An avid curator, collaborator and designer of the built environment, Emma Ridings has worked across architecture and urban design for 20 years, and, in more recent times, leading the Gold Coast studio of a multi-disciplined, international firm. A self-confessed ‘terrible’ musician, as well as an ‘average’ writer, but wields a mighty fine pencil and a love of bringing people together.

The most successful cultural precincts, driving an eclectic 24/7 economy, are those shaped by a collaborative approach to design and management. Founded on the authenticity of community assets, both natural and made, of history and present, and of opportunity and constraint. It is this layer of understanding that allows a successful experience to be woven through a precinct to draw on your curiosity, like a forbidden lover, telling you a story that will ignite your senses and keep you remembering long after you’ve left. It won’t be possible to experience it elsewhere, it can try being recreated, but it won’t hold the same meaning; it’s unique to that place. These are the experiences that will bring community together, time and time again. These are the experiences that have been created by a passion for social benefit, not just economic benefit. Social benefit that is shaped authentically around its people, communities and places. Without people and community centric design, the place and spaces lack colour; they lack emotion.

The layering of the diverse disciplines, be they designers and curators of the built environment, artisans, performers, storytellers, event specialists and the like, all weave their magic to create stories and experiences which will transform the ordinary into extraordinary. The experience that will shape your subway trip, will entice you to come back into the city for the sounds, laughter, sights and smells, will alter your experience of the mundane. The curated experience will ask you to think differently of the laneway you’re walking down, the park you’re crossing, the building you’re walking through, the blank façade you’re looking upon. It will ask you to look deeper into the public realm you are helping to shape by your very engagement with the place and space.

Transformation of the urban fabric is how engagement within the city realm and an economy thrives. But it’s also how you build community connection.

Our imagination is the only constraint.

2020 saw the world in a way we may never see again. The streets were devoid of all people, activity and joy. The silence of places became a paradox for the term, ‘don’t disturb the peace’. The built form became quiet, like a backdrop to a movie set. A ‘still’ awaiting the cast and crew to populate the space, to create the hum of energy that would captivate and create the experience of the place. Photographers, globally, captured images of cities, of buildings, of public gathering spaces that had dialled engagement and activity to zero.

Recently, I browsed through one such photographic journal which captured moments when the first loosening of restrictions began. A photographer chanced a dance student taking advantage of the empty Gothic Square, in Barcelona—a public plaza rarely experienced without it bursting at the seams with the bustling of people, music, markets; a feast for the senses.

This image is so powerful, from my perspective, in displaying how the built environment plays a role far broader than the mere use of the building typology. The square, made up of historic buildings, laneways, dimmed street lamps and shadows, along with the open, paved plaza provides a backdrop—much akin to that said movie set—to the dancer. Set against the gothic detail of the architecture and dimmed light, the evocative nature of the image provides a sense of understanding of place through dance.

The plaza, originally designed as a gathering place and to filter large crowds of people through, became a concert hall, just for a night. In a world prior to 2020, this moment in time may never have been captured. Yet it shows the adaptability of a space; the creation of experience outside the normalcy of its intended use.

When I was a university student, in Brisbane, I would catch the train from my sharehouse to uni and work, in the city. Full of colour, the inner-city underground stations are a myriad of gender, age, ethnicity, buskers, artists, chatter, laughter, experience. For a few minutes your senses are often enlightened before the roaring sound of the train arrives at the platform. The sounds being amplified by the industrial materials and the tunnel form; nowhere else could this experience occur. For me, the journey was not only about getting from A to B, it was about the experience of arrival, of waiting, of engagement and leaving. So much so that I tried to capture the experience created by the colourful humans populating the pedestrian tunnels and platforms within a photographic study for one of my university assignments.

This poetic transaction between built form and cultural experience has been shown, none more so successfully, than within our very own Southport CBD. The Inaugural BIG CITY LIGHTS* Festival brought a transformational change across three nights last year. Change that lingered long after it was put away. The celebration of light, installation, art and live performances wove its way through streets and laneways; filtering across rooftops and facades; enchanting through interactions and sensory experience. And, perhaps I’m a little biased from playing a small role within the festival’s curation but, it was a feast to the senses, of mine and everyone who visited and engaged with the spaces; connecting the planning of built precincts with pop-up cultural events and permanent night time uses.

These are the spaces between. The colour that exists, that excites, that bridges diversity and brings connection, history, storytelling and experience to a place.

It has always been my deep-seated aspiration to create and collaborate on spaces and places that produce joy to the senses; an emotional connection with space. With places. My university thesis—completed a lifetime ago now—was titled, ‘The experience of space through existential phenomenology’. So powerful are memories and storytelling, built around your five senses, that the spaces you find compelling are written on the memories you have formed from other emotional connections and experiences.

It is these memories that help shape my design thinking and by understanding yours and the story behind the place, bring authenticity to a project. I would consider myself an eclectic designer. I love the differing touchpoints a place can bring. Which is why I love the soul of the city. Don’t fear the grit, the untidy, for the tapestry of colour that weaves its way throughout a city is something that evokes the senses like no other place can. Full of hidden treasures waiting to be uncovered by you and only you. Your senses will create a memory different to any other. And, perhaps philosophically, this is why cities work.

They’re a place for everyone.