Will Wiles just can’t get away from the Place

I am writing this in the uppermost corner of the library at the University of East London’s Docklands Campus. A non-orthogonal ­window, tucked under the swoop of a Blair-era standing-seam roof, offers me a wonderful view. Centre stage are the towers of ­Canary Wharf in the blue haze. To the left is the runway of City Airport, its white planes lined up neatly with the odd subdued roar as one takes off or lands. In the middle, the waters of the Royal Docks, which today are as flat and drab as last night’s gravy. A giant expanse of weed-infested concrete nothingness lies to the right, between the DLR and the dock’s edge.

A classic ‘non-place’, then, of the kind that gives the psychogeographers a prickly sweat under their fleeces. Hinterland, post-industrial wilderness. But this nowhere is going somewhere. The empty lot will soon be transformed into the Asian Business Port London, an entrepot for investors from the Far East. The mayor promises that in no time at all, it will positively rain Renminbi. ‘A new business heart for London,’ the promotional site promises. ‘Energy and life on an epic scale.’ Crikey! Before my eyes, this non-place is going to become a Place. 

Its guarantee of Place-ness is the masterplanning involvement of Sir Terry Farrell. Place is what Farrells does. Sir Terry’s (rather charming) architectural autobiography, published in 2004, was called Place, and he’s often called a ‘place maker’. The 2014 Farrell Review of architecture and the built environment, commissioned by the government, had the subtitle ‘Our Future in Place’. In the introduction, he reveals his role in getting ‘Built Environment’ added to the name of the late Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. ‘I passionately believed it had to be about more than just architecture,’ he writes.

If Cabe was being set up today, rather than in 1999, I’m fairly certain it would be called Cap: the Commission for Architecture and Place making

If Cabe was being set up today, rather than in 1999, I’m fairly certain it would be called Cap: the Commission for Architecture and Place making. It’s not just architect-planners like Farrells. Housebuilding giants Berkeley and Ballymore describe themselves as place makers. It’s a popular term throughout the property industry, in fact, and among ‘third-sector’ organisations such as housing associations – Places for People Group, one of the largest, springs to mind. But so does Peabody, now headed by Lord Kerslake, former head of Sheffield council and the civil service. Kerslake recently proposed that chief planning officers be replaced by ‘chief place making officers’. Places are on the march. 

Where did this obsession with place come from? Happily, that’s what I’m trying to find out, squirrelled away here in the university library, as part of my more general work on the ‘urban renaissance’. Architectural interest in ‘place’ as a quality appears in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after ‘space’ – which the modernists saw as their medium – had fallen into disrepute. ‘Space’ was windswept concrete tiles, turning circles and grass verges. ‘Place’ got more sunshine. Whatever ‘place making’ is, it has been public policy for more than 15 years, appearing in the DETR/Cabe report By Design, published in 2000. And a lot of it comes down to the jolly urban renaissance business of making real life a little more like architects’ renderings, with outside seating, children carrying balloons, that sort of thing. 

I’m being a bit facetious – in fact architects can congratulate themselves on becoming pretty good at making ‘places’, which is to say pleasant public spaces. But I want to sound a note of caution. In learning the tricks of place, something of its mystique is slipping away. The early inquiries into what makes a good place all pursued its human, democratic qualities. Now, it is a commercial formula. 

When a term like ‘place making’ turns into a buzzword, it stops carrying as much meaning and becomes a mild sedative. If cracking the place-code is architecture’s greatest achievement of the past 20 years – its next job must be to resist the soothing tones of ‘place making’, to set down the cappuccino, to stop listening to the public piano, and ask who, exactly, is this place for?  

Will Wiles is a journalist and author