No Sense of Place  by Mike Freedman is an excellent contribution to the discussion about creating a sense of our place and expressing who we are through our architecture, city design and public art.  It is a much needed discussion at a time when Cape Town is preparing for the Design Capital of the world in 2014 and aims to be a unique tourist destination.  Importantly, it is an opportunity for all Capetonians to relook at our public spaces and what they could say about us. Are they soul makers?  Read more about public art and bureaucracy as a creative block at: http://scenicsouth.co.za//2012/02/ct-design-capital-of-world-where-is-public-art/

No Sense of Place

As I ascend 15 floors from car-park to plush offices in yet another aluminium box, I think of all the other aluminium boxes we now use for departure and arrivals, from bus terminals to airports.   The functional has triumphed over the aesthetic (although users of Cape Town airport plodding through corridors and caverns lugging luggage may well question what function this serves beyond making airline travel nearly agreeable by comparison).  The global bland eliminates our sense of place.

Arrivals, whether by plane, train or lift should create a sense of expectancy, a prologue to the story that will unfold.  Departures are the epilogue -“ a last glimpse, an invitation to return.  This is as valid for the once in a lifetime trip as it is for the daily commute. The architects of New York’s Grand Central Station captured the excitement & larger than life qualities of the city; the original train station in Johannesburg had Pierneef paintings of scenes around South Africa decorating the main hall, giving the place a sense of centrality – all railroads lead from & to the City ofGold

Today, a sense of wonder is a luxury, as our places of transition have become cages for captive consumers filled with persuasions to buy.  Economic necessities do inhibit individualistic structures, but in our race to the bottom-line, we leave in our wake a numbness of being anywhere & nowhere

Transition (and public) spaces should display the local pride of art, sculpture & design.  And spare us the Zulu love beads and photographs of the V&A Waterfront.  We need lateral, not literal interpretations of place.

Joburg is getting there

From Nelson’s Column inTrafalgar Square, to Michelangelo’s David in the main Florentine piazza, public statuary celebrates heroes & defines places.

Joburg of old paid public homage to the mineworker & today the inner city displays sculptures of more everyday heroes by local artists who grace the world stage.  Amongst them is The “Firewalker” -“ the unquenched spirit of an urban African woman, making her way with a burning brazier on her head.”   This eleven-metre tall steel sculpture created by William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx is visual proof of the quest to become a world-class African city. Photo on RHS

Newtown is the home of architectural recycling – a disused fresh produce market has become an iconic theatre, an old power station is now home to a global gold-mining company, fashion shows & corporate conventions – accessed from the Northern suburbs by a symbol of new hope, the Nelson Mandela bridge.

Other parts of the inner city are being reclaimed, piece by slow piece.  In its pomp, Joburg had more art deco buildings than anywhere in the world, save Florida. Some have gone, many others have been restored. 

Yet when you go to the suburbs, sense of history & place are lost!

While the poets & artists were asleep.  Peek into the gated communities of the rich.  Overwrought Tuscany rubs shoulders with grandiose Georgian, Spanish baroque & Balimansions.  Throw in a golf-course, with electrified fences & uniformed guards & you have a pastiche of everywhere & nowhere – a place where money shouts & the soul shrivels.  These captains of industry glide to their neo-classical office blocks in German limousines & shop in a faux Italian Renaissance mall.  The strangest thing about this is that it’s considered normal.

Then travel to the rows & rows of identical RDP houses built far from jobs – built without love – built to solve a problem, or make a buck. 

Following the fortress years of apartheid, with homes & malls shut off from the outside world, we uncritically grabbed whatever we could from the world’s larder.  While the poets & artists looked elsewhere, we lost priceless opportunities to express those moments of optimism – the hope of developing a new Africa for ourselves & the world to see.

 There are sparks – from the interpretation centre at Mapungubwe to elements of Melrose Arch – now we need an enduring flame

 Building a legacy

What are we as a country, as a city, as a neighbourhood?  What is our contribution to the world’s mosaic?  Our public spaces, whether they are a civic centre or a bus-stop, a street-market or a shopping-mall, define us as well as direct us.  Churchill intoned, “we shape our buildings & thereafter they shape us”.  If we shape global bland, that is what we are destined to become.

 If we believe in ourselves, we will build a sense of place for the generations to come.  We will mark our entrances and exits in unique ways.  Our children’s children will debate our legacy, often react against it to create new expressions & so a rich tapestry will be woven that at long last defines our place in the world.

 Reposted with permission from the author Mike Freedman of freedthinking.  Click to Email him  or go to: www.freedthinkers.com