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Place, Identity, Culture

November 20, 2018

Last week I spoke at two conferences on opposing sides of the country. First, the 11th International Urban Design Conference in Sydney and then International Cities, Towns and Communities in Fremantle.  My presentation at both events summarised Cultural Capital’s experience delivering a number of significant projects for Transport for NSW, including Wynscreen, Interloop and the Public Art Masterplan for Australia’s largest transport infrastructure project – Sydney Metro City and Southwest.

These projects are emblematic of an infrastructure boom that’s taking place in Australia. Metro projects alone in at least half a dozen Australian cities will leave us with an infrastructure legacy for the rest of the century.

A theme of my talk was the opportunity these infrastructure projects offer to create a parallel cultural legacy. Our research of Metro systems around the world that have implemented significant cultural programs confirms the many benefits that flow from art in transport infrastructure. One of the most powerful of these benefits is the transformation of railway stations from places people fear and dread to ones they enjoy and seek out for their cultural value. This experience has been borne out locally by a couple who chose to get married under Interloop at Wynyard, integrating this dramatic piece of cultural infrastructure into one of the most significant moments of their lives.

Chris Fox, Interloop, 2017, Wynyard Station, Sydney. Photography: Josh Raymond

Art’s transformational effect on Metro environments has a corresponding impact on the customer experience, changing it from homogenous and dehumanising to distinctive and human-centric.  At Cultural Capital, we often speak of the power of art to generate the sense of distinctiveness that makes places attractive. At this year’s conferences, the value of distinctiveness in creating place-identity was a theme for many speakers, demonstrating that there’s clearly a growing interest across the spectrum of urban development in looking at place in new ways that lead to contemporary urban outcomes of distinctive character.

In the early stages of any project there’s always a truckload of information about place. Loads of facts and data, all of which must be considered within appropriate professional domains. But facts and data alone, dealt with in professional silos, don’t lead to distinctive place-identity. For that, another, more holistic way of looking at place is required.

One way is to do this is to view place through an artistic lens; looking beyond the data to draw on insight, intuition and our senses. From this art-thinking process a place-based vision can be developed that encompasses meaning and articulates purpose. Increasingly our clients are seeing the value of this type of creative vision to set infrastructure and development projects on a human-centric path. At the inception of the project a creative placemaking framework is articulated that carries the vision and manifests distinctive identity through every aspect of the project’s design and realisation; the architecture, landscape, art and engineering – right through to the project’s branding and marketing.

Daniel Buren, Diamonds and Circles, 2017, Tottenham Court Road Station, London

Cultural placemaking is the tool that enables the vision, meaning and purpose of the project to be brought to physical, tangible life. With art and culture, we can weave threads of distinctiveness and identity through the built form to create cultural ecologies that foster relationships between people, communities and place. The ultimate effect of these relationships is the sense of belonging our human spirits crave.

We summarise this approach as Place, Identity, Culture. When each of these pillars is considered and a holistic strategy put in place to develop them, our work creates capital; helping to attract incoming financial capital to development projects while ensuring that they leave a legacy of outward-looking cultural capital for generations to come.

– Mark McClelland