During my formal education in architecture school, I was taught to learn how to read and manipulate the formal design languages of geometry and tectonics. In the academic studio, we spoke about materiality and ephemerality, skin and structure, and was told to ground it in history, theory and context. We were assessed on spatial quality and aesthetics and told that these qualities separated a building from a piece of architecture.
On most occasions, we were expected to answer the brief and on others, challenge it, and we did. My classmates and I imagined great plazas with impromptu urban life, streets filled with spillover activities, artworks to be discovered at backlanes, and rooftop film screenings. But we would soon discover that not many of these would materialize.
Instead, there were unused pockets of beautiful spaces, human-less lushly landscaped parks and vast roof surfaces as carparks. The renderings with vibrant activities manifested as empty beautiful spaces.
While many identified creative programming to be key, a lack of contextual relevance of what was proposed and resources to execute the good ones, has often led it to remain as latent spatial potential and many, including myself, have been looking for ways to harness this.
Today, we see acts of urban activation attempting to get closer towards fulfilling the potential of our built spaces. For example, the Experience Market during Archifest 2013 (which I was directing) is an attempt to turn an uncharacteristic and lifeless gravel area at Dhoby Ghaut Green into a vibrant marketplace under the canopy. Elsewhere, in the backlanes of Bangsar and Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, community gardens and resident-led parties by the likes of renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San and architect Ms Foo Hui Ping, attempts to bring relevance into these often forgotten but highly intimate spaces. Some ground-up and some empowered by intelligent organizations, projects like these are what reinforce my belief that photogenic spaces is only half the answer to creating a successful piece of architecture or urban space and it is the ability of people to use it meaningfully that makes a difference.
Space on its own, no matter how well made, will always be lifeless until we, the urban citizens, bring our own into it. In a way, the heartbeat of our places is actually ours. When we live our richly complex lives in these spaces, are empowered to participate in it and encouraged to take ownership of it, we tap into this latent spatial potential to make something magical happen- turning a mere space into our own place.
Call it placemaking or urban activation, they point to the same thing- allowing the space to fulfill its potential by imbuing the hardware with some heartware, and perhaps it is time we reconsider our definition of what makes a successful piece of architecture. As Lao Tzu was quoted as saying in The Book of Tea, “The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made.”