Define

/ Chris Simmonds / Places to live

Are you a man or a pack donkey? In his 1929 essay on the principles of town planning, Le Corbusier argues the case for the former. Purposeful and intentional in his travels, man walks in straight lines, economic, comprehensible and in deference to the car. The pack donkey, on the other hand, is lazy and always looks for the path of least resistance, following the geological features and topography. One is powerful, domineering and direct, the other unobtrusive and facile.

But, turning the argument on its head, we can also say that it is precisely this distinction that elevates the pack donkey over Modern Man. Camillo Sitte, the 19th Century Planning theorist, argues the case for animality (as Corbusier would have it) over self-mastery, creating a city which is distinctly human.

Where the grid favours automation and clarity of purpose, the medieval city has developed organically to reflect the movement of people on foot, the emphasis on instinct rather than dry logic. Moments of relief and delight punctuate narrow, winding roads. Asymmetric squares, with monuments positioned off-axis, create a sense of drama, whilst the modern piazza favours formality and order, the obelisk and statue positioned centrally as a destination, dictating the character of the space. The emphasis is placed on the object at the cost of an experiential sense of ‘place’.

Piazza Santo Stefano in Bologna defies orthogonal planning and lingers long in the memory as a result. The surrounding buildings are a part of the piazza, rather than an ornamental backdrop, experienced as much in moving through as lingering within.

Intimacy is a driver for enhanced civic presence the world over. Gillett Square in London is a delightful pocket of community spirit, the balance of formal planning and incidental excitement perfectly executed: this is the embodiment of a community ‘front room’, where colour and variety are prized over calculated precision.

Suburbs generally lack both the distinction of urban boulevards and the liberating space of a rural environment, but with careful planning they can develop a character all of their own, that will embed itself in living memory. At Grangemouth we turned the negative space that edged the site to our advantage, imagining the embryonic community as a unified whole, connected through geometry and material composition to build a chorus of open spaces that sing together, individually defined but part of a distinct whole.

Lilybank Wynd too shuns the orthogonal to create idiosyncratic ‘leftover’ spaces that are easily identifiable and recognisable. Simple architectural forms that sculpt the terrain, cutting through the contours to order the courtyards.

Modern man, with his automobile and strident purpose, has his place, but there is a nobility in the pack donkey that belies his (or her) asinine reputation. The balance is not easily struck, but without it we risk sterilising our public spaces, particularly in suburban neighbourhoods, these places between centre and edge that forsake the in-built gravity of urban civic infrastructure: a definitive sense of place is crucial to their survival and prosperity.