City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Designing in the public realm is so difficult. When engaged on a project with public ownership the stakes are so so high, and the impact of a bad design isn't just reduced take-up or decreasing sales figures, but of being publicly, visibly drenched in vitriol.

Often, whether there's actual public ownership or not, it doesn't matter. With things that are actually publicly owned – the BBC or NHS, say, in the UK – the stakes are high. But the stakes are equally high when there is 'emotional ownership' – as in the BBC/NHS again, but also the aforementioned Routemaster bus, or arguments over the World Trade Center site. In the latter, Larry Silverstein owns the site – it's that simple, viewed on a commercial axis – yet that doesn't account for the intensely powerful public 'emotional ownership' of that space. Similarly, one could argue that the success of the Google, Amazon or Apple brands can backfire when they obviously act like the commercial entities they are, given how much the public rely on them, believe in them (cf. Google's 'political' problems; the iPod Battery Debacle).

And now we have a very English farce over the design of the Princess Diana Memorial Foundation.

The latter is now at the centre of a storm-in-a-teacup familiar to those of us who watched the Millennium Bridge story unfurl. What's telling is the tenor of the discourse around design and architecture here. These following quotes are from an Observer piece last Sunday (a paper which is in theory one of the UK's more sober, respected, 'intellectual' organs).

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP: "This sadly is another Millennium Bridge: great idea and it'll be fine in the end, but a great embarrassment we can't get it right from the beginning. One would have theought the engineers would have considered the potential problems. The priority now is to get it open again earlier than people expect, but this time to get it absolutely right."

Philip Dodd, Director of the ICA: "The problem with people building monuments in this country is they don't give enough thought to the public actually using them. The relationship between architects and engineers has to be umbilical. What the fiasco of the fountain suggests is that old-fashioned engineering skills need to be praised because when they don't work we end up looking foolish. From Brunel onwards, one of the great songs of Britain has been about engineering excellence. Cool Britannia was all about surface and looking good, but you need to be able to walk over the bridge or in the fountain without falling over."

I think the hyperbole here is somewhat ridiculous. It's unclear whether people are attacking the fact that the pumps are failing (which is clearly wrong and should be fixed, via that good engineering natch) or that there is a fountain you can walk into, which features flowing water, which then – guess what? – gets a bit slippery. To me, this is where the emotional attachment to this fountain is exacerbating the smallest of problems. Some people (three people) have gone into the fountain and fallen over and got hurt. Why are we surprised?

For those who haven't seen it, it's essentially a stone oval 210 metres in circumference with shallow water flowing over it – it is, by definition, going to be a bit wet. If kids are going in, falling over, how is that different to kids entering a stream and doing the same? This has happened forever and will happen forever. If parents want to watch their kids to prevent that, then so be it. Please do. No amount of design or engineering is going to prevent kids entering the fountain, or prevent stone and water losing their inherent characteristics. If the design is changed to prevent kids entering the fountain, that defeats the idea of the fountain in the first place, and the whole thing might as well be pulled up. Is it really the role of design to prevent kids paddling in shallow water, protecting them without engendering a sense of responsibility for their actions in either the children or their parents? How will that help when, god forbid, they actually encounter a real stream, where nature's 'design process' runs uncontrollably?

With agency comes responsibility. Surely, the more we make 'interactive' propositions, increasing the agency of users with that, the more responsibility the user has. It's interesting no one notes that there's not much preventing kids from entering the man-made, rather larger and deeper, Serpentine lake a few metres away, where all manner of drowning, head bashing, choking and gashing could occur. It's a potential deathtrap I tell you. Whilst I previously noted that any brave defence of the Routemaster bus's 'hop on, hop off' platform must deal with the number of deaths and injuries it causes per year, there are times when exaggerated debate around a subject will lead to overprotective and mundane public spaces.

I think what's happening here is the 'public ownership multiplier' kicking in, leading to an exaggerated debate refracted through a mass-mediated prism infused with maudlin memories of Diana. It's been argued the Millennium Bridge was entirely safe in its first incarnation. I'd guess that – save a few dodgy pumps – the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain (which sounds vaguely like a Frank Zappa track) is probably as safe as a publicly accessible fountain could be too. The likes of Dodd conjuring the ghosts of the great Brunel and the callow Cool Britannia is hardly helping an engineering process here.

As a designer working largely within the public realm, I'm all for engaging with the idea of public ownership, featuring true accountability and transparency, and really pursuing what that could mean, across multiple arenas. It's amongst the most powerful forcefields one can work in, and can be incredibly positive,  engaging and creative. Sadly, there are times when that same public ownership, when wrenched into the limelight by a media's tendency towards soundbite, can make a mockery of discourse around design and architecture.


6 responses to “Journal: Princess Diana and the public ownership of design processes”

  1. John Avatar

    Actually, a little attention to design might go a long way towards preventing falls. Is the granite surface polished smooth? Or is it rough and “unfinished”? A little extra grit and regular cleaning could make the fountain floor a lot less slippery.
    Of course in the U.S. there would be all kinds of benches and iron bars keeping everyone at least 20 meters away. And a full-time lifeguard. Public institutions are terrified of being sued here.


  2. Loz Avatar

    If three people have fallen over using it, what are the numbers for people who have paddled in it without misadventure?
    But, from the other point of view, it was designed intending for people to paddle in it, I would have thought they would have gone for some sort of crenalated service for people to step on…


  3. Dan Avatar

    RE the three – exactly my point Loz.
    I haven’t seen it since it opened – but looking at the BBC News story on the fountain linked above and this quite interesting story on the company that engineered the stone, the stone would seem to have all manner of chunks, grooves, steps etc.
    Fair point John – I guess I’m hoping we don’t get too over-protective or over-litigious over here …


  4. Marty Avatar

    I’m not quite sure I’m entirely following your thesis here. Given that it’s a central concept of the design that people will wade in the fountain, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that it should have been better designed to be a bit safer.
    I regard designer Kathryn Gustafson with some suspicion. Just ask the locals at Crystal Palace Park:
    “Not a single element of Gustafson or her team’s design is without a major problem despite the spending of millions of pounds. The Park resembles one giant building site with substantial spoil still remaining on the lower terraces.”


  5. AH Avatar

    i’m just hoping that it never freezes.


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