While few of us would object to the idea that the public domain can do with all the creative and financial help it can get, I suspect I am not alone in the frustration I feel when the force of media and client attention on major public projects and precincts around Australia is directed at the specified works of art rather than the creators of the projects as a whole – most of whom have laboured for years under extremely difficult conditions to persuade and cajole the many and varied decision-makers to come together and make coherent decisions about what new form these places should take. These designers regularly take the back seat in discussion of the projects in the media while those designated as artists get the attention.
Why is this so and should those involved in urban design complain? Or should they simply be happy that their projects and work are ultimately in the public eye and appreciated, even if they hardly rate a mention? First, I would suggest that we lack the attention because we have failed to develop a very important aspect of our professional responsibilities – that of simply and evocatively articulating what it is about our designs that is poetic, that is evocative, that expresses or challenges the central ideologies of our time. That is what art does and, sometimes, that is what we as urban designers do. In important projects, it may be a major reason that a particular design team is chosen. The necessary pre-occupations of getting a major public domain project together, however, distract our attention from this fact and while we may be able to use the language of our professional peers, we are incoherent when it comes to telling the stories that capture the public imagination, relying on the place to do that for us rather than our own words.
In my experience, the thing that public artists or anyone educated in the fine arts do well, is to recognise the power of the articulated concept. High levels of writing and critique are accepted and inherent parts of education, of process and of the discipline. As a result when the stories are to be written, the ideas are articulated and ready for the media to use, in a language they understand – full of poetic inferences and meanings.
While there are important differences between what urban designers and artists do, if we want our cities to be thought of more as works of public art and our work more akin to the work of public artists, I suggest we have to learn from this aspect of the artist’s palette of skills. We need to articulate meaningful poetic imagery to convince and feed the communal soul – as well as keeping all of those engineers and project managers happy about the functional program, buildability and budget.