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My MacEwen: Gillett Square’s sociable freedom

Jan Kattein

With the deadline for entries to this year’s MacEwen Award approaching on 12 November, Jan Kattein tells how less design is more at one of his favourite examples of architecture for the common good

Gillett Square Dalston London. Credit Store Schools and Projects CIC
Gillett Square Dalston London. Credit Store Schools and Projects CIC

Gillett Square in Dalston, East London, is celebrating its 12th birthday this November. A former council car park, it was transformed as a response to London mayor Ken Livingstone's 100 squares programme, with grey granite paving, a small group of trees, some lights, a shipping container, wooden decking, a row of retail kiosks.

Somewhere that ‘you do not have to consume’ is how a local resident describes it. ‘A blank canvas for a community to paint differently, every day,’ writes Hackney Co-operative Developments. Ian McMillan’s poem 'Gillett Square' calls it 'A place to be'. An urban space which gains meaning through use would by my description, a place not made for anyone but open to everyone. It is the square's architectural understatement that is its most valuable asset.

Urbanism today is obsessed with eradicating the unknown. We design to instigate good etiquette; discourage the unacceptable; zone and classify uses and users; regulate the unfamiliar; avoid interference. This preoccupation profoundly affects the shape and form of the spaces we design, smothering all acts of spontaneity, improvisation, impulse and impromptu creativity, constraining what makes us human. Gillett Square is significant because of its absence of a specific purpose. Less design gives the square the liberty to accommodate the unforeseen, host the unexpected and promote the unpredictable. Multiple activities negotiate the space at the same time. There are children playing, people hanging out in the sun, skate-boarding, playing a jazz performance and playing chess. Conversation and celebration stimulate friendly friction, encouraging a dialogue which teaches us all to be better citizens.

First floated as an idea in 1993 and realised in multiple stages – and with further work to surrounding buildings planned in the near future – Gillett Square continues to evolve. Accepting that it is an ongoing project allows it to adapt and change in response to the changing needs of its inhabitants. Embracing the city as a malleable entity creates opportunities to discover, as well as harbour, potential for innovation, learning, revelation, even inspiration – together.

Integral to the success of this square are a creative producer tasked with curating a busy events programme, accountable governance, a perpetual events licence and an engaged stakeholder group occupying the surrounding premises. Stewardship requires ongoing investment rather than a one-off capital expense. The success of Gillett Square makes me think that perhaps architects and planners should be paid from revenue budgets rather than capital budgets; perhaps contingency funds should be greater than project funds; perhaps it is time we accepted that the city is an ongoing project which will never reach practical completion.

Jan Kattein is director of Jan Kattein Architects, London and was commended for Blue House Yard in Wood Green as part of 2018’s MacEwen Awards. Click here to find out more about free entry to the 2019 MacEwen Awards

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