Urban design magazine

Public spaces

Soulful cities: interview with Georges Verney-Carron

What if urban design was about more than appearances and constituted the very essence of a city’s identity? As an urban “stage designer”, George Verney-Carron’s job is to give cities a soul by combining the skills of all those involved in their creation.

Mr Verney-Carron, could you explain a little more about your usual job as urban stage designer?

I have a background in communications and studied at a business school, but I’m above all an avid modern art lover. My job came from the realisation that our urban spaces are often subjected to purely intellectual and technical development without any soul. When, in fact, the traces we leave for future generations are the most important things in a city, traces made up from the signs, street furniture and buildings. All these elements build an urban identity and are the focus when trying to add the soul that is sometimes lacking. An example? London can be summed up by three objects: buses, taxis and phone boxes. The latter are no longer useful and are in the process of being destroyed – this is a part of the London identity that will be lost.

Tell us about your gallery and what makes it unique in the world of art and in particular urban art?

My gallery is a research centre where I invite artists who want to create in situ. They have to be motivated and capable because their work will become a lasting part of the city. The risk of failing can be scary. There are also certain technical constraints, we can’t work in public spaces in the same way we do in a workshop. I’m there to help them create, protect and adapt their works to public spaces.

Image of 45 Quai Rambaud

45 quai Rambaud, Lyon

You created the company Art/Entreprise in 1984 with the aim of “bringing together art, companies and the city”. How do you achieve this?

Above all, I want to make the city a meaningful and magical place. Art isn’t just decoration, it needs to be useful especially given that over 80% of the world’s population will soon live in cities. For this reason, I work in both the private and public sector. It is vital to find project managers who want and are able to change things. The biggest obstacle is the fear of doing something different. When, in fact, this kind of innovation will transform both urban spaces and mentalities. You need to find people with new ideas rather than copying from the past. We have many tools to do this thanks to technological advances that feed modern creativity.

Why did you decide to concentrate on urban spaces as an arena for artistic expression?

As I explained, art brings a city  to life. To achieve this, it needs to be everywhere and accessible – people shouldn’t be obliged to pay to go to a museum. We need to avoid making the error of standardising urban street furniture. A Parisian bench shouldn’t be the same as a bench in Rio! Art gives a city its soul by highlighting its uniqueness and developing a personality. Pursuing purely financial interests has a very damaging effect. We need to fight for this notion of uniqueness to ensure that each city has its own street furniture.

Does art have a role in “uncreative” spaces like car parks?

Of course! It’s no easy task making people enjoy being in a car park. In Lyon we created an underground museum with architects, designers and artists. It’s completely unique.

Image of car park at Villeurbanne

Car park at the town hall of Villeurbanne

How do the architects, artists and designers you work with collaborate together to develop our cities?

These individuals can only create something worthwhile by communicating and working together. This is far from easy. Art and architecture schools have been separated for over 50 years and, as a consequence, designers and artists get involved in the project at a very late stage. It’s absurd! The architect and project manager shouldn’t run urban projects on their own. My role is to provide an overall vision and bring together the architects, artists and designers so they can create beautiful and meaningful things. We can’t develop the city if everyone works in their own corner without any coherence.

Tell us about the artists you represent, both experienced and up-and-coming, who are revolutionising our cities?

One example is Jean-Sébastien Poncelet, a young artist who created “Animali Domesticki”, a series of animal sculptures for children’s playgrounds. This is a way of bringing animals into the city and lies at a half-way point between art and design.

Image of Animali collection by Poncelet

I’d also like to mention artist Dutch Krijn de Koning, who worked on the new lighting for the main square and bell tower in the French city of Béthune, and is very good at working alongside architects. There’s also Daniel Buren, François Morellet and Felice Varini who are phenomenal artists.

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