Two very different people with two very different approaches to public space design: Paula Scher and Axel Timm both spoke about the power of design for public spaces at the What Design Can Do conference.
The crowd and organisation seemed thrilled to have graphic designer Paula Schrer (Pentagram) speak at the What Design Can Do conference last week at the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam, some had even travelled from abroad.
Schrer is a New-York based designer and told the audience about a number of pro-bono cases she had worked on in previous years. One such project is the High Line project for which she was approached by two idealists who had the idea to transform a disused rail track into a public park.
Schrer explains: “I gave them a logo and they would go around asking people for endorsements. They became known as two guys with a logo.” The logo got a life of its own and endorsements by some big names ensured the PR machine got rolling. Eleven years later the former railway is a luscious green public park with great signage.
A few other projects were discusses, among them a new signage system for NY public parks which makes park rules more legible, allows park maintenance workers to easily chance signs and is multilingual thanks to symbols over text. Also a number of school projects were discussed in which graphic design and artworks helped not only kids and teachers but neighbours and locals appreciate the building more.
Schrer was asked whether she thought taking free cases was actually good for designers and answered: “If you do it for free, it’s a favour and you hold the power. In the end, a project needs to actually happen and you can make it happen through your work. As a designer you can elevate the expectation of what a design can be.”
Honouring his friend a co-worker Matthias Rick, Axel Timm – of well-known and inspiring architectural practice Raumlabor – told of how a depressing, crime-ridden train station was turned into a cultural meeting place.
Social architects Raumlabor aim to create projects which change the user’s outlook. Take the ‘Eichbaumoper’ for instance: an important hub which connects both cities and surrounding housing estates has been transformed into a centre for cultural activity – including a container-built opera house and boxing ring. “Local kids who call themselves Eichbaumer got involved in the project and helped write and perform their own opera”, says Timm.
The station used to be a place where visitors felt unsafe and didn’t want to stay a minute longer than necessary, but thanks to cultural activities the Eichbaum station is now a place where locals can come together and enjoy the space. Starting with an inflatable structure in which a small group of local musicians gave free concerts, the projects grew and grew to become a fully-fledged opera.
It’s testing and experimenting over short periods of time which make the collaboration (for a company they are not)’s projects so fruitful. Temporary structures and bubble kitchens get onlookers interested and neighbours talking to one another, successful ventures can then be implemented on a more permanent basis elsewhere.
So what can design do for public spaces? It can make them better. Good graphic design can get people to look differently at the space around them, enjoy a new perspective on buildings, amenities, public parks. Social experiments can bring neighbourhoods together, get people talking and give them a new outlook on existing areas and structures.
Main image: Paula Schrer at WDCD Photo Leo Veger
Other images: 1.-3. Paula Schrer High Line project 4.-7. Raumlabor Eichbaumoper photo ©: Rainer Schlautmann
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