The Perfect Space
The Perfect Space

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The Perfect Space

Mies van der rohe   james stirling  circling the square   sunlight effect mies tower

Mies van der Rohe & James Stirling, Circling the Square - sunlight effect Mies tower. Courtesy RIBA.

Circling the Square

After arriving at the public square from Bank station, I occasionally set myself a challenge. Once I get off the escalator, I try to walk in a straight line from one side of the space to the other, without having to break my stride or let another person’s path cross mine. Perhaps this is strange, but I find the grid formation of the paving stones to be the perfect surface for such an activity, providing a clear guide for me to follow as I walk.

Once I get off the escalator, I try to walk in a straight line from one side of the space to the other, without having to break my stride or let another person’s path cross mine.

Mies van der rohe   james stirling  circling the square

Mies van der Rohe & James Stirling, Circling the Square. Courtesy RIBA.

And actually, I notice that I am not the only one walking these lines. I find a strange satisfaction in maintaining a steady, flowing rhythm, uninterrupted by the people around me. There are almost always moments of uncertainty during this exercise – several instances where I worry I’ll have to swerve off course in order to accommodate a passerby. But it is precisely this tension which makes the journey interesting. The tight proximity that I feel to other people as our paths intersect, the neat little crosses at points where our bodies don’t quite touch – it feels as though the whole movement had been perfectly choreographed: as though this stranger and I had planned the interaction. I wonder if people see these little moments from inside the tower, looking down at us from the other side of the glass façade of the monolith. Do they have their own little games, as they walk amongst each other across the office floors?

Mies designed tower block for mansion house square scheme %c2%a9 john donat   riba collections

Mies-designed tower block for Mansion House Square scheme © John Donat, courtesy RIBA Collections.

Generally speaking, there is some quality to corporate office blocks that separates them from the public. They seem to deliberately distance themselves in order to distinguish their status as private territories, used and accessed only by particular people at particular times. If I wanted to get in, to look around, I’d probably need a swipe card. Perhaps my clothes wouldn’t adhere to the strict dress code enforced inside. Intangible boundaries suggest themselves even before one reaches the building itself. Maybe these limitations only apply at certain times? Buildings like this foster a general sense of uncertainty, vis a vis my position in relation to theirs, my right to be in the spaces they occupy and designate.

Mies van der Rohe’s Mansion House tower, though, is unlike many other office block buildings. Here, the realms of public and private are quite clearly defined. The square, situated just across the road from the entrance to the building, offers a rare opportunity for members of the public to enjoy an open space in the hectic City of London. This generosity continues in the quality of materials that have been used to create the space – the paved granite floor is beautifully smooth, and the desire for the coolness of its surface against my cheek has occurred to me before, I’ll admit. Of course, it would be inappropriate or alarming if I were to lie down amidst the crowds. The bronze flagpole is also within reach, its cylindrical body extending from the ground and reaching high above me, beside me, before me. The square doesn’t feel secondary to or lesser than the building – no consolation prizes here; rather, I am convinced that we are experiencing the same luxury as those inside van der Rohe’s final building.

Mies van der rohe   james stirling  circling the square   curator

Mies van der Rohe & James Stirling, Circling the Square - curator. Courtesy RIBA.

And what about the floors? They could be covered in those awful carpet tiles! Surely not?

While I have never set foot inside the building itself, I like to imagine that the experience of the square is not so different from the feeling across the threshold. As you step inside – I imagine – you would find yourself in some kind of reception area. Maybe the first thing you notice is a large desk, where a person who is able to answer any of your queries expertly directs you to the appropriate floor. Given the option, I would nearly always ride the escalator over the lift. It would be so pleasant – I imagine – to view the city veiled in amber, shrinking away as you travel higher and higher into the bulding.
The offices themselves are likely divided in the same way as the shops beneath: glass walls – I imagine – run along either side of wide corridors, separating the space with openness and light. And what about the floors? They could be covered in those awful carpet tiles! Surely not?

The people descending, coming out of the building are smartly dressed, carrying documents, usually on the phone. They’re not like us down here, looking up, even though we move through similar spaces in similar ways. I watch them arrive at the square and choose a space to sit, perhaps waiting for a friend or reading a book in the sun. Like most of us, they can’t resist the lure of the shopping centre, and I watch them disappear down the escalator and emerge later laden with purchases. These rhythms are constant and predictable, but the office workers keep careful track of time so as to not stay longer than permitted – a restraint not exerted by the rest of us. I have wondered if it’s wasteful for buildings of architectural significance to house nothing more profound than offices – spaces which could be museums of, or monuments to, themselves – but in this instance I’m less concerned. I feel quite satisfied in the square, free to use my imagination to create a perfect space.

Ashley Sheekey is an artist living and working in Brighton.

Number one poultry %c2%a9 janet hall   riba collections

Number One Poultry © Janet Hall, RIBA Collections.

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