Humanising Infrastructure: where is the human?

'Culture' promises to make infrastructure more human, but what kind of culture are we talking about, and are people's voices truly being heard?

CRITICAL MASS, Anthony Gormley

As part of a series on design and policy, the Royal Academy and the All-Party Design & Innovation Group brought together on Wednesday morning an architect, an engineer, a curator and a cultural policy researcher around the theme ‘Humanising Infrastructure: Connecting to Culture in Major Projects’.

The event promised to explore the role that culture can play to bring the human touch to large-scale infrastructure projects. Each panelist described reputable projects from their past that wove together engineering plans with public art activity. All claimed that these multi-disciplinary efforts were integral and not add-ons, and increased the value of the work in itself and for the public.

But the actual human experience in these spaces was missing. Mention was made of the impact of infrastructure on health and education, on a growing engagement with socio-cultural contexts in public art, on user-involvement and the importance of collaboration. Although these strands could each open up a deep exploration of how people interact with the built environment, they were brief notes rather than the focus of the conversation. Culture was conflated with public art, rather than reflecting what these projects mean to communities at a local level.

Defined in this way, using culture in infrastructure could damage functionality: Naomi Turnerfrom APDIG cited the controversy around Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge, where artistic integrity has trumped public cycling access, as just one example. Culture could also be misunderstood by members of the public, by journalists, or by contractors. Culture is divorced from people.

If the aim, however, is to grasp how the material fabric of city life inter-relates with our everyday experience of these spaces, we need to go further. Humanising infrastructure should not just be about how culture brings warmth to a functional project. Humanising infrastructure should be about the human. Culture is not only in the hands of artists; it is in the experiences and meanings held by citizens and communities.

With that in mind, these are the questions that we want to ask: 

How are local communities who inhabit the spaces of infrastructure interventions involved in the process from start to finish? Are these forms of engagement enough, and if not what more could be done? What local understandings, identities or power relations are contested or changed throughout the process of commissioning, constructing, and leaving the legacy of an infrastructure project behind? How, if at all, do these help to shape design and assess the ultimate value of what is finally created? And when speaking of value, value exactly for whom?

A number of the speakers talked about measuring the impact of major infrastructure projects, and of project efficiency as a central concern. What we wonder is what might happen to these concerns if the questions are fully explored and addressed.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please get in touch with us by email or on Twitter if you want to have a chat. 

Image: CRITICAL MASS, Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, England, 1998.

Emilie Glazer