Projects: Shape of the City

Urban environments are full of hidden design. It can be found in the form of the architecture, cut into the fabric of the buildings, written as letters on stonework, or seen in the layout of the streets themselves. These, and numerous other intended or accidental features, are the component parts of the aesthetic of a place. This is the shape of the city.

These design features provide a wealth of design resources. Elements that can provide components for the development of pattern design, abstract forms, typography and a myriad of forms that the designer can incorporate into their work or simply use as inspiration. Often this is a question of scale, or more precisely scales. Of drilling down through the layer of the environment, identifying and isolating forms that can be repurposed. The form of a building, its architectural structure, the practical and aesthetic features – from window arches to door knobs – can all be utilised or at least provide inspiration.

In the ornamental exuberance of Victorian and Edwardian structures there is a particular wealth of material. Here geometric shapes, classical hierarchies and forms, ornaments, strapwork and floral additions can often be found in abundance. Isolating , modifying combining or repeating these elements can result in new and sometimes unexpected designs. For example, the ornate facade of the building that now houses the NatWest Bank in Lancaster is replete with carved heads, orders of columns and pilasters, and beautiful strapwork – a wonderful example if the skill of the artisans who built and designed it. But amongst the complexity are simpler shapes that have equal value and opportunities for repurposing. Simple geometric ornaments such as a circle incised by a broken cross, or the rounded arched forms found at the top of capitals, can be found and utilised.

Shape of the CityShape of the City

Shape of the CityShape of the City

Almost directly opposite from the bank is a the building that once held a large the Co-operative Society store – constructed in 1901. Like the Bank, the building holds an array of beautifully constructed stone ornaments and strapwork – as well as the beehive symbol of the organisation and a Lancashire Rose – and on the upper storeys are wonderful geometric patterns wrapped around and between pilasters. While on arches are columns found on the ground floor are wonderful curving strapwork elements and more incised geometric patterns.

Shape of the CityShape of the City

Shape of the City

Even the lettering that adorns a large frieze on the the upper reaches of the building have features that include complex circular protrusions, overlapping elements, and unusual ‘bulges’. Each of these features is part of the form of that building, and collectively they result in the overall ‘design’ of the structure. But individual elements can again provide material that the designer can find useful.

All of these elements add to the cumulative form of the urban environment. Consciously, or unconsciously they inform and affect our perception of a place. They both create and impart character to a city, forming and adding to the overall shape of the environment. This acts at the macro level – three dimensional space of an urban area, and the internal spaces formed by buildings and streets. And at the micro – in these feature-level scales that includes the architectural design and styling.

Shape of the CityShape of the City

From the point if view of a designer this urban ‘shaping’ provides an enormous capacity for design resources and inspiration. Patterns, shapes, letters, design styles as well as the historical and social knowledge that underpins them, are all there to be adapted and reused. Even decay and broken elements are useful, or ephemeral features – even to the point of shadows cast by the buildings themselves. It is just a question of observing, noting and realising these resources.

This observation isn’t simply an invitation to e extract design content from the environment, but more an argument for increasing our appreciation of our urban places – of the places we live and work in. It is an appreciation that comes from gaining a greater awareness of the rich design and social history of a place: of observing and considering. Perhaps even to take time to look beyond the surface detail and to dig a little into the story of a place or of a building.

Digging can be fun, and unexpected in what it brings up. Shape and patterns invariably lead to people, places, histories, unexplained events, and more questions. To the form and shape of a place.