As I fly to Italy to select natural stone for a prestigious project, we are currently working on, I find myself reflecting on the contrasts involved in our profession. On the one hand the ‘no expense spared’ approach, involving costly materials, large budgets, big design teams, premium plants, dedicated and skilled maintenance teams; and the other ‘no frills’ extreme, with, well, less of everything, and everything of basic quality.
But here’s the thing – the size of the budget doesn’t always matter. This was made clear to me recently as I arrived early for a meeting in London. It was a part of London that I’d never been to before. It was busy and noisy with morning traffic. Trains clattered overhead and the grimy brickwork of buildings and the raised railway towered around me. I was alone in a part of the city where I knew nobody, and nobody knew me.
Yet, far from feeling in any way anxious, or even vaguely uncomfortable, I spent a very happy half hour seated in a small space on the street outside the meeting venue. Of course, it helped that the weather was sunny, but there were some fundamental aspects to the space that made it a joy to be in.
The place buzzed with plenty of activity, both vehicular and human. The space was positioned to allow you to keep clear of movement not blocking people on the pavement, yet safe from vehicles. The fact that the space was at the intersection of 3 roads made it like being in the centre of a stage with actors passing by on all sides; action happening all around. All the activity and the openness of the street made me feel incredibly safe. People were just going about their morning business, chatting with each other and taking no notice of me.
The space appeared to have been upgraded recently with timber planters and a few seats. No new paving had been installed; the plain pre-cast concrete slabs had been re-used. The furniture was solid and simple but functional and comfortable, with single-seater chairs arranged in pairs to allow conversation, and timber planters, possibly planted by local people, provided some close-up interest and, along with the falling leaves, providing direct contact with nature. The scale of the space was comfortably human. Mature trees gave a leafy character, and newly planted trees gave some separation from the traffic.
Nothing sophisticated but good, solid design principles: good location allowing both prospect and refuge, activity providing both security and interest, somewhere to sit down. Getting the basics right – job done.