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The entrance of the HSBC building in Hong Kong, designed by Norman Foster.
The entrance of the HSBC building in Hong Kong, designed by Norman Foster.

Why it’s time to reimagine public spaces using ‘interior urbanism’ Add to ...

With the weather increasingly temperamental, it makes sense that the quality of our interior public spaces should be better considered – and designed – by urban-planning professionals. Urban designer Brendan Cormier calls this “interior urbanism.” He’s the lead curator of design for the Shekou Partnership at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and explains here why the urban design discipline needs to be blown open to include interior spaces.

Why are interior spaces so important to our experience of the city?

I found this statistic [from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] that 90 per cent of our daily lives are spent inside. That’s our experience of the city – moving from one interior to another. So if, as urban planners, our remit is to improve the quality of life for citizens, the real question is: Why aren’t we focusing on the quality of interior spaces?

Does this lack of consideration have to do with increased specialization of the design professions?

Traditionally, urban planning grew out of the architecture field. Around the 1970s, you start to see a big split. Urban planning had an ambition to address a lot more than just space. Urban planners were identifying sociological problems and looking at policy tools. But what ended up happening is that urban planning forgot about space altogether. It became very abstract – massing, street widths, building envelopes. But there are a lot of details that I think are really pivotal in making great urban spaces.

Architects also play a smaller role in the design of interior spaces today.

Yes, architects are much more involved in the icon of the building envelope. What does it look like from the outside? What’s the impact? So interiors were marginalized into a very small field, which itself has been split between interior architecture and interior decoration. All these disciplines have really been subdivided. The result is it becomes easier to lose the bigger picture of how all these things interact.

What makes a great interior public space? What are some strategies for creating them?

Our primary conception of a building’s interior is that it’s private, so you need to go to great lengths to convince people that some interiors are public places, everyone is invited, you’re allowed to be there and you shouldn’t feel threatened. I think if you’re a designer, the psychology of the threshold is the thing you want to tackle the most: creating easy ways to enter into space, so people don’t feel like they’ve entered into a restricted space.

What are some examples of interior urban spaces, and what’s been the impact?

I’ve seen great interior public spaces at work, and those are really powerful. In Hong Kong, the ground floor of Norman Foster’s HSBC Tower is completely open, and you can walk through from one side to the other. It was used by Filipino nannies on Sundays for picnics. Now [the nannies have] started to occupy these above-ground walkways, which is also really exciting, though a little bit more ad hoc. In Canada, I think the Montreal metro is one of the country’s great public projects. There’s definitely a different feeling when you’re travelling by metro in Montreal than when you’re in Toronto, where the subways were never conceived of as public spaces you spend time in.

You work at the Victoria and Albert Museum now. How are public institutions engaging in this conversation?

In London, a great example of interior urbanism is the museums, most of which are free. The V&A has a very pretty courtyard. If it’s a beautiful day, it’s great to go and sit in the courtyard and eat your lunch. A lot of people will go and use the courtyard and not use the museum at all. And up until last year, before [the] Charlie Hebdo [shootings], you could really just walk in. Now, they’ve started to implement security checks and bag checks. It’s still free, you can still walk in – you just have to show someone your bag. But that immediately changes the whole experience of the museum as a public space. It becomes just a little bit less public.

What’s next for interior public spaces?

With libraries, and especially post offices, there’s a huge question about the future of these institutions. What can happen with the great public interiors that constitute our city? Our imagination for how people encounter each other in public spaces is really limited. It’s almost like we need to come up with a new inventory of public things that we can do inside. Maybe we don’t need better designers, we actually need better programmers.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Kristina Ljubanovic, a journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

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