Communities and Public Space: by Architect Iliona Outram, RIBA « Canning Town Caravanserai

Communities and Public Space: by Architect Iliona Outram, RIBA

Today we have forgotten how to build a community and what to do with public space in the city. But Public Space is where you can see the values of a community. Today, cities all over the world are seeing extremely high migration from climate change disasters, wars, politics, and economic need. This has made our cities and towns much more multi-cultural. But people are living “parallel lives” and not communicating. We depend increasingly on technology to communicate, and our values have become self-centered, leading us to develop the city into a large suburbia.
Public spaces are where so many diverse peoples must find a way to meet with a common human language, to live together in peace. We need a vision to start, a process to continue, and time to evolve with all the participants.
Canning Town Caravanserai offered a short term experiment in public space as a community garden with workshops and a performance place. To this, we added the Caravanserai Dome, built by public participation. The group of London residents, (with origins from the U.K., Greece, Turkey, Spain, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Lithuania) picked up unwanted bricks from the local area and with simple tools, hard work, and much fun and games, provided the Caravanserai with a small dome, seating for visitors at the open air concerts or during barbecues, or taking a rest after gardening. There were planters between the seats, and an acoustic interior perfect for music and meditation. The dome was originally intended as a Ceramic dome, to be glazed and fired in-situ, with heated seating inside, however the expiring lease of the Caravanserai garden was imminent and we did not complete this stage.
They say that when the tree dies, its seeds scatter and grow elsewhere, and we hope that the Caravanserai concept will do the same. For us, the next dome was the “Ceramic Dome Tagore” in India which was glazed-fired. It is a colourful focus for public space in Santiniketan, within which Tagore’s words are glazed, “Move out of yourself and look within, you will hear the sound of the universe echo inside”. The lacy brick dome typology, with its arched acoustical seating, was originally developed by architect Nader Khalili, as the “Rumi Dome”, with myself and with many students and volunteers in California, USA.
Like traditional domes, it embodies a cosmology, and also tangible ideas about community, a sense of place and of being at home in the world. Both the product and the process are an induction into ideas for a new urbanism that is rooted in tradition, yet suitable for the 21st century. These ideas can apply to a ceremonial space like a dome, or to a simple house or office space. Our process is a fusion of Architecture and the Universal Elements, deriving design decisions from the qualities of elements such as earth, water, air, and fire.
1) Unity within Multiplicity. The dome is generated from a single point in the centre and from that point the dome is spun out like a pot on a giant wheel, by the hands of the builders placing each brick around this central point, guided by a compass tool. After the dome is finished the compass is removed and in the centre becomes space ready to receive reflected sound. The multiplicity of many bricks of different colors and sizes, are each focussed towards the dome centre, and the message of sound vibration is received at that point of unity. We experience by analogy how the many small actions in a person’s life builds the “home” (body and mind) that he or she will inhabit, and building “in harmony” with universal laws such as gravity require guidance from the heart.
2) Inner space and outer space are one. The lacy texture of the dome walls give the sense of enclosure while at the same time allowing our eyes to see 360 degrees around. We see small pieces but our mind completes the 360 degree picture. Thus inner space is clearly a continuation of the space outside the dome. This brings to mind that space is infinite, but known to us by enclosure of a portion.
3) Earth, Water, Air, and Fire as tangible principles are in balance in this dome. The air flow follows its natural patterns of spiral motion, the earth (bricks) is in compression in its natural mounded arch forms, the dome’s round shape creates natural movement of heat and cool due to the sun’s orbital path (fire), and of course the material itself is a fusion of earth, water, air, and fire to become ceramics.
When the building or place gives the inhabitant a conscious experience of the material elements, and when we work with our hands and we touch the natural materials, we access a shared human imagination. This is important for the poetic imagination of the people who belong in the city’s public spaces.
As the philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard wrote in his book Water and Dreams: Imagination and Matter,
“……there are, as I will show, images of matter, images that stem directly from matter. The eye assigns them names, but only the hand truly knows them. A dynamic joy touches, moulds, and refines them.”
Our next workshop on building community and a house with the universal elements is in Spain, is hosted by with master mason Salvatore Gomez teaching Catalan Vault building, and can be found on and on Facebook