Aside from the Routemaster bus, London’s most famous landmark is the red telephone box – a classic piece of design by British architect Giles Gilbert Scott. But, sadly, both have been threatened by privatisation, and no doubt the third red icon – the letterbox – will be next.
In an ideal world, what should really be phased out is the chaos of Victoriana that dots our street corners and plagues our squares. I’m talking about the different variations of bollards, benches and bins adorned with council crests and gilded knobs; and lamp posts featuring ornate swirls and curls for hanging planters. Many of these are new, coming from a large industry manufacturing to suit the tastes of our local councils. There is little uniformity from one street to the next, either in terms of product or use of materials, and certainly no single statement for each district.
The upgrading works being carried out in London’s Strand is a classic example of haphazard street styling. It includes a new central division in the road into which has been inserted double-sided street lighting which is not only out of character with the area, but bears no relation to the existing ornate lamp posts. Two different designs in the same road? No wonder the average member of the public is lacking in design awareness, when confronted with this unsympathetic and often kitsch approach.
Street furniture is ubiquitous and covers a multitude of items, from bollards to bicycle racks. The most prominent and most used items are bus shelters and telephone boxes, although these are often installed with little thought given to location and use. They are also the most prone to vandalism and advertising, and therefore need continual maintenance. Admittedly, though, advertising in telephone boxes is not usually a permanent fixture – just people out to make a quick buck. As a result, many of the bids for street furniture must now account for supply, installation and advertising. This means the city council gets its new bus shelters at zero cost in return for the supplier getting the contract to operate the advertising space. Design takes second place.
In terms of contemporary design, the main thrust seems to be coming from overseas.
European manufacturers commission practices (often British) to design street furniture systems, and cities bring in consultants to advise on them.
One of the more successful projects is in Madrid, where new bus shelters designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners for Spanish company Cemusa are now making an appearance. These form part of a complete street furniture system based on a series of components that can be linked together to suit the site. The core of the bus shelter is a structural aluminium extrusion that incorporates continuous T slots or fixing points for the stainless-steel columns, glazing fixing assemblies and other items, such as digital display systems. The extrusion also provides a beam for the roof structure (made of cast aluminium arms and glass panels) while also catering for the drainage of rainwater from the roof. The result of this flexible approach means that the shelters can be single- or double-sided, with benches, telephones and advertising panels clipped on wherever required. The range is continually expanding and will eventually include litter bins, a newspaper kiosk and an advertising column.
In Germany, manufacturers Mabeg are soon to launch Metropolitan, a new urban furniture system designed by Sieger Design. The brief was to design a system based on a single profile, with a range of add-on components that could be used to build custom-designed furniture specific to the site. An aluminium extrusion again forms the basis of this range, with benches, canopies and fencing all simply slotting in. By using the individual components, it is possible to create bus and tram shelters, pavilions and pergolas, and framework and fencing.
Elsewhere, the City of Oslo has brought in consultants to advise on a new system in an attempt to clean up the streetscape. New York City has issued an open tender for all the street furniture (approximately 4000 separate pieces) with companies required to install and support through advertising. And the Ville de Paris has recently adopted JC Decaux’s bus shelters designed by Foster and Partners in the early Nineties. This system is based on a design of two structural poles and glass panels, with benches and advertising panels hanging off the pole. JC Decaux has a long history of working with international designers, and the portfolio now includes shelters by Knud Holscher, information columns by Oscar Tusquets and Foster and Partners, and street lighting by Philippe Starck and Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
Here in the UK, there are a few initiatives underway which would lead you to hope that a new awareness of our urban environment is emerging. In Liverpool, SHED Chartered Architects has come up with a scheme to adapt the existing street lighting, replacing the existing fittings with spotlights and banners. This will be adopted throughout the city’s shopping areas.
At Trafford Park Village, Manchester, the same practice has successfully integrated specialist street furniture in the form of runway light bollards and lit bollards into a multi-use commercial environment.
In London, the Spine Route project is underway on the South Bank. Funded partly by Government, partly by Lambeth and Southwark councils and partly by the South Bank
Employers Group, it includes not only new road layouts and wider pavements (bringing the South Bank back to ground level), but also new street furniture designed to give the area a visual identity. Architectural firm Lifschutz Davidson has designed the majority, including smart stainless-steel bollards with integral lighting, and lamp posts designed to hold banners.
Across the river, Westminster City Council has commissioned the World Squares for All masterplan. This puts Foster and Partners in charge of transforming the whole area between Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square – a perfect opportunity to upgrade the street furniture and lighting.
Some local schemes are undoubtedly making inroads into this area of urban design, but on a city-wide scale there is still much to be done. At the beginning of March, in a speech to the House of Lords, Lord Palumbo acknowledged: “There is an astonishing resource of talent in design in this country.” He went on to say: “We should apply that talent in order to improve every aspect of the environment we inhabit – street furniture, signage and public buildings.” Let’s hope our new Government will sit up and take notice.