15 February 2013

Call 999 – it's a Public Realm Emergency!

Diploma students performing an architectural intervention

Diploma students performing an architectural intervention in Hammersmith caused such a stir yesterday the police had to be called.

Students from Oxford Brookes and Barcelona were transforming a dank and neglected space where the A219 meets Hammersmith gyratory beneath the A4 flyover. Strictly speaking, it was a Spanish tutor who caused the commotion when he wandered up on to the flyover to dangle sheets over the side. No one told him 90,000 vehicles a day travel along the A4 and that pedestrians are banned. His spirited attempt to convince officers he had a right to be there added to the sense of theatre which, according to organiser and Brookes tutor Harriet Harriss, left the mayor of Hammersmith “a little bit shellshocked”.

The 35 students had been set the task of repurposing the unpromising space, considering its kinaesthetic qualities, and responding to the issue of homelessness. After two days of scoping and plotting they began. One group in orange hats strode around banging things with orange sticks as a response to the noise of the roaring traffic which assaults pedestrians in three dimensions. It was also a convenient way of attracting attention in an area people tend to march through with their heads down, en route to somewhere less hostile.

Another group marked out the dimensions of a flat in the Trellick Tower using tape. They created a ‘home’, complete with cardboard TV and flowers, into which they could invite passers-by to come and discuss housing and public space.

All this caused quite a commotion. Drivers tooted, and pedestrians ‘popped in’ for a coffee. The students were advised by the kinetic artist Barry Martin, whose work appears in the V&A and Tate, who has created his own response to the space. It is currently a small acrylic model but if he can find the funding it will be a 17ft high piece of bullet-proof glass into which he would carve a lattice of lines inspired by the traffic that circles the Broadway, veering off in various directions. It would refract sunlight by day and car lights by night – and be rather more permanent than the students’ response.

Harriet enthused about the flyover’s “articulation of its ribs” and “latent elements of beauty”. Barry also appreciated its “scalloped ribs” and “rather beautiful line as it carves its way across Hammersmith. But it has very little sensitivity to what’s around it. These infrastructure projects achieve what the client wants but what gets left are many redundant spaces that pedestrians have to cope with. Those negative spaces are spiritually very offputting. It really has that feeling – if you stand under Hammersmith flyover on a grey day it feels like a giant hangover above your head. The world is now filled with these huge dehumanised, despiritualised spaces. We were trying to tackle that.”