Civic Architecture

GUEST ARTICLE: When it comes to civic architecture, build beautiful and build to last

  • 1 Aug 2023

Civic ArchitectureThis guest article focusing on the building of civic architecture comes from Daniel Leon, CEO of Square Feet Architects…

“We recently learnt that thousands of public buildings put up in Britain from the 1950s to the 1990s may be in danger of collapse. The culprit is ‘reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete’ (RAAC), a material used in many of these structures. RAAC is a cheap concrete substitute: it has a dismal lifespan of around thirty years, and is prone to disintegrate when wet.

Hardly the stuff of Roman aqueducts. What’s more, the RAAC controversy highlights a dispiriting trend. For some time now, Britain has treated its civic buildings as disposable objects. Many public buildings built over the past few decades have since become notorious for poor construction and a lack of aesthetic appeal; a large number are now slated for demolition, or – as the RAAC affair shows – are beginning to fall apart of their own accord. A telling symbol of this can be found in the Marble Arch Mound: a roundly-hated public attraction that soon began to collapse under its own weight, and was swiftly demolished.

There is a cost to this. Being blasé about our civic architecture has negative knock-on effects. For one, it causes significant environmental damage. A colossal two thirds of the UK’s annual waste comes from construction, and demolition. There is a pressing need to build quality civic structures – both to cut down on demolitions, and to take advantage of new building designs that can reduce emissions.

Poor-quality civic construction also harms our towns, cities, and communities.

Attractive and suitably stately civic buildings can liven up a public area. We only have to look at how Waterhouse’s Manchester Town Hall or Preston’s spaceship fusillade-like bus station have become community symbols; landmarks of people’s love for their local area, and an authentic link to a shared past. Such structures make members of a community feel part of a collective whole.

Unfortunately, the obverse is also true. Dreary and poor-quality public buildings can repel people from civic spaces, leaving them empty and lifeless. On a more practical level, if public buildings continue to fall into disrepair, we can only expect this to have a negative effect on those they serve: from students to patients and those in poverty.

We would all benefit from a concerted investment in civic buildings. Architects, developers, and local government should think big: aiming to build structures that will stand through the ages as symbols of a community.  A focus on creative designs and the use of quality materials would pay dividends, cutting down on long-term costs and rejuvenating town centres.

Local government could involve the community in the process by partnering with local artists and designers. Communities could push the boat out with biophilic designs for greater sustainability, or designs that embody the Japanese ‘wabi-sabi’ principle of simplicity and comfort.

Cheap and disposable public buildings are a false economy – socially, environmentally, and financially. A renewed focus on creativity, beauty, and quality in civic design would do much to improve lives up and down Britain.”

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