Interview with Christine Murray & Miriam Delogu: Contested Spaces

From Kings Cross to The Bearpit, An interview with Christine Murray and Miriam Delogu

Christine Murray is editor-in-chief of The Developer and founder of the Women in Architecture Awards. She was formerly editor-in-chief of the Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review.

Miriam Delogu is the project leader for “The Circle” a collaborative project with Architects APG and Urban Designers McGregor Coxall to transform the Bearpit in Bristol.  Miriam ran the Bearpit Social, a café in a converted shipping container in the Bearpit from 2013.

Interview

The following interview was conducted as part of The Architecture Centre’s partnership with The Architecture School at UWE Bristol.

Christine and Miriam, you have followed different career paths, how did you become interested in place-making?

Christine: My background is in journalism and I wrote for a variety of publications including the Architects Journal and the Architectural Review, eventually I became the editor of both publications. In that role we were talking a lot about buildings, in particular looking at them from a technical and planning perspective as well as the theory and the aesthetics of the architecture. We also spent a lot of time looking at how buildings fitted within the wider context of the city.

Through this work I felt there was a broader conversation about place that was being missed, especially because we only looked at buildings as they were newly created and never revisited them to ask questions like: Has the building become part of the city? How do people use it? Do people use actually use it? Has it fulfilled its original intention?

These questions led me to develop an interest in place making and eventually launch The Developer as a publication that looks to answer those exact questions and examines the in-between spaces created by architecture.

Miriam: My story is not so straightforward, sometimes I think place making chose me. I grew up in Malaysia and moved to Italy for university, where I started a double degree in psychology and mass production. From there I went on to do a course in design and art direction. I then moved to England hoping to get work in design and when I couldn’t I just started making coffee, which is a skill I always had and led me to start working in the Bearpit. I am often known as the girl who made coffee in the Bearpit – and that’s how I feel place making choose me.

Christine, where there any key moments in your life that helped shape your opinion of the architecture profession?

Christine: Meeting a lot of architects did. I started working at the AJ in 2007 and was also dating an architect whom I later married. I moved to London and through my work, I fell into a big group of architects who often moved in packs to events and parties, so I started hanging out with a lot of them and eventually met architectural journalists who I related better to at the time.

This shaped my early impressions of the profession as many architects were always pitching to me to get published, but I didn’t have an appreciation of the painstaking process of design as I was always seeing the end result.

This did change when I started living with an architect, as I started to understand that some of these projects can go on for 10 or more years. This challenged my thinking – you can be so absorbed in a project from conception to completion, and sometimes a lot of work goes into many projects that never actually materialise.

As the editor of the AJ my impression was there was unhappiness about a loss of agency amongst the profession, that architecture had lost its status and its voice and no longer had an influence on policy. This really shaped a lot of my early years in architectural publishing. Then different modes of practice started to emerge, including collectives, public practice and architects seeking alternative ways of working which contrasts with the corporate practice model (a split that still exists and shapes the profession).

Miriam, what is the main driver behind your work at the Bearpit and The Circle?

Miriam: What started this love for the Bearpit, and is now the love for The Circle, hasn’t changed at all. Our aspiration was always around how we can transform the Bearpit into a safe and welcoming destination that we’ve envisioned and experienced in snippets of time.

People often ask – after everything you’ve been through, why do you keep doing what do you do? It’s for the people, we wouldn’t have lasted down there seven years trading if there wasn’t that public support. People would walk past us and clap their hands and thank us, which was a strange thing to happen the first year we were down there, people saw our presence as their eyes and ears, which made them feel safe in the space.

Christine, what is it that motivates you and drives your passion to bring built environment professionals together and write about place making in The Developer?

Christine: Well I am a campaigner; I like change and I like to ask questions too. There was always a feeling in the business-to-business media that we were held back by only speaking to one part of the audience. When we were writing for architects, they would often say could you just be the advocate for us?  At one point I read through the back issues of 120 years and found that the things that everyone was complaining about now were the same things people had complained about 50 years ago – I felt a need to break out of this.

I felt a need to create a publication that brings a wider team around the table, especially from outside the built environment, to talk about how to make better places and create research with citizen experience at its heart, which would help unpick what is happening in our cities today and to hopefully go into creating more progressive development.

Miriam, with the architects that you’ve come across working on The Circle, do you feel they have a broader range of disciplinary thinking and skills than you’d expected?

Miriam: I think we are so incredibly lucky, the architecture firm that we’ve been working with to bring the ideas to life is APG Architecture, who have offices about 10 minutes’ walk away from us. The relationship developed organically as one of their junior associates used to buy coffee from me every day – we would have a chat about their rebrand and their drive to do more projects around sustainability.

This linked very well with our ideas about wanting to make the Bearpit into a sustainable space for the city. We started a series of conversations with Adam Parsons from APG Architecture who really listened to us and eventually brought on board McGregor Coxall as the Urban Designers for the space. They did have preconceived ideas on how the space worked and on how to move it forward, but they were really willing to listen to my experience of the actual space as someone who spent 6 days a week for 7 years there, which gave me a unique understanding of it.

In our redesign of the space, we first did a site analysis of where all the problems were and if we were going to redesign them how would that look like and how would that create a better public space.

Did you do some of this thinking and work before the architects were involved?

Miriam: The way we started was that we identified the problems and were very clear about where they were, we created a map ourselves highlighting those problems and from that we knew what the principles of The Circle would be. It’s about people, it about food – and most importantly, it was about community and partnerships.

We are really not urban designers, architects or developers, we have never seen ourselves as place makers. What we understood were people, food and the Bearpit and that really how our vision came to be.

It is also very much evidence based, so in 2018, 478 incidents were reported and over 100 were physical assaults. The tunnel that’s by the Holiday Inn has the highest number rate of crimes happening in it, so the evidence highlighted the areas we really needed to address and that has helped us decide where to place things essentially.

We are essentially a grassroots community business that saw a real problem and have spent seven years trying to solve it through incremental change. But it got to a point where the incremental change wasn’t making enough of a difference, so we had to start thinking big to solve the problem.

Christine, you’ve written a lot about Kings Cross, so what do you think makes the space so successful?

Christine: There’s the economic contribution, there’s all the businesses that are set up there, there is the fact that it’s become kind of a ‘treat’ destination – a place where you go for a day out. None of those things were associated with Kings Cross before, you had a place that was considered dangerous and had a lot of crime associated with it but also had good things like the nightclubs and raves, which can sometimes be forgotten.

But what has been really successful about it has to do with the public realm, specifically Granary Square and its fountains which attract a huge number of people in the summertime to go and play in them. So, the space went from somewhere you would never consider bringing your family, to a ‘treat space’ – to bring the family to on a day out.

The developer was radical in opening the square to the public when the rest of the site was still under construction, they were really determined to put public space at the heart of the development. This was really the make or break moment of the space and made a statement of the kind of place the developer was envisioning, which I feel is a dramatic thing to do.

Christine, having walked around the Bearpit today, what are your impressions of the space?

Christine: The whole story is super interesting, dramatic and great! It’s like a writer’s dream to talk about a space like this with lots of history and characters. But it does look really sad right now, you’ve got this amazing half abandoned community garden and a rundown fenced off former kiosk, so it looks like its closed down awaiting redevelopment which in some ways it is and I do agree with Miriam that the space has incredible potential. 

I feel it’s really sad that people just want to fill it in, but these roundabouts are incredibly difficult spaces. Take Old Street roundabout as another example where they are proposing a peninsula to attach it on one side to revitalize it, which is what they did to Trafalgar Square.

There is a sense that that these large roundabouts would struggle to survive with big roads running around them and only tunnel access, which even with the introduction of CCTV and lighting still have a perception of being unsafe.

I was really impressed with the size of the Bearpit, which really speaks for its potential and it would be shame to lose it as a public space in the city.

Actually, it’s a shame to lose any public space in the city.

Miriam, what makes the Bearpit so special for you?

Miriam: I think the uniqueness of the space lies in the fact that it is one of the few places in the city where you have all walks of life walking through it, every day. Every demographic, every religion, every age – a kind of diversity that is so rare in a city like Bristol where changes happen so rapidly.

For us the importance of The Circle being at the Bearpit is that it puts sustainability issues at the forefront in a place where it is accessible by everyone to explore and learn from.  

“For us the importance of The Circle being at the Bearpit is that it puts sustainability issues at the forefront in a place where it is accessible by everyone to explore and learn from.” Miriam Delogu