A Very Tall Tale

Usually, when I do surveys of existing environments, I have a certain focus.

Safety issues, involving refuge areas have long been a hobby horse; and for some time now I’ve had in mind to do a research document on arrival points. For me these are of high importance as a fundamental architectural approach, when creating spaces, is to celebrate this first encounter.

Due to our modern obsession with security there is often a conflict here although I’m sure there should not be. I was told by an attorney that, according to tradition, a counter at the most prestigious practices should be a barrier between the professional and the client. This was also the situation at a doctor’s rooms, where it was a worry that the keys to the drugs cabinet would be at risk if the counter did not clearly say Stop Here!

Well, my opinion is that a counter should be the place where a statement of openness occurs, both welcoming and unthreatening, with eye-to-eye contact and such like.

Banks get confused between showing off how safe their clients’ money is and their “How Can We Help?” approach. They say one thing but do another. Sometimes it’s a half-and-half, with some counters being for sitting at, and others for standing.

Hotels also give mixed messages, with their reception and hall-porter desks being really tall on the customer side, perhaps fearing that the hordes might come rushing in if they were more open. I’m sure that travellers often arrive tired and would appreciate being able to sit when signing in.

MTN have the “Take A Number” approach and, again, the customer stands whilst the staff member sits. Government departments such as the office where you pay your fines, definitely have the customer standing and the staff member sitting. Home Affairs and the Motor licensing Office, here in Durban, have a large hall with rows and rows of benches, classroom style, where the customer sits and slides across, closer and closer to the counters until you finally get your turn based on the order in which you arrived. (I quite like that one, though everyone else I know complains about the length of time it takes).

Car hire companies at airports have their staff members standing. They must get awfully tired with their long shifts, and I have noticed that there is hardly anyone over 30 working behind the counter!

Getting back to what I want to say: it seems to me that supermarkets appear to have cracked it. They have a lot of money in their tills (just like the banks) and the same long queues to deal with. The customer, tall or short, puts the goods on to the dining-table height counter and there is a small, raised section for the signing of cheques or credit card slips. The teller sits on an ordinary chair.

I assume that the higher counter profiles came about to conceal cabling behind the screens of computers. When this was tidied up and went wireless, the tall design of the counter stayed in place and is now used for storing lunch boxes and other non-essentials.

I’m not saying that counters should never be at bar-room pub height, but I do think that they should be carefully considered, and looked at afresh.

Look at the counter (above) in an Art Deco building in London: RIBA. The front door is on the left. I’m sitting on a soft chair on the other side of the room. It is suitable for everyone. They don’t have queues of people visiting, and there’s good signage on the right to direct you to the rest of the building. The principles behind the design of this counter? Simple lines, ergonomic shape to suit the persons using it, beautiful material, not dominating the room, exactly the right scale, though holding its own as a piece and thus preserving the space.

At the Emmanuel Cathedral precinct in Durban’s Grey Street area, (adjacent to the Mosque), there is a piazza which belongs to the Municipality. In the middle of the piazza there are tall ready-made metal counters, with a protecting roof for traders, servicing the passing trade that moves from the taxi rank to the formal shopping area.

Last week I realised that the counters themselves stand mainly empty as they are too high! The traders have placed boxes at a lower level where they display their goods at a more suitable height.


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