Remarkable examples of beautiful and truly generous design are popping up all around the world. By generous, I mean places designed for people to use, enjoy and improve – at no cost and for no profit. Here are five examples of which I am a big fan.
1. Copenhagen Harbour Baths, Denmark
I first visited the harbour baths when they opened in 2002. To this day I would still say that they are the single greatest example of generous and intelligent design anywhere in the world.
The baths form part of Copenhagen harbour and are in water that only 15 years ago was so heavily polluted with sewage, algae, oil spills and industrial waste that it posed a tremendous health risk. Today, after extensive work on behalf of Copenhagen municipality, the water is clean for swimming and the harbour hosts five pools, two of which are for children, and three diving areas, catering for more than 600 people at any one time. On the bank, umbrellas and chairs have turned the area into a city centre beach. This is a remarkable area filled with leisure activities for all age groups.
This is clearly not a PR stunt. This is magnificent generous design at work. It has allowed people to colonise this once harbour area and make it one of the most popular spots in the city. I think it has been so successful and affective for four reasons:
1. It is different, edgy and it breaks the rules. Swimming in a harbour? With big ships? Open to hundreds of people at one time and unguarded diving boards! It is exciting and inviting and you know if you lived there you would have to have a go.
2. The design is both beautiful and unique. Clearly, the function of a public bath would always be popular, but take a look it at. People cannot stop photographing it; social media pages and photo sites are filled with pictures taken from every angle. The look of it means people want to share their experience of being there and to talk about it. Given nowadays many live by Twitter and Instagram, the baths do as good as any job in getting a place in front of people. Fantastic promotion.
3. It is not overly policed. The signs are ‘swim at your own risk’. You get to make your own decision. How liberating is that? Can you imagine this in a canal or somewhere in the UK? Health and safety alone would heavily alter it. Tight rules and restrictions are not part of the game here. Just enjoy yourselves.
4. It is free. It’s genuinely for everyone.
And, I should add, it cost just over £0.5m. It is staggering what can be achieved for what is, comparatively, an affordable amount for most cities. These baths have been so popular that another one just like them was opened at nearby Amager Strand Beach in January this year. This is place people want to copy. It is replicable because it works. Just remarkable.
2. Magdeburg Library, Germany
Magdeburg, Germany, hosts an open air 24-hour free library. To do something so interesting in a city that is not a capital is really special. The rest of the story is even more interesting.
The industrial city was once part of East Germany and since reunification its city centre has had trouble recovering, with commercial vacancy rates approaching 80%. An extraordinary effort was made to create this open-air library after interest was expressed by residents, and it is remarkable that they pulled it off.
The library, designed by Karo architects, was initially assembled as a 1:1 scale made out of donated beer crates to demonstrate to potential supporters that the library could work. The community then raised enough money to build it. This is not just about an open-space library – it is also completely accessible to everyone. No registration is required. The 70,000 books available are borrowed on an honour system and it is staffed during the day by volunteers.
To do things like this, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. And if you do, people will respond positively. In this case the benefit of being created by the community really works. The design and the place is so impressive and shows how simple it can be to offer something extraordinary to everyone.
3. Merida Youth Factory, Spain
The scale of this project in Spain is mind blowing. Described as ‘less a junky jungle gym and more a creative community centre’, the array of activities on offer is staggering, ranging from rock climbing to dancing. A skate park winds through the plazas connecting the buildings (almost all the ground is actually skateable), and there is a concert stage, lessons in street art lessons, circus training and, if you head indoors, music and dance. And the whole place has Wi-Fi. Have you ever seen anything like it?
This is such a draw for kids of all ages. The design is just brilliant – modern, vibrant and fresh.
I am particularly enamoured with the approach towards skating. It really feels like it has been designed by people who know what skaters want. There are no assumptions and most importantly of all it is also not tucked away in a car park or somewhere the public cannot see. The message is that skating should be promoted, exposed and watched.
Equally, it’s not just about skating. The activities are for all ages, interests and skills. The place itself is so colourful and open (designed inside out) it stops it turning into something shady or dangerous. This is as good as it gets – a purpose built modern version of a youth club.
4. Stormwater pipes, India
This installation in India feels so right for the area it inhabits. Stormwater pipes are a common sight through cities in India. In Surat architect and designer urfun lab had an ingenious idea of covering one end of the pipes with coloured cellophane. When the evening sun filters through, beautiful and colourful patters are cast.
It is an innovative and cheap way to create interesting design. The pipes are so visually exciting that people want to explore and create. It is as simple as it gets.
Indians are often very good at upcycling and this is another example of that approach to improving something and giving it a whole new meaning. It needs only the smallest budget – and some creative thinking.
5. Blackpool Comedy Carpet, UK
Created by artist Gordon Young, and designed in collaboration with Why Not Associates, the Blackpool Comedy Carpet is a celebration of comedy on an extraordinary scale. Referring to the work of more than 1,000 comedians and comedy writers, the carpet gives visual form to jokes, songs and catchphrases dating from the early days of variety to the present. Sited in front of Blackpool Tower, the 2,200m2 work of art contains more than 160,000 granite letters embedded into concrete, pushing the boundaries of public art and typography to their limits.
A remarkable homage to those who have made the nation laugh, it is also a stage that celebrates entertainment itself.
More than anything else, I love how many mentions I have seen in the press. If there is one thing Blackpool needs, it is positive press.
This is urban design and art in the landscape working together in a seamless and perfect fashion. It celebrates kitsch, history and modernity, and has something for all tastes.
Visitors love the Comedy Carpet and they cannot stop photographing it and talking about it. Just look it up on Twitter or flickr or Google images, it is staggering how many images you’ll see. Bingo – success.