Goodbye big box

As the world wrestles with a Covid-dictated new normal, so the opportunity for a fundamental rethink of the design of our transit hubs arises, writes Adam Scott and Hiro Aso

The city-based transit hub as big box is dead. If not before Covid-19, then certainly now, in the nebulous pre-vaccine world of business-as-unusual. And, strange to say, having for years railed against the efficient-effective agenda of the Smart city, it’s the data engineer – and not the architect – that we will have to thank for it. The task of how best to move the most passengers through a given space in the shortest amount of time is going to be replaced by the question of how to stagger people through that space in the safest possible way and, with it, ways of reimagining flow, dwell-time, and what, ultimately, we want our pandemic-proof transit hubs to be.

Masterplans tend to begin not with people, but rather with the function-specific underlay or structure. When it comes to large public buildings, add to this the ambition that it be an object of civic pride. Hence – when designing transit hubs – the focus on the big, eye-catching, single-span roof. The thing is, unless the designer, developer or client, we people tend to spend our time experiencing – looking at, spending time in, passing through – everything but the roof. Unfortunately, thanks to the time, effort, and money spent on said big roof, what’s left is what we experience: a big box marked by a big single-speed boulevard occupied by big retail. Rather than feel a sense of ownership over the design, we are at best awed. Thought of in terms of volume, we are the flow of numbers in a single-function enterprise. It’s probably efficient, hopefully effective, and usually alienating. It’s not a piece of our city.

“We’re after a hybrid of port and campus, a place to be – as well as to travel to and from.”

There is another way, whereby the focus is on people not commuters; the transit hub as a campus-like destination in its own right. The thought that we do not necessarily go to a place designed for travel in order to travel will surprise. However, as data for King’s Cross shows, many of us go for exactly the same reasons we might visit a Melbourne laneway: to rest, play, or work ourselves across a day staggered to accommodate a range of needs and wants. We are not all commuters, and even if we were, there is no such thing as only a commuter. We are also mothers and we are fathers. We are somebody’s child. We are friends. We are neighbours, citizens, partygoers, lovers. We are dawdlers and we are passers-by. We’re after a hybrid of port and campus, a place to be – as well as to travel to and from.

Critically, it’s a local hybrid, whatever its size, reach, and international standing. The biggest stakeholder in any development, not least a transit hub, is the local community. Being such, it makes enormous sense – socially, environmentally, economically – to create and manage in partnership with the local. Rather than play it safe, this’ll mean landlords risking not putting all eggs in the big retail basket, and to invest instead in a much more creative multi-basket retail strategy, one that makes use of dynamic tenancy agreement models to attract, host and grow local, independent, high value offers, that commits to principles of good (local) growth, and that understands the importance of working with likeminded anchors. For estate owners, the return on such an investment is considerable, not least in creating transit hubs that possess their very own personality, that are an integral part of the wider city, and that play, therefore, the kind of role in the community that fans of the big roof can only dream of. With Covid-19 battered big business in retreat from their self-styled ‘non-core bases’, there couldn’t be a better time to make it.

Being a hybrid, we’re not asking that architects, developers, and landlords of city-based transit hubs invent a whole new wheel. Indeed, even in sector, there are laudable examples from which to beg, borrow or steal. For a no-new-underlay approach, see Old Street’s delightful work with Appear Here, which utilises a labyrinthine entrance-exit floor to a Victorian-era London tube station into an extraordinarily vibrant marketplace. For inspiration for a rolling programme that makes for the most expressive (as well as efficient and effective) use of transit space, then start with Munich Airport, where the traveller experience is so much more than the business of catching planes. For the transit hub as a wider piece of city making, then see the role played by fieldwork studies of everyday lives in understanding in Tokyo’s Shibuya; the importance of the small and the narrow as a means of enriching experience.

None of which asks that architects and developers reinvent a whole new transit hub wheel. Indeed, even in sector, there are laudable examples from which to beg, borrow or steal. For a no-new-underlay approach, see Old Street’s delightful work with Appear Here, which transforms a labyrinthine entrance-exit floor to a Victorian-era London tube station into an extraordinarily vibrant marketplace. For inspiration for a rolling programme that makes for the most expressive (as well as efficient and effective) use of transit space, see Munich Airport, where the traveller experience is so much more than the business of catching planes. For the transit hub as a wider piece of city making, see the role played by fieldwork studies of local everyday lives in Tokyo’s Shibuya, alerting urban planners to the cultural and commercial significance of returning the narrow and the small to an area – and especially around the station’s soft and pedestrian-friendly edges – once famous for exactly this.

In short, we need to reimagine the city-based transit hub as something other than a big box delineated by a red line separating it off from the temporal and spatial messiness of the world beyond. Better transit hubs sans frontières, where edges blend into the city, where the flow of a single-speed mega boulevard is replaced by spaces linked, bordered or marked by the narrow and the small, where big retail is swapped for a much more locally relevant mix of activities, and where non-absentee landlords seek to negotiate creative partnerships with their neighbours. With transit hubs all over the world working out how to live and work with Covid-19, the need for a health-conscious staggered programme of flow is the opportunity for such a reimagining. There are now and necessarily many points between A and B. Data engineers, do your thing. Goodbye big box.

 

By Adam Scott, founder of Freestate (part of HASSELL) and Hiro Aso, urban transport leader at HASSELL. This article was first published on Architects Journal.

Image credit: The Oculus Transport Hub, New York, Shutterstock

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