the picture as well, each with their own sort of [00:09:00] specific items of furniture which become then, emblematic of those cities. So in, in New York, it’s the fire hydrants, for instance. You see a fire hydrant, it’s probably New York. You see the dolphin lamppost from the Embankment, that’s London. You see a news kiosk painted in green or a Colonne Morris, the cylindrical advertising columns, you know immediately that’s going to be Paris. So there are these moments where these things become urban markers and become very much part of the metropolitan branding.

Very self consciously, so the cities are doing that. Paris even hires a photographer Charles Marville, to document these things, to actually take portraits of these items, and then these are shown in expo s around the world as a way of selling product and also the city and then of course these things begin to travel out to the colonies now you go to Singapore you go to Hong Kong, you find British post boxes so there’s this odd web of street furniture.

[00:09:53] Tim Abrahams: It is very interesting that you mention photography because street furniture is the ostensible [00:10:00] object of the book but one of the ways in which you explore it is the way it emerges through photography and it’s very interesting that you describe this system of photography and expos where actually this stuff this layering is not just about achieving something for the domestic population. It’s also about communicating values of a city beyond it. And photography seems to be very important for that.

When you’re talking about newsstands you go through the different photographers from the 1930s, Atget and others, about how they represent the news stand. So there’s a critical eye there as well. It’s not just an act of dissemination. What’s going on with the photography? Is it their eye, is it their knowledge?

[00:10:39] Edwin Heathcote: Yes. I think all of those things are true. It is their eye, it is their knowledge and they’re approaching it in a radical way.

But the book has two ins. So it’s a book about street furniture, which is actually a bit nerdy in a way, but also it’s a book about street photography.

[00:10:52] Tim Abrahams: Yeah.

[00:10:53] Edwin Heathcote: And the way that the city is understood through photography. Which I think makes it a slightly [00:11:00] more interesting, it made it a more interesting book to write.

So I really didn’t want a shire guide to 18th century bollards or a sort of taxonomy of contemporary street furniture because that would have bored me. It’s not philately, it’s something different. It’s really about how these things are situated in the city and appropriated and used and abused and misused.

And street photographers have an incredible eye for the sort of absurdity of things that surround these pieces of furniture and the way they’re used and the way they, the way that they exert an oddly enormous impact. So a newsstand in the 1950s was a, an absolutely pivotal part of the streetscape.

Now it’s become difficult to believe, but, people would stop and read the headlines. There was a constant stream of people buying papers. They’d look at the celebrity news, in a way that you could read the city through these things and photographers were very aware of [00:12:00] that and the photographers were a lot of the time working for the papers as well so there’s a echo effect. They’re photographing their own product, which is, which amplifies the message. But I find those the work. So for instance, there’s a shot in there by Stanley Kubrick of a of a newspaper kiosk and it’s absolutely brilliant.

Kubrick started off as a as a photographer working for the agencies, picture agencies and the magazines and but there’s also, there’s Vivian Maier and Robert Frank and these people taking incredible photos often of people using these static objects. So it’s the contrast between, maybe a homeless man sleeping on a bench and it’s the contrast between the static and the organic, between the, the body the softness of the body and these hard objects. And I think they expose a lot about the city, that relationship of the body to the physicality of the city. There’s a lot of really interesting I found a lot of really interesting moments there.

And I could have used a hundred times as many photos if we’d have had the budget.

[00:12:57] Tim Abrahams: That would have unbalanced it quite a lot because it’s very [00:13:00] difficult when you’re writing about architecture to balance it with the photograph because the traditional relationship is that the photograph of the building has preeminence and the words go alongside it.

Whereas what you’re doing here is slightly inverting that. The photographs actually take a second place. The drawings too. Just to drop back into the historical, perhaps the biographical is, one of the episodes of the book which most struck me was about a book called Street Scene which was published by the Design Council in 1976 and it strikes me because you described a quite a physical relationship with a book this book was clearly a book that was Something that you had back in the day because it smells the cigarettes Just still smell the cigarettes your cigarettes

It’s an interesting episode because you talk about this phase of modernist design, which you would have thought would be a major part of our streetscape and you say, it’s not there anymore.

So why did you read that book in the first instance? Was it part of your architectural training?

[00:13:56] Edwin Heathcote: That was a book I lifted from an office I worked in that was going to [00:14:00] be thrown away. They were chucking a bunch of old books and old manuals about which, which went out of date.

No, if apartment sizes and Parker Morris housing standards. And there was this book called street scene, which was 1970s street furniture. So it’s globe streetlights and very modernist looking benches and bins and it’s quite rigorous. But, it was a really interesting moment, that moment in the 70s because there was a long, complex history in Britain, dating from about the 1930s, when particularly the Architectural Review magazine latched onto this thing called Townscape. This was a magazine that promoted Modernism, but at the same time had a profoundly conservative editorship, actually and a real affection for historic cities and historic towns and the disappearing heritage landscape and how the modern world had been allowed to impinge on that landscape, street signs, roundabout, traffic measures overhead wires and traffic engineers effectively had become the [00:15:00] guiding force of urbanism. Conservative patrician architects had been offended by the predominance of traffic engineers

[00:15:08] Tim Abrahams: and they’ve been elbowed sideways.

[00:15:09] Edwin Heathcote: They’d been elbowed out. It wasn’t their thing. They were. And this causes this really interesting moment where there’s suddenly a real interest in the elements of the streetscape, old bollards, dockside furniture, well as the cobbles and the cranes and the things that are left over from the industrial revolution and even before that.

[00:15:27] Tim Abrahams: So the Architecture Review has its Outrage campaign. It’s directed not so much at architecture, but at the clutter.

[00:15:35] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah,

That’s exactly what it is. It’s similar to what’s happening now with create streets and the sort of slightly reactionary sort of social media influences or whatever you might call them, where they’re looking at a piece of townscape now and say, God, this is, this is really awful.

Wouldn’t it be great if this all looked like Edwardian mansion blocks and had trees and no cars? So in a way that there’s this strange nostalgia running through it and at this moment in the 1970s, [00:16:00] you have the first generation of architects who’ve grown up being more or less taught in a modernist style, post war architects taught in a modernist style. We have the I don’t know if we’d still call it at that phase, the success of Brutalism but at least the explosion of brutalism- the huge council house building program and social housing programs.

And suddenly, there is an urge to create a coherent catalog of items that’s appropriate to this new modern townscape. And there they all are in this in this book, and it’s a optimistic moment where the architects are both imbibing the the vocabulary of these older things that, that were that, that were the sort of perennial ephemera of the traditional city, and then also asking how could these be made modern?

How could we do a suite of urban things which create a coherent cityscape, create a much more harmonious city? But they don’t last. That’s what’s so [00:17:00] interesting, as you say. This is 1976, within three years, Thatcher is in, and the, there is a huge reaction against Modernism. So it’s almost like the last moment of Modernism, when Milton Keynes is built around this time, mid 70s, and suddenly local authorities are encouraged to bring in Victorian, faux- Victorian lampposts or faux Victorian benches. House building goes funny.

It all goes neo vernacular. And that moment, that very brief moment of faith in Modernism is lost again.

[00:17:30] Tim Abrahams: So what we have is that Modernism successes are, on a city scale, big stuff, brutalist buildings, they go, oh, we’ve let the modernity run streetscape. We need to address that.

[00:17:45] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah.

[00:17:45] Tim Abrahams: Too late.

[00:17:46] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah. And also, what’s interesting, I think, with that book is that in 1976, the backlash against Modernism has already begun, it’s already taken root. So the streetscapes they show are not necessarily, the South Bank or the the huge [00:18:00] reconstruction projects, but rather they’re little town centers with the pedestrianized high streets. So they’re already understanding that they need to integrate this modernity into the traditional townscape, and there’s already a , I think an appreciation that the love for Modernism runs pretty shallow in this country.

[00:18:15] Tim Abrahams: The drawings from that book are very interesting, I think, because it is almost a domestication of Modernism.

You could get your Arnie Jacobson chair for your inside your Georgian house, you could also create modernist street furniture for a traditional village. It’s very tasteful. It’s very classy. There’s a long history of equivocation between British people and Modernism, but I take it the other way, I take it as this strange moment of a page 17 of Street Scene 1976, Artist Unknown.

That to me is the architecture of civic Modernism. When you put that word in front of it, civic, you suddenly, you’re located in the 1970s and you’re located in a street landscape in which [00:19:00] you can make choices, there’s offers, Yeah.

There’s choices rather than it being this slightly terrifying space that you talk about, , outside the Seagram building

.

[00:19:10] Edwin Heathcote: The William White suggestion of yours is exactly right that, he looked at this modernist plaza, which was commonly taken to be a failure. And he just filmed it. He filmed people on a sunny day, eating their lunch, eating their sandwiches, chatting to each other.

And it’s a roaring success. But the conventional wisdom is that these are windswept plazas or concrete monstrosities. And once these clichés come into being, they’re difficult to shake, they’re, people somehow subsume, because it’s repeated so often that they, it’s the , it’s the same as, politicians use a lie.

A lie sticks, whether it’s, a certain amount of money that comes from Brexit, or a certain amount of money that the Labour Party’s going to tax you. Those figures, they’re repeated ad infinitum, and they begin to stick, and people begin to not question them. And it’s the same, I think, with Modernism.

The, I [00:20:00] said that Modernism never really found a footing here, but it was never given a chance. It was, there was always another, there’s always a reaction to a reaction. So I think there’s, there’s a there’s another chapter in a book about Milton Keynes, and the street furniture in Milton Keynes is absolutely impeccable.

So the streetlights are placed at the junctions of four paving slabs, in the center of the cross. And you don’t really read it unless you’re walking and looking for it. When you look for it, you think, Oh, that’s so neat. That’s so nice. That’s such a, it creates a beautiful, perspective of a grid with these street lamps perfectly placed. And then of course when they put a new Victorian one in , they don’t put it in the end, the grid. They goes somewhere right off the grid, and you in, and oh, this is just obscene. The Modernism was so careful and it was so considered.

There is this idea that that, Modernism didn’t really care about people. Modernist architects just wanted to build their vision. It’s quite the opposite, actually. It’s beautifully executed. But then, when it comes to the street furniture,

[00:20:58] Tim Abrahams: when it comes to the street furniture, [00:21:00] it’s where you get this tempering of it.

Yeah. And it comes late and to be fair to the critics of Modernism, it does come, from your description, it comes late in the, it comes late in the day.

[00:21:10] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah. But I, I was in Rotterdam a couple of years ago and they have a 1950s precinct there. One of the first big rebuilding schemes after the war.

And it’s extraordinary to walk through because you, they still have the original vitrines in the center. Like they show in that picture in the seventies picture, the trees are in the right places. The benches are the original. The original benches, the bins are recreations of the original bins, and everything looks, everything looks like a fantastic mid century landscape.

Now it looks super fashionable.

I can offer you a can of

[00:21:41] Tim Abrahams: raspberry cider, or I can offer you a gin and tea. I think I’ll go

for a gin and tea, is that alright?

[00:21:45] Edwin Heathcote: That’s amazing.

[00:21:46] Tim Abrahams: My pleasure. Thank you for coming.

[00:21:47] Edwin Heathcote: Oh, it’s still cold. Nice one,

[00:21:49] Tim Abrahams: what happens to the street furniture in the 1980s, , both in London and elsewhere? It goes Sorry, I’m just about to open my can. There we go. Cheers.

[00:21:59] Edwin Heathcote: [00:22:00] Cheers.

If you look at 1976 There is a didacticism implicit in that. This is the tasteful furniture that a decent architect should use. And that tone breaks down in the 80s.

[00:22:12] Edwin Heathcote: The 80s becomes, much more individualistic. I want to specify whatever I want to specify. I’m not going to be hectored to by some dim council jobsworth so then there is that attitude in which people want more freedom to be able to specify.

Then there are the big private developments, the beginnings of these POPs, privately owned public spaces, and the huge developments like Battery Park City in New York and Docklands here, Canary Wharf, where the effect is slightly historicist, a little bit Chicago 1920, a little bit 1950.

It’s slightly aspecific in, its in its period, so it’s not entirely modern, it’s modern with historical influences. So it’s it’s a version of Postmodernism in that everything begins to break down. This notion of a a [00:23:00] tasteful Modernism that was propagated by the Design Council from, let’s say, the post war era to the 1970s begins to fade.

And and, in a way everything falls apart. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting things happening, but this Modernist idea of street furniture being capable of tying a city together that’s gone. That’s gone now. But now street furniture is not really specified by councils anymore.

It’s specified by private developers and the stuff that’s specified by councils because local authorities increasingly have their budgets stripped away from them. is the cheapest possible solution, so it gets degraded aesthetically until it’s just the most basic. Now, if we look at the poles that were put in for 5G or the latest street lighting, there is no effort now to think how could this be interesting visually?

Could this perhaps satisfy another function other than the one it’s, the one it’s intended for, and no is the answer, no, this is just a pole. It’s an [00:24:00] extruded, piece of steel and that’s it, you’re not getting anything else. Interestingly though, people are innovative and people have ideas and it’s quite, people immediately fly post these things.

They, there, there is a traffic accident, maybe someone is killed in a cycling accident, stabbed, some kid is stabbed somewhere. And these things then become appropriated as memorials, they, people tie flowers around them, they paste pictures of the people who’ve who’d died.

They, they become, something that people remember. Every year people lay flowers at these things. So there’s a interesting way in which people have a capacity to adopt and adapt even the most banal pieces of street furniture.

[00:24:40] Tim Abrahams: Do you think that’s something that’s particularly happened as the banal?

Do you think that’s as much a reaction to specific incidents as the general banality of the design, the way it’s going. There’s an appropriate, there’s like a, just an instinctive human response to make it personal. Make it speak, make it human.

[00:24:58] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah. Yeah. [00:25:00] But I don’t necessarily think it’s an aesthetic judge. I think people are doing it, this sounds cruel, I don’t mean it to, but people are doing it in the same way as a dog pisses on a lamppost. The dog isn’t interested in how the lamppost looks, but, what it represents and the fact that it has a certain , accretion of smells or whatever it might be.

People are looking for a way to personalize a place. And if the vertical element happens to be a lamppost or a 4 or a 5G pole and there’s interest that’s fine, that’s the thing that can be used as a temporary memorial or as a notice board or whatever it is. I was Writing this book as COVID hit and there was this incredible moment, which I was just following on social media because I couldn’t quite believe where a group of people there was a conspiracy theory came about that 5G was spreading COVID.

And so people started attacking these poles. A lot of them didn’t, they weren’t functional yet. They were just steel, guns. But they started, spraying them [00:26:00] and hammering them, sawing them down. And they became, it was almost like a witchcraft. These things became a locus for public anger. And it shows actually in a way that these things do still have a place in the landscape. They are still discussed and thought about in some way. I thought that was interesting.

[00:26:15] Tim Abrahams: Yeah, there was a lot of conspiracy theories around COVID that you were like, what’s wrong? But there’s a little bit of right in there as well.

This is such a imposition into our public space. There must be some evil intention behind it, I’m going to register my, I’m going to concoct a ridiculous story but literally this thing that’s sticking out there, I don’t know. I’m going to attack it.

[00:26:36] Edwin Heathcote: I think that’s right. I think there’s a lot in that actually, and the the particular conspiracy theory itself is almost irrelevant.

It’s the idea that these things are invading our public space. But COVID was a really interesting moment so I was writing this during the pandemic.

[00:26:50] Tim Abrahams: Had you decided to write the book before?

[00:26:51] Edwin Heathcote: I had, but then as I was doing a lot, the research for it, walking around, when I say research, what I mean is walking around actually and taking photographs on my [00:27:00] phone. it’s not really research.

[00:27:01] Tim Abrahams: You, to be fair, I asked, I was I have seen you do it and you are dedicated to it. You do your hard miles.

[00:27:06] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah, no, I do. I love walking and I think, actually, funnily enough, people sometimes say to me, when they ask me whether I have any hobbies and this is it. Walking around cities, looking at how they work, I absolutely love it. And it was almost perfect timing.

We had these mandated exercise walks, which is just what I needed, wandering around looking at how this stuff works in the city or doesn’t work in the city and how people use it. The benches suddenly were taped off, as if there was, there were plague victims a bench in a park, which is the perfect place.

To be when there’s a pandemic was taped off. ’cause they didn’t want people, I dunno, snogging on benches or whatever. So there are these layers of morality imposed on these things as well, which occasionally bubble up to the surface, which make, I think is what’s makes them so perennially interesting.

[00:27:52] Tim Abrahams: One of the things that you do in the book, specifically around COVID, is that You go to Clerkenwell Green and [00:28:00] there’s a piece of writing which you attempt to emulate Georges Perrec’s?

[00:28:04] Edwin Heathcote: Yes.

[00:28:05] Tim Abrahams: Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about that.

[00:28:06] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah Georges Perrec, this avant garde French writer decided to do a project in which he observes absolutely everything in a particular place. So everything that happens in real time to see how deep you can get into a nature of the everyday. And that in itself was inspired by a photo, by Edouard Boubat of the Place Saint-Sulpice, in Paris. It’s a rainy day and there’s a, and there’s a fountain. And you can see the activity around the square.

And he goes to the Place Saint Sulpice, and he sits at a cafe table, and he takes notes. He begins to take notes. What’s happening? A guy walks by with a baguette. Another person walks by with an umbrella. A woman walks past, well dressed, pigeons fly up, buses go by. And, this is on a loop, pretty much, because, what else happens?

Not much. There’s a bit of an argument. There’s a bit of a car, collision. But really, he does this for about three days. And actually, not really anything. And the [00:29:00] notes get sparser and sparser because he’s said it all before. I think it’s called an attempt at exhausting a description of a place.

and I thought that was an interesting model and it might be interesting to to flip that and do it with street furniture. So rather than look necessarily at the animated residence, you look at the inanimate residence of a square, and also the way that people interact with those.

So there were street lights, there were bike racks, there were benches, there had been a public toilet there that was close for construction, I just. taking photos and watching people and taking notes for as long as I could. Perec lasted three days, I lasted about four hours, but it was a very small space.

[00:29:32] Tim Abrahams: What did your reflections lead you to?

[00:29:35] Edwin Heathcote: If anything, I think what came out of it was an appreciation of the sheer amount of street footage. If you have a generous assessment of what street furniture is, bike racks, manhole covers, former public toilets, paving, so there’s a, there’s tarmac, but the tarmac had peeled away and it’s showing the cobbles underneath.

So there’s a lot of things, there’s a lot of things going on in the public realm there. The pub benches outside, which had, [00:30:00] which took on a particular character in COVID because the pubs were shut, but the benches were still in use, so that the ghost of the pub lives on through furniture that becomes public. There were a lot of things to notice.

[00:30:10] Tim Abrahams: When I read that piece, it made me think of an enduring idea of the public Just at the moment when, that sense of the public was in crisis and as it turns out that, that optimism largely well placed.

There’s issues that have perhaps been highlighted or come to the fore as a consequence. But in another way, it’s almost, we’ve re learned to re cherish that but actually that piece, when I read it and understanding the context in which it was written

the timing of it was like it’s a intimate scale of memory of public activity.

[00:30:44] Edwin Heathcote: I think, you’re absolutely spot on that it highlighted the relationship we have to public space, because suddenly we found ourselves in an empty city yearning for publicness in a way that we don’t usually, quite often we’re looking forward to going home at the end of the day. Then we were looking forward to being out, [00:31:00] and it was a really interesting inversion of that. of the conventional wisdoms.

[00:31:06] Tim Abrahams: We are never far away from London when we’re talking, we can look up and I can see the Swiss Ray, I can see the Gherkin here, and we’ve got the we’ve got Lloyd’s building above us. So we’re quite literally not far from London, we’re in it’s belly. But , how do you feel this history that we’ve been discussing is mapped against other cities you know?

Budapest very well. Hong Kong, the city you know very well. You’ve traveled in the U. S. How do those comparisons work?

[00:31:33] Edwin Heathcote: There are very pronounced differences in the extent to which publics are allowed to appropriate the streetscape. You think of the night markets in Hong Kong, in Mong Kok, or some of the hawker markets in Singapore, or the night markets in mainland China, where the, people bring out their carts.

And suddenly the whole streetscape is animated. I’m very fond of these food carts. And not so much the lunchtime sandwich places that supplanted [00:32:00] markets in this country, but the smaller scale hand carts as a way of completely transforming a street. That’s one aspect that, there’s a more informal attitude and that, that stretches to the Mediterranean as well the street can be transformed by the populations, and there’s an extent to which people are allowed to do that. In the Anglo Saxon world, there’s a, very heavy health and safety culture. You can’t put anything on a lamppost because it’s electrical and it might kill someone, and there is this idea that you can’t really appropriate anything here because everything is privately owned, not publicly.

So you put something on a piece of street furniture, you find actually it belongs to a landlord. It’s taken off two hours later. We’re sitting in a booth here in the city which was made for podcasts, and a guard, security guard, opens the door and checks us out. Is this, is this okay?

Despite the fact it’s got all the, permits , because it’s impossible to build otherwise in the City of London. But there is this culture here of sticking your nose in. You can’t do that, mate, you can’t put that there. You can’t take a photograph of that. And I think elsewhere is freer.

On the other hand the street furniture here is incredibly enduring, I just walked [00:33:00] here from Bank station and there’s an 18th century pump on the way, which survives, the last hand pump in the city.

Next to it, the drinking fountain from the 1870s in granite and then there’s a statue of Reuter, the news pioneer. The dragons that mark where the city ends. And if you look around, there’s a real profusion of really interesting things.

But on the other hand, in the States, if you watch film noir from the 40s and 50s, these incredible black and white things taking place on the darkness of the street incredible lampposts, beautiful, cast iron, bronze lampposts with intricate moldings and globes on the top and they were just all ripped out, in the 60s because people were bashing their cars into them. And they were damaging fenders, so they took the lampposts out. So there are these moments in which entire layers get removed and they, they’re slightly tragic really. These things were probably only put up in the 1910s and by the forties they were already taking them out because they damaged cars. So things which become ingrained as classic items in the cityscape actually didn’t have much of a life.

[00:33:56] Tim Abrahams: That’s the downside of that intimacy that, that this [00:34:00] layer layering of architecture has with people. That you touch people’s lives, but also you’re the first thing to go.

[00:34:08] Edwin Heathcote: And actually a lot of this is linked to technology. In the 1930s parking meters come in the States, the 1950s or 60s they come in here. But, the original parking meters last 20 years and they’re replaced by different ones with new coins because decimalization.

Those have been replaced with these big tanks, you’re forced to spend ages, messing about putting in your details, your date of birth, your car registration number. You used to just flip a coin in. And before that you used to just park without any meter, so in a way a lot of this stuff actually does make life harder, so I think sometimes we also maybe need to acknowledge that a lot of this stuff is alienating actually.

[00:34:43] Tim Abrahams: We’ve been skirting around the edges and talking about this change in relationship between the public and the private. We live in cities which are vast now, we have this huge and ever growing diverse needs or backgrounds, [00:35:00] sharing public space yet.

But then you also have what you’re just talking about where it’s very likely we are tracked more by cameras in a public space. We have situations where we give our information away to use public facilities. And so there’s a diminishing of privacy, there’s a changing relationship which is not entirely positive. How do you foresee that continuing? What physical qualities, does that give public space?

[00:35:28] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah that’s pretty interesting. It’s a big subject and I’m not sure I’ve got a very intelligent answer, but I think the irony with public space is you can go to public space to be anonymous. So that’s part of the attraction of public space historically, is that you can melt into the crowd.

This Edgar Allan Poe, Man of the Crowd, fantastic short story about a man who follows from a cafe in London a guy through the crowd for days, he just keeps following him until the narrator begins to realize, actually this guy [00:36:00] exemplifies the crowd. He’s a nobody. He’s an anonymous urban character. And that’s what you could be in the city. You could be an anonymous urban character. You didn’t have to feel that you were surveilled. And there’s an irony in that. In a way, you could be more private in the public space than you could in private space.

If you’re at home, everyone knows where you are. You’re on the end of a phone. If you’re in the city, you’re melting into the background and that’s flipped now. Now there is nowhere where you’re not instantly assailed by, by technology, by CCTV and AI is exacerbating that.

In Europe they have rules against facial recognition in the streets, for instance. He absolutely loved this idea that everyone can be identified at any time.

[00:36:36] Tim Abrahams: But without any of the people getting arrested. That’s the funny bit. There’s like a failure of public authority.

[00:36:41] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah.

[00:36:41] Tim Abrahams: There’s like a total success of public scrutiny. Yet a total failure of public authority.

[00:36:45] Edwin Heathcote: Accountability. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

[00:36:48] Tim Abrahams: It’s not very, it’s not very happy, not very upbeat. But I thought it was very interesting when you were talking about that actually Appropriation is a form of fight back you say you’re not quite sure how [00:37:00] conscious that is.

[00:37:00] Edwin Heathcote: I think there are conscious ways of doing it. So there are these parklets for instance, where people, it started in San Francisco where active urban activists and landscape designers would feed a meter. Feed a parking meter for a day, and then in the space of that car, they would then put up a little park, really, it’s a some boards and a little few plant pots and a couple of benches. But, in a way that was great. And that became actually a thing also in the pandemic, can you recolonize the street? So if you think about parking in the city is this insanely inefficient mechanism for leasing out public space, it’s incredibly cheap. If you think about the value of the city.

And that showed, that was a very creative way of showing the absurdity of and, but at the same time, it also shows a way forward that there are ways of appropriating parts of the city that maybe we haven’t thought of yet or are now being done by young activists, sometimes as protests, sometimes it’s like this sort of thing, a little architectural projects [00:38:00] pop ups.

Sometimes they’re super cool. Sometimes they’re silly. Sometimes they’re not very practical. This is okay because we’re under the Lloyd’s building, which is one of the most surveilled places on earth, so it’s going to be fine. But you probably wouldn’t put this in, in near another location, a few miles east because someone would be living in it. I’d be living in it. That’s quite nice. Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got drinks here, the light, it’s not bad, so I think that experimentation is still going on, and there are these huge shifts in tech radically shifting the amount of street furniture.

There’s a lot more stuff now in the streets with surveillance cameras, 3D stuff car registration cameras. There’s an awful lot more of this kit. And then there’s all the pressed metal boxes that contain the housing for the phone exchanges and the internet cables and so on.

So there’s a huge amount of stuff appearing. And it’s not like Paris in 1867 where , it was a city architect who was thinking about this. How can we make the most beautiful street light that, gives a beautiful light. But then also. Beautifies the city, maybe we don’t think like that [00:39:00] anymore. But at the same time, we could think a little more.

[00:39:02] Tim Abrahams: If you could change one bit of public street furniture in London, just get rid of it, the thing that drives you nuts, what would it be?

[00:39:12] Edwin Heathcote: A strange answer there is this anecdote in the book somewhere, I think right at the beginning, where I was in New York and I was in a mid, town hotel, quite high up, 30th floor, 20th floor or something, looking down, and I suddenly realized that because, the time difference, I wake up at 3.

30 or something there, ridiculous time. And I can’t get a coffee, and I’m really super addicted to caffeine. And I asked the concierge but he said, no, there’s nothing around here.

And then I went back up to the room, looked out, and this guy started setting up a little coffee and donut and bagel stand under a cart. And I could have kissed him. He was a Syrian immigrant, . He didn’t speak English that well, but we had a chat. I got my coffee, I got a bagel,

and. This thing glowed in the darkness of the street. It absolutely glowed. And there was nothing. Midtown New York is bleak, at night time. There’s really nothing there. And I thought how incredible [00:40:00] it was that this small thing, this car that someone stuck on the back of a car has been cobbled together in the Bronx somewhere. How it could transform an entire cityscape. Five blocks were transformed by this. Loads of people there going for their coffees, security guards, cleaners, all the people , who had to start work at a silly o’clock in the morning and, the idiot who just couldn’t sleep.

And. I like those personal interventions. So it’s somewhere between street furniture and a shop. It’s a kiosk or something that animates the street and then it’s gone suddenly. I like that the impermanence of it the paradoxically huge effect that such an impermanent thing can have on a street market stall, those kinds of things.

In London we’ve lost the markets to lunch. They’ve all become sandwich places or, apps or whatever they are now.

[00:40:45] Tim Abrahams: Don’t knock the Peruvian bar down.

[00:40:46] Edwin Heathcote: They’re great. They’re great. But they’re quite expensive and they’re for a very specific audience. And they’re exclusive actually. They’re for the office workers. And there were fruit and veg markets and junk markets and antiques markets.

Those things [00:41:00] which are shrinking and disappearing, that I think I would revive.

[00:41:03] Tim Abrahams: It’s quite hard to be operative about Street Furniture. Because it’s expressive of a culture behind it. You can introduce new things which you think could be good, but in many ways, there has to be so many other things going well. For it to be able to be commissioned, executed, designed. And when things go badly, it’s not so much a sign of design, it’s a sign of economics, politics,

[00:41:28] Edwin Heathcote: so we think of street furniture as a publicly provided good, as something that the local authority or the privately owned public space or whatever it is, provides to the public. Okay. as a way of making the city work. But there are other things, there are very small things so occasionally, you have a pub, and there will be a brass shelf running around, usually below the windowsill of the pub, to put your pint on.

But you could put a handbag on it, or a coffee cup, or whatever, and if the [00:42:00] pub’s closed, you can still use it. Those kinds of things which are extremely low intervention, really very little effort, but they can really refine an Urban experience those kinds of things which are amorphous in their ownership, They’re privately owned but the pub no one’s gonna mind if you put your coffee cup down for half an hour Or if you’re with a baby and you’ve got a bag full of nappies and you put that down, those things are cheap to make, cheap to maintain and you can radically improve a small moment in city life.

Those kinds of things are underrated. Those shelves in particular, places to put things down So

[00:42:35] Tim Abrahams: Grafton Architects when they did the Biennale. I remember them describing, is it Florence, there’s a bench outside

[00:42:44] Edwin Heathcote: The Palazzo Medici. Yeah. That’s very interesting. The way that’s interpreted now is that this was the Medici’s giving something back to the city. They were in this fortified palazzo. Bankers, obviously. But they wanted to say, look, here is a grand generous gesture. You can [00:43:00] sit on this stone palazzo. But then I also read that actually the people who were waiting to go groveling in to see them had to wait outside on these benches in the sun, in the rain, before they were let in.

So in a way, it was a way of making people feel small. You know that they were you could see who was supplicating to the bankers, by these guys way. So there are two ways of reading these things. It might be a generous public gesture. It might have been a way to ultimately wine people up.

[00:43:26] Tim Abrahams: But it becomes, you are right. You’re right. It becomes a gesture if you make a gesture in public. It’s a public gesture. Yeah. Yeah. And you are as soon as you start doing that, even if you do it for utterly reductive reasons, you can’t control it.

[00:43:42] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah. You can’t control it. Once you let it into the city, you can’t control what happens there. People sleep on it. People abuse it. They have their lunch on it. there’s nothing you can do.

[00:43:49] Tim Abrahams: Here’s to the the pod

[00:43:51] Edwin Heathcote: it’s a nice pod. It’s got a very John Hejduk feel to it.

[00:43:54] Tim Abrahams: It’s got a very Hejduk feel.

[00:43:55] Edwin Heathcote: It’s got a beam that’s exactly the right height to smash your head into. [00:44:00] [00:44:00] Tim Abrahams: As I have already done.

[00:44:01] Edwin Heathcote: It makes you think about architecture.

[00:44:03] Tim Abrahams: By way of just wrapping it up, one of the things I’ve noticed since you published on the street, and you’ve got a separate, Instagram account with on the street?

[00:44:11] Edwin Heathcote: Yes, I do.

[00:44:12] Tim Abrahams: And you are doing quite a lot of that street photography yourself.

[00:44:15] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah, Yeah.

[00:44:16] Tim Abrahams: How deliberate was that? Has writing the book encouraged your eye along that line?

[00:44:21] Edwin Heathcote: It has trained my eye a little. The amount, the sheer amount of streets I’ve been looking at, it has honed my eye, but I don’t rate myself as a photographer.

I’m recording. Things. You say street photography, but really I’m just taking slight snap snaps of things, which are interesting. And occasionally they accidentally become quite nice. .

[00:44:40] Tim Abrahams: No or I could be making a very rude remark about street photography in general.

[00:44:43] Edwin Heathcote: Yeah, you could ,

[00:44:46] Tim Abrahams: which I’m not, but it’s more the observation is everything in street photography. Composition great. Yeah. But it’s the observation.

There is a Vivian Maier photo of a bin in, I think it’s Chicago.

And they used to have [00:45:00] these wire trash cans in public spaces in the States probably fifties. And there’s a naked baby doll in the bin, and it’s a completely haunting photo. It’s the best photo I’ve ever been ever taken it’s not predictable what’s going to make an interesting photograph, it really depends on what you find it’s that contrast. This caged doll that makes it so great.

Thank you so much, Eddie. Thank you. Great talking to you. Great talking to you.

And off, we went on our Merry way into the city with my eyes, suddenly much more alert to the rich layering of design in our public spaces, the way in which bars spilled out into the streets and signage directed me on my way alive to the positive impact of design in the public realm.

But also at times, It’s glaring absences. What are all these boxes doing everywhere and our streets these days. Thank you so much to add for your time. The book on the street in between architecture is available from Hani publishing, strong recommendation for me. Thank you also to Nasios and Era from Urban Radicals and of course to Eliza at the London [00:46:00] festival of architecture for acting as a matchmaker between the podcast pod makers. And the podcast makers. I always hope to make podcasts that are relevant to the world immediately around us and think. And I think talking about public space with R D. As part of a festival that exports public places.

Exactly. What we should be doing during this season. Of festivals. And of course let’s not forget the election of public debate as well. And that’s it for the summer folks. I’m taking a break. Getting some writing done over the summer. Working on a book project , Look forward to talking to you soon. [00:47:00]

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