How do you design something from the future that looks like it’s from the past?
The city has recently rejected the recommendations of the Heritage Committee regarding the development of a pedway crossing over Duckworth Street. Council concluded that, before this development proposal for an extension to the Marriot Hotel be allowed to proceed, a set of guidelines for pedway design was necessary to avoid a possible future filled with hideous dystopian skywalks.
“Are we trying to encourage a proliferation of ugly pedways across the city?” asked Councillor O’Leary, who expressed concern over the unregulated development.
Of course, the reason why there is no existing template for pedways in heritage areas in this city is because there are no old pedways.
And as for pedways in general, well, honestly we have no successful architectural precedents for dealing with these things. The Heritage Committee is right: MUN, Mile One, The Avalon Mall… Not that they are going to fall apart, but for the most part they aren’t exactly what you would call inspired.
Pedways are a powerful and evocative urban form, with the potential to be really interesting or really awful. They are necessarily futurist, in peoples’ imaginations and in film. The form of the pedway conjures all sorts of imagery of grain silos, factories, assembly lines, robotic industrial spaces. In Gary Burns’ 2001 movie Waydowntown, a group of co-workers make a bet on who can stay indoors the longest without going insane, using the Calgary “Skywalk” network connecting office buildings and malls. For Calgary, the pedway is an artery of corporate movement, an icon of dreary cubicle life. In other films, it’s a sign of super-futuristic urbanity. Think Tim Burton’s Gotham City, and even Metropolis from 1927, these sets use pedways as a part of a dystopic, overly-mechanized future.
But pedways don’t have to be like that. An international competition to design a pedestrian bridge was just won by Barcelona architecture firm Sanzpont, whose bizarre and awesome entry is worth looking up. Called the DSSH Bridge, it looks like a cross between a bio-luminscent deep sea creature and an insect chrysalis. Here, the pedway represents an opportunity for experimental architecture, and a dramatic experiential space for people.
It’s difficult to say with certainty whether or not the absence of regulation will cause the proliferation of ugly pedways. The Marriot Hotel expansion’s proposed pedway design (designed without regulations) is so far pretty innocuous, and it could turn out to be a great addition to downtown. We don’t have endless blocks of 20-storey towers to connect, we don’t exactly have a great public transit network to expand upon, nor do we have developers that are very open to experimentation. Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to influence a precedent, and so council is right to take it seriously. In the case of this project, it’s a heritage area but not a heritage form.
Even though the pedway has gritty urban dystopic connotations in film, and in the real world the form represents a cold functionalism which is antithetical to heritage areas, there is a chance here to do something interesting in a very visible place, something that could become a new iconic form for downtown St. John’s architecture.
Omission from last months’ report on the Southcott Awards: The design of Littledale/ The Tower Corporate Campus was by Sheppard Case Architects, who recieved a Southcott Award for this project.