Barking Town Square does not deserve a public open space award

Barking Town Square by Muf Architecture Art should not have won the 5th European Prize for Urban Public Space, however good the architecture

I’d never been to Barking. But in 2008 Barking Town Square won the the 5th European Prize for Urban Public Space so I went to have a look. Sorry about the weak pun, but the judges are Barking Mad. The main building has a sentimental Bauhaus-ey charm but the urban space is a plain rectangle of pink Spanish granite, laid in stretcher bond for no good reason. The hoardings illustrate some planting to come but the “Public Open Space” is a void, an empty space, a nothing. The judges all represent organizations which promote the art of architecture, which is fair enough, because the building is OK, but this is NOT a good urban square. It is as though Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte had never lived. There is no mixed use: the adjoining buildings are all municipal, without the shops and cafes which might have provided users. There is nowhere to sit, ignoring wisdom of Jan Ghel. The ‘square’ is almost a cul-de-sac, ignoring Ed Bacon and Bill Hillier. The paving is non-SUDS. The only redeeming feature is a piece of public art described as a “7 metre high folly [which] recreates a fragment of the imaginary lost past of Barking”. But why re-create an imaginary lost past? Barking had a medieval abbey. Captain Cook was married in a Barking church. Then there is the cultural context. Barking has one of the largest immigrant communities in London, with many from the Punjab and Sub-Saharan Africa – neither of which region is known to admire the Bauhaus. Some architects show genius in urban design. Muf muffed it.

Note: The photograph was taken at about 11.30 am on an unseasonably warm autumn day (28th September 2008). The good urban spaces in London were overflowing with people. The places which remind one of pre-1989 East Berlin were empty.

14 thoughts on “Barking Town Square does not deserve a public open space award

  1. stefan

    of course, there has to be more to context sensitive design than simply referencing a places history. to often this is an excuse for artists and designers to lazily plonk down a plaque or sculpture, instead of trying to feed what they know into a complete aesthetic

  2. stefan

    ps. from what i can see, that piece of art seems to fit in well with its surroundings and could be the squares saving grace, although its unfair of me to offer too much criticism without seeing the place for myself. your right about seating though; a square wtihout anywhere to sit is dead from the get go.

  3. Christine

    This project as viewed on Muf’s website is truly puzzling! I tried to think how such an approach to urban spaces might be generated….take the extreme temporariness of the art exhibition in a public gallery marry it with installation art (which is intended to cause a re-action in the viewer & engage them as part of a performance) and theme it according to a world art perspective and maybe the result comes close.

    Then again – most movements this strange have a guiding theory – so if you have any clues where I might start looking to be better informed as to what Muf are trying to achieve here I would be most appreciative (and maybe enlightened)!

  4. stefan

    theory is all very well but the darn thing has to work.

    i was thinking about my earlier comments and started to wonder – if you commission someone to create a piece of art for a public place, should you expect it to fit in with your overall scheme and aesthetic, or do you give them the freedom to create what they want? the more i think about it, the more i think the latter. after all, a good urban space should accomadate unexpected behaviour and allow itself to be customised by its occupants, so why not start being random with the artwork?

  5. Adam Hodge

    I have just had a trawl through the muf website and ,quite frankly, have not read so much ‘guff’ in ages. Talk about twaddle !! It should get a prize for marketing bullsh*t No wonder they get commissions ..they must bamboozle their clients with the gobblegook that pervades the website. For example in the Reynold room at Tate Britain they say ‘

    Each gallery is peopled by “Chippendale” chairs coloured and upholstered to match the walls of the gallery space. The subtly shifting arrangement of this furniture across the 7 rooms is carefully positioned to correspond to the theme of each room.

    Oh darlings… the peopled room corresponding to the theme..per-lease !

  6. John

    I had a look for some other comments on the Muf scheme. I did not have much luck but Building Design (BD) has this gnomic observation: ‘Muf partner Liza Fior said: “Britain has never won one of these awards, so it’s fantastic for Barking.”’

  7. Sara Doctors

    What a shame you hadn’t been there on on the 26th and 27th September to see the place over flow with people enjoying the space as part of Molten Festival Launch weekend. Over 800 people in a town square on the friday night, watching aerial dancers on the walls and clocktower of the town hall and library, and a giant fire show complete with dragon. Then on the Saturday the square was full of kids playing musical instruments made of recycled rubbish, making models of volcanos, and learning circus skills. Perhaps the good people of Barking were having a well-deserved lie-in on Sunday.

    This is a new space and we’re only just beginging to discover how we use it, animate it and inhabit it.

    Photos of the weekend’s events and activities coming soon to

  8. stefan

    some more research done. it looks like this second phase, which will feature commercial buildings, might be a more intimate social space, while the square itself, outside the town hall is meant as an open venue for public functions

  9. peter

    Stefan, you are quite right in your observation. What has been built to date is only a small part of the finished scheme, and to pre judge any scheme in an unfinished state is a mistake and an injustice.The final product will be a new arboretum set in to the context of urban space with seating, performing art and entertainment space. There will be hard and soft landscaped areas imaginatively constructed to give a park like setting, complemented by retail shopping, hotel and restauarants. I would suggest that anyone wishing to comment further waits until the development finishes in 2010 before pre judging and condemning one of the Mayor of London’s top 100 spaces.

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    I’ll be happy to go and look again when the scheme is complete – but European Prize for Public Open Space was surely given for the scheme as it is, not for the scheme promised for the future. So what we have to consider is a plain rectangle of granite with no obvious use. It could have been built in the 1960s.

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  13. Derry

    Well what can i say about Barking square,hmm not impressed at all.Its not pretty or a place that i want to spend much time sitting around in.Not a tree or flower in site,apart from around the corner,away from the square itself.The square looks empty,bleak,and a throw back to the 1970’s,with its bright coloured buildings.The council have put benches all around the square,which are painted,hmm silly really as did the council not think that the paint would be scratched in no time at all?,why not leave them as wood in its natural form?Hey presto,looking at the benches which are new,are now scratched and always look dirty.This place is going to be a great hang out for the drunks at night,and rest assured it will end up being a troubled spot for trouble.How the hell it won any award beats me.Why do we have to put up with the constant awful buildings that the council are allowing developers to build?Tacky disgusting coloured buildings,did they not learn from the Flats near Castle green Dagenham?We have a beautiful church called St Magarets Church,i believe they are going to move the Arch a few feet back to allow for more development,what ever next?This is our History for goodness sake,there is not much of that left now in our Town,should not be allowed. 🙁


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