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    Designasaur 8 - Meet You At The Maul
    Ged Maybury - 21/5/99

    Suddenly, in the sixties, our public servants began foisting upon us a new kind of public place, the so called "Malls". And I can't help it: - when I hear that word I think 'Mauls' as in "Bull Terrier Mauls Toddler". Not a nice thought.

    Yes, suddenly our City Fathers and Mothers
    But-Mostly-Fathers-Because-We're-Talking-The-SIXTIES - here began to declare certain shopping streets to be pedestrian-only. The general populace went into a panic. How on earth could we shop if we couldn't drive right up and park outside?! [This was soon solved, thank heavens, by the arrival of the supermarket, and later the 'Shopping Mall'.]

    But I guess they were right, pedestrian-only (except for delivery vehicles, cyclists, skate-boarders and in-line skaters) was the way to go. Our cities began to get a new kind of Public Place. Gradually, over the decades, the street-walking-public gained the courage to make use of the strip formally known as 'road'.

    The most classic of these Malls, without a doubt, is Cuba Mall in Wellington. Other, less famous, works can be found in nearly every town in New Zealand, and all bear the same trademark characteristics. Paving, seating, trees, delivery vehicles. People drift about or gather like wild-blown rubbish. They sit, they eat, they try to make use of the public seating for comfort, or even more challengingly: - social interaction. There is almost always a fountain (ugly) or a sculpture (truly ugly), and lots of fading coloured plastic. And for some reason there is always the enduring smell of old squashed sandwiches.

    Now the idea for this, as I follow it, was spawned in Britain by some far-sighted city planners, no doubt after an observant holiday in Europe, who decided that their home towns lacked those sorts of charming, sociable, populated little village squares that are so characteristic of France, Italy, Greece, etc.

    So, lacking a genuine European village to meddle with they went and closed a downtown street, stuck in a few trees, some seating, a couple of ugly sculptures [there is a by-law that prohibits attractive ones] and (most crucial of all) a table with a cement chess board stuck to the top. And then they waited.

    And waited.

    And waited for the magical transformation to begin.

    Long before that happened the planners started doing it here in New Zealand too.

    I'm still waiting for the happy, toothless, mellow, character-full old men to gather each day and while away their twilight years under the shade of the trees playing chess, while the old wives gossip nearby and the grandchildren frolic in the dust at their feet.

    And it ain't going to happen, my friend!

    See the old guys are down at the RSA or the TAB. The old wives are parking their Honda Cities down at the supermarket or the bowling club. And the grandchildren are hundreds of miles away in day-care.

    What went wrong? Nothing that a little common sense and research could have avoided. All that Architectural Space Social Engineering stuff that was so optimistically babbled about back when I sweated through my lectures all those years ago was, and always will be, baloney. Human behaviour is barely altered by the glorious Architectural 'Spaces' we might create. Jam eight strangers in a lift and they will cope, safely getting out of there as strange as they went in. Stick a lot of paver-bricks and seating on a street corner and no-one will sit there, because it's still a street corner. Stick the same thing outside a café and they will use it, because now its purpose is clear (and they've paid for their coffee so by gum they're going to get their money's worth and bloody well sit there and to hell with the traffic fumes!).

    And the City Fathers (who, I suspect, have shares in a paver-brick company somewhere) are still producing these 'spaces'. Recently in my town they built us a 'Village Square'. And indeed, square it is. And dead bloody boring it is too. They cut down a rather hansom (if not very symmetrical) walnut tree to do so, too.

    In this 'village square' they stuck down a few hundred thousand paver-bricks, some rose beds, two basketball hoops (!), two classic rows of old-English style park seating (more on this soon), and the ubiquitous chess-board tables with fixed swivel chairs.

    Now these chairs are to die for. Or to be precise; to die on. The tables, for some mysterious reason, are at kitchen bench height at least and the chairs are these hideous metal acceleration couches high in the air that I can just imagine those happy, toothless, etc, etc, old men getting into (with help) then becoming cast. What would look like a rather protracted and studious game of chess would in fact be a double-death tragedy.

    Most horrifyingly, these ergonomic disasters were delivered to the site and balanced onto their places some three weeks before the workers finally bolted them down.

    But this story gets worse. There is no fence at the back of the 'square'. It just runs on out into a gravel wasteland, beyond which is a sort of a bus graveyard. There is not a tree in sight. There is a butcher to the south, and a mower-repair place to the north. The seating is in two opposing rows, precisely spaced to ensure no chance of anyone every having to engage socially with the occupants of any other seat [I think there's a by-law against it] or crowd around to have a family feed of F & C's. I've only ever once seen anyone on those bench-seats, and never on the chess-of-death seats.

    The only people to consistently use the place are a slouching club of bored-looking teenagers who always stand. Occasionally a bit of skate-boarding happens, but unfortunately the chess tables are too high for any decent stunting and the place lacks any other useful features to progressively destroy.

    Great! Archi-Social Engineering at it's best!

    So this week I'd like to award my Dumb Design Award to the guys down there at the district council for our startlingly unoriginal, unfinished and virtually useless Temuka Village Square. Well done, boys, you've kept to tradition!




    Published with permission from NZine