York Minster piazza doesn’t work either visually or practically

Handbrake turns for wheelchair users? The York Minster piazza. Photographs: Richard McDougall
19 Jun 2013 @ 1.21 pm
| Opinion

Handbrake turns for wheelchair users? The York Minster piazza. Photographs: Richard McDougall
Handbrake turns for wheelchair users? The York Minster piazza. Photographs: Richard McDougall
richard-mcdougall-headshotYorkMix creative director Richard McDougall is impressed by the craftsmanship but dismayed by the end result outside the city’s biggest attraction.

For months the YorkMix office, next to Minster Gates, has had the sound of the buskers drowned out by stone saws and angle grinders. Now the new piazza, outside the South Transept of the Minster, is complete and peace is restored once more.

It forms part of York Minster Revealed – a five-year project supported by £10.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). It is scheduled for completion in early summer 2016.

Designed by architects Arroll & Snell and built by York-based William Anelay, it is aimed at providing a calmer setting for visitors to the South Transept, more in keeping with the Minster. It has been part funded by the City of York Council to the tune of £500,000.

Watching the works develop, the quality of the craftsmanship has been impressive, as has as the attention to detail of the design. From the polished silver beads running along the sharp edge of the access ramps to the carefully carved bicycle symbols denoting the edge of the cycle path, the care is evident.

The devil is in the detail – lovely chrome droplets reflect their surroundings

But there is also a feeling that it doesn’t quite work. It’s a bit too safe, even if the abstract angles on the approach ramps do force wheelchair users to deploy their handbrakes and initiate a Scandinavian flick, rally-driver style, to negotiate the turn.

Whilst taking photographs on the first day it was fully open, tourists were already blocking the cycle path, trying to frame their perfect picture. The lovely bicycle symbols were simply too discreet. In the absence of any other obvious visual clues as to the different paths, the colourfully-dressed mobile chicanes taking photos forced impatient cyclists to swerve wildly around them.

Tourists unintentionally block the cycle path

A more pronounced change in texture or colour (as with the same road further up towards the West door) would have helped. Indeed, this similarity of colour is the most disappointing element of the design. It looks like the Minster has melted slightly in the sun. Bleeding out onto the piazza and cycle path around it, like a block of butter softened up for slightly too long in the microwave.

In fact, it’s a bit like wearing your favourite jeans with a much laundered jacket made from the same material. Without the colour contrast you get from the grass and the stone on the North side of the Minster, the South transept piazza looks a bit too ‘double denim’.

A lone cyclist navigates the sea of stone

It would be better if York had been bold for once. In order to fit in with its surroundings, the new piazza didn’t need to slavishly copy them. Looking out of our office window a full gamut of brick, tile  and slate can be seen and any of these textures or colours would have offered greater delineation with the magnificent Minster. Applied in a contemporary contrasting style, this could have set the tone for a more modern approach to tourism.