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market square

Public Realm design, street furniture and integrated Public Artworks // Sunderland UK // 2009-2012

The area around Market Square in Sunderland, an extensive, pedestrianised zone surrounding a large, busy shopping centre, is typical of the post-war public realm in many UK cities. It is intensively used, but suffers from its mono-functional retail offer and lacklustre architectural backdrop. The client wanted to create a new public realm with high-quality materials and strong atmosphere, flexible enough to accommodate a variety of special events and activities, and at the same time enjoyable to be in on an everyday basis.

The challenge in the brief lay in the question of how to bring together the desire for a flexible space for markets and events (which requires a largely empty, open space) with the convivial intimacy required to make it a pleasant place to be when nothing special was going on (which requires a spatial scale offered by trees, seating and other street furniture). In our project, we interpreted this seeming contradiction as an opportunity to develop a specific solution, out of which a new spirit of the heart of the city would be developed.

150 bespoke cast iron floor plates are set into the new paving, the location of each plate derived from a study of pedestrian movement patterns through the space. Their patterns and alignments are analogous to those of iron filings under the influence of a magnetic field. Like manhole covers, each of the “filing” plates covers an underground space, housing different elements of technical and cultural infrastructure.

A system of mobile street furniture was designed to create a public realm which could by turns be convivial, and socially dense and then emptied or adjusted for a diverse variety of special events and happenings. The furniture elements are fixed to the ground via the iron filings, the two elements working together to create a plug-in public realm.

As well as being foundations for the mobile street furniture, the underground space covered by the filings is houses different elements of the square’s infrastructure, such as surface water drains and electricity supply. Other filings are home to a system of lighting whose colour and behavior can be changed at will via a DALI programming unit.

16 of the filings house ideas about the heart of Sunderland, described through the inscription of “Thunderwords” (originally a poetic device from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”). Local poet Wajid Hussein developed the Thunderwords by means of a collaborative process with local residents of the area.

Client:  Sunderland City Council // Collaborators: Sunderland City Council (Landscape Design), Lightfolio Ltd. (Lighting), Wajid Hussein (Poetry) // Bench fabrication consultants: Macemain + Amstad // Services: Urban design consultant, Lead Artist, bespoke furniture and fitting // Area: 3.200 m² // Budget: £ 1.2 m