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 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
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
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
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!