Street Smart

The Financial Times’ architecture and design critic gets his steps in.

It is strange, now—almost unthinkably strange—to recall the period in which it was not legally permissible to leave one’s house for more than one daily excursion during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, at which time the outdoors itself became a threat and an object of desire. Unluckily, I contracted Covid in the first week of the first national lockdown in March 2020, and then watched in horror as the symptoms carried on, expanding with no end in sight; for some time, I was not strong enough to take even the daily walk I was allowed, and my bed became the center of my universe, my world diminished. When I finally ventured back out, it was as if I were doing so in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, which given the global death toll, I suppose I was—I suppose we all were. Everything was quieter, emptier, and stripped of traffic. Everything seemed novel, in a way that was frightening and also sort of thrilling. We became neurotic about being near each other, but we missed each other terribly, as well, and that tension gave every emergence into sunlight the approximate energy of a trip out for provisions in a zombie film.

In that first year, many people mentioned having developed a new awareness of the details of their physical surroundings. Had the grass always been that lush and verdant green? Had the local architecture always been that varied? It was as if we had let our eyes adjust to a new, unfamiliar light source and in doing so, had begun seeing things the way they really were. In this new reality, the street was the stage on which everything played out—drinking, socializing, exercising, dancing, dog walking, etc.—and so it made sense that the pavement became our entire world. Our interactions with each other became wholly public, and maintaining a strong preference for a particular park or bench began to feel important, like allegiance to a sports team or to a religious faith; noticing a minor architectural filigree you had never registered before while you were out on your regularly scheduled daily mental health walk felt like reason enough to keep living, since it proved that there were still things to discover if one bothered to look closely enough and to remain cheerfully maniacal enough to care.

All of which is to say that if I did not already know that On the Street, Edwin Heathcote’s new book about the significance of street furniture, was written largely during lockdown, I could probably have guessed. Not everyone made productive use of the peculiar derangement of that period, but the heightened powers of observation Heathcote demonstrates here have a distinct whiff of it—deliciously obsessive and meticulously detailed, his discursive, sometimes personal compendium of 101 alphabetized texts is a snapshot of a time during which street life became all of life. Structuring the book around his “officially sanctioned walks,” he writes, “gave me something to do on otherwise interminably repetitive strolls. But it also allowed me the time and space to see and find things that were, in their own way, wonderful.” “It was a world in which the everyday had disappeared but its armature…were still present,” he adds later. “The emptiness was the news.”

A designer and an architect himself, in addition to being the on-staff architecture and design critic for the Financial Times, Heathcote peppers in various references to other global cities—geyser-like fire hydrants in New York, say, or Milanese madonelle or the iconic Morris columns that house Parisian advertising—but invariably returns to the streets of London, where he took those “interminably repetitive strolls” during lockdown. Eccentricities and minor variations in objects that at first glance appear to be mechanically uniform please him especially, as in the case of the city’s many coal hole covers, whose “strikingly graphic” patterns are “a constant supply of delight if you care to look,” often prefiguring “1960s Op art with [their] swirls and checkerboards.”

That crossover between elegance and function, design and conceptual significance, is the thrust of On the Street, which draws on art photography, cinema, poetry, history, engineering, and Heathcote’s own family albums to shore up its central thesis—namely, that the most overlooked architecture in our immediate urban environment is also some of the most significant and interesting, and that paying attention to these details is its own reward. “Beauty is a much-abused notion in architecture and design,” he writes, “a charged word which brings with it entire worlds of politics, prejudice and nuance….The real charisma of these objects lies in the territory between the quotidian and the sublime.”

At its heart, Heathcote’s book suggests that training one’s gaze on a city, truly looking at it, reveals the best and the worst of humanity, just as it reveals the best and the worst of this particularly unstarry subgenre of architecture and design.

The situation of street furniture quite literally between earth and heaven, mostly at the level of our bodies, makes this observation more significant. There is nothing egalitarian about beauty, even if we all like to admire it now and then, but the occupation of a living, shitting, pissing human form is a universal curse, and the urban landscape necessarily shapes itself around the need to either support or repel these bodily functions. Heathcote, in spite of his academic knowledge and thorough research, makes no effort to disguise his glee when discussing the earthier aspects of our contract with the city, and this tendency toward rude and exuberant humor feels as quintessentially English as the book’s adoption of metropolitan London as its genius loci. “Pissing,” “Anti-Pissing,” and “Relieving” are three separate sections, and the first of these contains a deadpan reference to a “specialist sub-culture” that involved “dipping crusts of bread into the piss on the floor [of public lavatories] and eating it” in 1800s Paris. Effluvia, be it animal or human, is—if you will pardon the expression—all over the text, and al fresco sex is similarly well-represented, treated respectfully in the context of historical sex work and irreverently when it comes to sex for love and sport. A history of street illumination, while acknowledging its role in helping to prevent robbery and assault, points out that it also has a less progressive and more sexually fascist “moral” purpose: helping to drive sex workers away from well-lit streets.

Perversion and subversion, Heathcote seems to imply, both belong out on the pavement and out in the open, where they have the greatest impact and produce the greatest frisson. In a text about the humble bollard, he delights in some frisky, Carry On–style innuendo, rhapsodizing about the enduring ubiquity of “the urban lingam, the dangerously crotch-height urban dildo.” “The future,” he concludes waggishly, “is endless and absolute bollards.” A short essay about bus shelters is bookended by references to teenagers’ tendency to appropriate these often-grimy structures as a site for drinking, smoking, snogging, groping, shagging, and so on, with the author eventually conceding that ironically, perhaps it is only the adolescent set who really know how to use the space correctly. (The adolescent set, that is, and T.S. Eliot, who wrote at least part of The Wasteland in a bus shelter in Margate.) I was especially taken with Heathcote’s analysis of an image by the photographer Richard Wentworth that depicts a leather glove left on a fence, its deflated fingers pointing darkly skyward. The shot, he says, suggests “the German officer’s face-slap, Darth Vader’s remote strangulation, an S&M conception of spikes and leather, membranes and the materials of dead things.” The placement of the glove on its spiked iron railing also calls to mind the authoritarian and extreme effect of class on the availability of public spaces, given that the garden being walled in may be private property—a rare green city space being kept off-limits, set aside for the elite and guarded by the suited-and-jackbooted specter of extreme and unearned wealth.

Perversion and subversion, Heathcote seems to imply, both belong out on the pavement and out in the open, where they have the greatest impact and produce the greatest frisson.

Like the municipal planting Heathcote describes being strategically placed around antiterrorist architecture in order to distract from the suggestion of a threat, the small flourishes of humor and suggestiveness that evenly stud On the Street help its political statements and descriptions of brutality go down more easily, lacquering sugar on an often-bitter pill. For all the items of street furniture that have been made to support the bodies and the needs of citizens, just as many have been engineered to harm, restrict, or shame. Antihomeless measures such as spikes and sloping benches are innovative design developments whose express purpose is to prevent a subsection of every city’s population from experiencing comfort. Heathcote is suspicious of increased surveillance, too, and is keen to point out just how easily the data harvested by street devices, such as smart bins and Wi-Fi benches, might be used against the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. While On the Street’s introduction stresses that it is a book for dipping into (indeed, reading it cover to cover does reveal a certain amount of thematic repetition), there is something useful about treating it as one expansive, sprawling project, largely because in doing so we experience this authorial balance of optimism and pessimism simultaneously, as two sides of the same suspended coin.

At its heart, Heathcote’s book suggests that training one’s gaze on a city, truly looking at it, reveals the best and the worst of humanity, just as it reveals the best and the worst of this particularly unstarry subgenre of architecture and design. (The subject’s very unstarriness, it must be said, also provides an interesting contrast with the more rarefied buildings often surveyed in the author’s column for the FT, and On the Street is catholic enough in its references to be legible to even a—to put it mildly—non-expert in architecture like myself.) Fittingly, that extreme balance of good and evil, or more accurately of hope and despair, also characterized the pandemic, which left many of us more awake to the mechanics of society and the world. Pay attention, and one is as likely to discover things that horrify as things that thrill. Two staged images belonging to the same period and genre of photography gave me pause as I leafed through On the Street: fashion editorial stills of women from the 1940s, which depict their models in the shattered and dystopian surrounds of bombed-out London, taken by Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton respectively. In both, the women are in sharp suits, radiating poise; in the Beaton shot, the soigné model is posting a letter in a letterbox, oblivious to the rubble. Oddly, although I have come across such images before, in the context of the book I saw how horribly surreal they are—the juxtaposition of glamour with the evident detritus of destruction and, one assumes, death. In some ways, they are a microcosm of Heathcote’s lockdown project: a document of the ways that function brushes up against loveliness and catastrophe, ultimately telegraphing the endurance of life under even the most trying circumstances.

Philippa Snow is a Norfolk, England–based critic whose work has appeared in publications including Artforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, ArtReview, Frieze, and the White Review, among others. She will never look at a bollard in the same way again.