Between the Open Brief and the Concept Designs – Exploring the Challenges

The Castle Gateway designers have been reading the New Public Spaces Open Brief, analysing the issues and crystallizing the challenges. Through a series of My Castle Gateway public events and social media conversations we used this analysis to draw out key questions that can be used by the designers to shape initial design ideas over the next six weeks and then ultimately by all of us to explore and test the designs to ensure they respond to the Open Brief.

Phil Bixby says:- as an architect I’m used to presenting design ideas:- it can be a tricky stage of a project; on the one hand it’s nice to present design solutions which you feel have responded creatively to the brief and created something positive, but on the other it’s probably a point at which some honesty is required around checking that the brief really has been addressed fully, and that the client (and in this case the public) isn’t simply swept up in the joys of the clever design achievements and loses sight of the often essential but more mundane aspects of how it will perform.

But, as many people asked, what will the new public spaces be like on a dull, wet day?

The landscape architects at BDP have done a good job at looking at the Open Brief and the site, and carrying out an initial analysis that is very diagrammatic in expression and issue-based in its structure. The document they have produced is a working document and won’t be published seperately. However, the underpinning work by BDP enabled us to use their analysis as a prompt for building a set of questions – which we did both via social media conversations and via a series of online events. These questions will now be used to help inform the design process and give us a public engagement framework for exploring and testing the intial design ideas when they emerge.

There’s a structure to this process of questioning, which came out of the way it evolved. The starting point for all this was the Open Brief. This document pulled together many months of public engagement – events (from back in the day when actual physical walking-around-in-groups was possible) which included walks and workshops, discussions with specific groups (such as MySight) and events which deliberately brought together people with different viewpoints (Pasts and Futures, Dec 2019). The Open Brief was framed as visions (“people will be doing this…”) and design challenges (“the issues around this will be…”), and structured both as a set of themes – playfulness, movement, etc – and the specific locations of the main spaces.

BDP’s landscape architects have started with this framework. Their analysis document addresses the key issues that they identify and relates these to the themes and locations, looking at:-

  • Connectivity with the townscape
  • Uses which serve the city
  • The river edge
  • History / Heritage significance
  • Spatial changes
  • The built relationship and setting

Drawing on their anyalsis, we shaped three workshops which addressed themes which we knew to be key to the Open Brief:-

  • Flexible use of space at different scales – Reflection, Remembering and Coming Together
  • The riverside – Bringing the Foss Closer
  • Trees, Ecosystems and Us

These three themes – which were explored both via social media and online events – brought up a wide range of questions.  All the virtual Post-Its and social media posts are here on Flickr with tags beginning with “riba1space”, “riba1foss” or “riba1trees” respectively. What we found was that there were common themes – for example trees were discussed in relation to the riverside but also in relation to wayfinding and framing of views, water in relation to the riverside and features in public spaces, etc. So we took a number of key questions and used a fourth event – Drawing Out the Connections – to explore these and to check for and address both connections and gaps.

The final set of questions which were collectively developed are set out below, along with sample grouping of Post-Its and social media discussion on Flickr.

There were questions around the ways in which the space might be multipurpose, both over time and at the same time:-

How will the designs enable large events, smaller community events and everyday use?

  • How can the design enable multiple things to be happening at once? Flickr
  • How can the design enable large event set ups and sound checks? Flickr Minimise conflict between loud music events and residents? Flickr Deal with queuing and temporary enclosure?
  • How can it not look like a windswept concrete wilderness when nothing is going on? Flickr

…and how will the designs specifically enable quiet reflection and remembrance?

  • How will the designs enable the Mourners’ Kaddish to be said? To remember 1190 and also the other violent acts that happened in the area (from execution to transportation)? Flickr
  • How will they enable other quiet reflection? Flickr

There were a number of questions around the general use of the space for different purposes, in different conditions and in different ways:-

How will the designs enable people to spend time there without spending money?

  • Are there accessible public toilets? Are the toilets open in the evening? Flickr
  • Is there seating? What sort, and how will it enable low cost community performances? Flickr

…and also allow people to get food and drink when they want it?

  • How can we keep economic benefit local? Flickr
  • How do we deal with litter and recycling – both bins and mopping up after events etc? Flickr

…while also being playful and attractive to children and families?

  • Are both practical elements – seating and paving, and features such as water or fountains, being used to make the place encourage play? Flickr

There were questions about the quality and function of the space:-

How will the designs respond to wind, rain and cold, and how will it be after dark?

  • Is there shelter, and how do people stay comfortable? What sort of shelter will there be – is it natural or built? Flickr
  • How will evening and night-time activity be enabled, and does the lighting help people to navigate? Flickr
  • How will lighting respond to needs for safety, for wildlife, and for bringing joy to the place? Flickr

…and how will the designs help people find their way and use the space, and reflect its histories?

  • Will there be conspicuous, memorable meeting places? Flickr
  • Will the designs work for people who are blind and partially sighted? Flickr
  • Do all design decisions acknowledge the history and the wish to make it accessible? Flickr

There were many questions around trees and the Foss and shared issues of ecology and biodiversity, but also how trees bridged between these issues of natural environment and use as structural, sculptural elements in shaping space and views:-

How will the designs enable greater access to the Foss?

  • Can we get onto the same level as the Foss or can the Foss come to us? If we are modifying the bank, is more space for water being used creatively? Flickr
  • How do the designs work with changing levels in water, and do the designs help people interpret changes in level and flood issues? Flickr

How will the designs enable biodiversity, despite heavy public use of the area?

  • How with the trees attract birds and provide winter colour, and how will planting attract pollinators? How will the designs link with existing natural features to create green corridors? Flickr
  • If trees are added or taken away, what are the considerations in each case? Flickr
  • How will the geese fit in with the designs? Flickr

The next steps

These questions will be put to the BDP landscape architects as they develop and present their initial design proposals. Further public engagement – via social media and online events (and when possible physical events on site) – will be organised once we have a clearer picture of how the design process is developing.

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