A whole placemaking movement has evolved to counteract a well-recognised phenomenon of towns and parts of cities that are a bit like a no man’s land. Sometimes they come across like this because they are overdeveloped with little room for spontaneity or they are just bland and lack spark or soul.
Have architects forgotten how to design places that thrive and are full of life? When comparing how fondly many speak of historic building and settings in comparison to more recent additions in the built environment, you might well argue that too many architects no longer know how to connect with people through their buildings.
Yet something slightly magical happens when buildings become meaningful in the lives of people who see and occupy them. And particularly so, if they are public buildings because when successful they engender civic pride. This is something every citizen should be allowed to feel for free. For it can elevate us, make us feel a part of something greater than ourselves while engendering solidarity. Surely this is something we want more of and need particularly now in increasingly divisive era.
A common misconception is that civic pride is only engendered through important landmark buildings like town halls, museums or libraries. However, buildings of all types in the public realm can achieve this. They can be residential or commercial or industrial. They can be used for leisure or healthcare or entertainment. What matters is that they generate a sense of shared purpose and vibrancy.
Too often new developments treat their occupants in a singular fashion as either just consumers or producers. This presumptive design sucks life out of places. Architects need to work with their clients in a way that avoids excessively prescriptive uses. This also applies to future uses of buildings. The strongest buildings are the ones that can be remodeled to perform completely new functions. For example, from private house to school to offices. A building or place that is able to transform itself also feels vibrant: an aspect of design that is critical to engagement.
Vibrancy also comes about through inclusiveness in the way a place is used and occupied. This is a critical issue in our time when commercialization and gentrification are limiting the range of shared purpose possible within many new developments. Architects need to address this together with their clients. And architects need to come together more to address what the shared purpose of their profession is in creating buildings and towns and cities that people will take pleasure in for years to come.