Out to play
It is during our leisure time that we have our social needs met while connecting with others in a playful, relaxed, and meaningful way. Public architecture helps us to achieve this goal.
Great public architecture is here already
At least that's the theory. And up to the past few decades it held true. Every village and town in the country had a magnificent piece of architecture, a place for people to connect and for communities to come together. That place was the church; every one an individually-created, awe-inspiring feat of construction. Regardless of one's religious beliefs one can't help but be wowed by the sheer ingenuity and effort of design, engineering, and craftsmanship that goes in to building a church.
Our short attention span
Nowadays, though, many of us hardly notice churches, their status as the centre of the community and places of connection has slowly ebbed away. The public buildings that we notice, instead, are buildings that shout out to us at full volume. The funky art galleries, cathedral-like shopping centres, sculpted skyscrapers, and sports arenas that look as if they've landed from outer space.
The symbol trick
One of the first of this new type of eye-catching building was completed in 1973. Responding to an architectural competition for a new opera house, The Danish architect Jørn Utzon realised that the Australian state of New South Wales didn't so much want an opera house as a symbol. His design, the Sydney opera house, certainly delivered the symbolic qualities he intended - for the country as well as the state. Yet it did so at the expense of the building's interior, which is not a favourite venue for opera singers. This was primarily a building as a sculptural art form, not a building in which to appreciate opera.
Hollow on the inside
Today many cities seek the symbolic architecture that will develop the skyline and attract admirers from far afield. Architecture can generate a buzz about a place, can make a place seem cool, and can revitalise a tired city-centre. But does this type of public architecture help us to connect with each other more meaningfully? Why are we often left with a hollow feeling when visiting the latest piece of architectural bling, brought to us by the hottest 'starchitect'?
Finding the human touch
That hollow feeling is the feeling of being manipulated by a building with a purpose. The purpose being to deliver an experience, like a ride at a fair ground. It might seem interesting and exciting at the time, but it's soon forgotten. What we tend to remember are the people we meet, the unexpected conversations we might have, and the funny things that happen to us. The human things that connect us. Of course these things can happen in iconic buildings, but the buildings themselves aren't helping us when they manage us through an experience in our own little bubbles, coughing us up into the gift shop at the end.
Design your own life
Perhaps it is to the more modest buildings that we should look to. The flexible public spaces where we can create our own experiences and connections without the architecture directing us. Village halls, municipal centres, pavilions, parks, even churches. Perhaps more than anything we need to rediscover our own creativity. How would you could create a connecting experience for friends or family? Which space in your local community could you use?
Professor of Design Studies at The Open University