COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Transforming a Neglected Square: Bringing Arts and Culture Outside at the Perth Cultural Center

Nov 19, 2014
Jan 29, 2018
The Perth Cultural Centre as it appears today.
The Perth Cultural Centre | Photo by PPS

Before its remarkable revival, the Perth Cultural Center (PCC) was a model of the brutalist architecture that defines many academic buildings of the 1960s and 1970s. With no public activity in its surrounding area, the space was grey and uninviting—a collection of massive, stark structures made of exposed concrete and brick.

The shoddy condition of the public space surrounding these buildings belied the fact that inside they housed some of the country’s most exceptional cultural and educational institutions including the State Library and Records Office, the Film and Television Institute, the Western Australia Museum, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the renowned Blue Room Theater, to name only a few. But with no real outside presence, the square remained a cultural desert. In fact, despite its being a main route from public transit into the city center, people deliberately avoided the area, choosing instead to take longer but much safer routes into downtown Perth.

In 2009, however, something incredible happened. In a relatively short period of time, Perth’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA), in collaboration with PPS and various other stakeholders, began transforming this rundown square into what is now the heart of the city.

By painting the steps and adding some movable, multi-functional furniture the space around the new wetland area became friendly and inviting.
By painting the steps and adding some movable, multi-functional furniture the space around the new wetland area became friendly and inviting. | Photo by PPS

Creating a Community Destination

"The ground floor of the Library could be the “town hall” of the Cultural Centre."  – State Library of Western Australia

Soon after purchasing and restoring several historic buildings along Williams Street, a major retail corridor bordering the PCC, the MRA had a keen sense of the importance of this site, and a strong idea of what it could become. Determined to transform it from a “cultural ghetto” into a truly great place and a world-class cultural center, MRA director Tony Morgan and his visionary staff brought in PPS to help them develop and implement a place-led approach for reviving the center and the community.

Together, they generated “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” strategies (now known in Australia as the “Quick Win” approach) to begin implementing on the site. The “Quick Win” strategy was really powerful, explained MRA Executive Director of Place Management Veronica Jeffery, “[because] it basically went from planning straight to implementation. It didn’t leave time for contemplation, which meant that people could see their ideas transform into action.”

At first, this LQC plan included simple spatial adjustments such as painting steps, adding shade and more seating, and installing free wi-fi and a large screen for projecting movies and digital art. “Change was slow at first,” explained PPS co-founder Kathy Madden, who worked closely on the project, “but when PPS returned to the site in 2011, it was clear that something had clicked.” Once directors of the PCC’s cultural organizations began to share their visions—coming together as a community of institutions, they developed a powerful network of ideas and resources. Soon, a number of more-involved projects started taking shape, including turning a dilapidated fountain into an impressive Native Wetland area, building a multi-sensory play space, and transforming a rooftop carpark into a working urban orchard and community garden. The Center also began hosting a variety of public events, ranging from evening movie screenings and concerts to interactive games of Mario Kart on the enormous pop-up screen.

Appearing Rooms | photo credit Alastair Rae under Creative Commons
Appearing Rooms | photo credit Alastair Rae (Creative Commons)

Bringing the Arts Outside

"We want to turn ourselves inside out and be of the Centre not just in the Centre.” – Western Australia Museum (WAM)

"We see ourselves as the connector between art and people." – Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA)

A key objective for the new Cultural Center was to highlight the identity and assets of each of the cultural institutions by improving their facades and entrances. But this was only the beginning. Throughout our 40 years of Placemaking projects in cities and communities across the globe, PPS has seen time and time again the transformative impact of bringing cultural programming “into the streets.” With this in mind, as part of this “Quick Win” approach, the MRA was deliberate in shifting focus from the buildings themselves to the activities that occur in the “Third Spaces” between them. They encouraged the institutions these structures housed—museums, art galleries, theaters, and libraries, for example—to consider interactive and creative programming that made use of their exterior public space. In response, The Institute of Contemporary Art began a series of public outdoor art exhibitions adjacent to their building. These efforts included a water-themed installation entitled Appearing Rooms and commissioned by Berlin-based Danish artist Jeppe Hein, which was comprised of sprinklers programmed to randomly rise and fall in a grid-like pattern to simulate walls. Fittingly for the entire revitalization project, this installation played with this interaction between public and private space, between inside and outside, between cultural institutions and the communities they serve.

This was a breakthrough. By turning themselves “inside-out,” these organizations realized they were not only widening their impact and audience, but they were also breaking down cultural barriers that often separate the “Ivory Tower” from the rest of the community. Soon, major events like the Perth International Arts Festival and Fringe World Festival relocated to the center’s grounds, which also had the honor of hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2011. Indeed, the reactivation of the PCC’s surrounding square is a prime example of how institutions can effectively democratize their space, inviting all members of the community to play an active role in their vitality and success.

as William Holly Whyte said, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”
As William Holly Whyte said, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” | Photo by PPS

The Revival of the Public Square

"Our goal is to be porous, sticky, and a wonder." – Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA)

Based on PPS’s extensive experience working on public squares, we are well aware of the powerful role that these areas can play in the creation of a place. They foster civic engagement and public interaction, and they provide a center for economic and social growth. In recent years, though, the design of squares has come up short in creating spaces that actually invite people in. Too often, even despite good intentions, these spaces can appear to be cold and insular, inward-turning spaces in which people feel they don’t belong. But the public square is in the midst of a kind of cultural renaissance. Craving social connection, people are demanding public gathering spaces that are inspiring and interactive. In addition, cities and civic institutions are also recognizing how public squares can benefit neighborhoods and stimulate the local economy.

By centralizing the idea of Place in their vision for revitalizing this important square and cultural center, the MRA, in partnership with PPS, has exacted meaningful and lasting change in their community. “Ultimately, the center is a public space, and we want everybody to feel comfortable here,” explained Veronica Jeffery. “They should be able to come in and feel like it’s theirs. If they happen to have a cultural experience in the process, that’s even better!”

With solid legislative power and strong partnerships with local government, private developers, and various other industry stakeholders, the MRA is indeed a force to be reckoned with in the Perth metropolitan area. Working simultaneously as managers, developers, and regulators, the MRA now uses what they call “place-maintenance” as their modus operandi: “We believe that by starting with the place,” they explain in their organizational literature, “that we can unlock the potential of an area and encourage local residents and visitors to Perth to engage with our city in new and exciting ways.” This is exactly what they’ve done with the PCC and this project is a model not only of how to ground and apply this Place-based approach, but also of the remarkable transformation that can happen when a community of institutions, government agencies, and individuals come together to enact this culture shift. In many ways, this project was a catalyst for the evolution of other destinations in Perth. The MRA is steadfast in their belief that "the whole [of a city] is greater than the sum of its parts." Indeed, they continue to use this Placemaking approach in ongoing projects including the redevelopment of the Perth Waterfront (now called Elizabeth Quay), and the massive Perth City Link project which will reconnect the city’s Central Business District with neighboring Northbridge for the first time in 100 years.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space