Vamos a la calle


David Chipperfield
2 April 2022
Published in La Voz de Galicia

The issue of traffic in the small towns demonstrates the problems of responsibility and the difficulties of governance in a horizontal rather than a vertical manner. David Chipperfield reflects on this in the opinion article published in the newspaper La Voz de Galicia.

One of the challenges facing all towns and cities is controlling the quality of development in a way that protects and enhances their unique physical identity and sense of place. Over the last 40 years, Galician towns and cities have suffered a loss of identity as a result of poorly controlled development and the indiscriminate demolition of old buildings. Along with the poor quality and insensitive scale of new building developments, the issue that has done more to erode the aesthetic and social integrity of so many towns has been the indiscriminate influence of the car.

Planners have prioritised the convenience and the importance of the car above all else. Streets that were once social spaces are now traffic highways cutting towns and villages in half and pushing pedestrians to the side. What is not compromised by through moving traffic is destroyed by parking. The ruthlessness of a process that prioritises practicality and engineering has eroded not only the physical identity of so many towns but compromised their social qualities and the importance of a street not only as a place but also an idea of common space.

Reinforcing this erosion of public space is the destruction of what we might call the ‘public floor.’ Look at any old Galician village or aldea that has avoided destruction and see the role that the pavements and surfaces play in creating a sense of consideration, attention, are and therefore importance to the status of public space and our experience of it. Invariably these surfaces have been taken away or covered up with the most brutal and ill-considered solutions that reducing the floor to a horrific collage of improvised and totally careless treatments. This is an attitude continued in every aspect of the common territory: signposts, cables, lighting and gratuitous furniture and planting pots. Sadly, this approach has become totally naturalised and unquestioned. Even with the growing awareness that our future depends on the protection of our physical environment and the maintenance of the principles of community, we seem unable to give this public space—the spaces that brings us together—the importance it deserves.

Within this context, it is encouraging to see the recently completed improvements in Porto do Son. The modest but coherent improvements of the port areas of the town are an important example of the reconsidering of public space and its role in the community. While the works are perhaps unremarkable in appearance, it is an important declaration of priorities and a vote of confidence in the spaces we share, the space that should belong to everyone but too often treated as if it belongs to no one. It is a project that tries not only to regain public space for the citizen by the more considered control of the car but also that demonstrates the importance of the place by the careful consideration of the ‘public floor’. Such projects are difficult not because they require enormous imagination or finance but because they need leadership, collaboration and the coordination of potentially conflicting interests. The concerns of the local administration, of Portos, of the fisherman, of the shop and restaurant owners all have to be coordinated with understanding.

We are without doubt at a new time of reconsideration of the natural environment, built environment and community. Going forward, projects that address our social and environment concerns will be given priority. European funding is correctly focused on such initiatives. As we begin to realise that quality of life is linked with quality of place, socially and physically we will learn to treat our settlements with more care and foster a planning environment that places these concerns in the front of all others.

The project of Porto do Son shows what can be achieved if forces are combined and priorities are clear. In this mixture of concerns, the role of the designers is not to be underestimated. Our profession is often guilty of imposing ideas and indulgences that are irrelevant, more intent to show our creativity than anything else. We are often encouraged in this to make initiatives that are more noticeable, more visible. But that is not good design. It takes courage by all involved to be confident in thoughtful planning and careful design based on quality of solution and material surfaces in order to deliver a convincing and lasting proposal. The project or Porto do Son is convincing because it demonstrates the importance of collaboration necessary to deliver a such project. This can be achieved elsewhere too.