Inspirational Case Studies
Architecture and Placemaking has the power to transform communities, connecting them to place and shared histories.
In the UK, provincial towns from Norwich to Glasgow are host to pioneering case studies that are winning prizes for spearheading inequality and reconfiguring city-living for the future.
When this year’s international architecture prize, the RIBA Stirling Prize, was awarded to architects who’d designed a street in the provincial British town of Norwich, rather than the usual winning entries of skyscrapers or museums, and a line was drawn in the sand. Had the realisation that streets make a community, something of greatest value for cities of the future, finally been recognised?
As Francis Kéré the award-winning architect from Burkino Faso explains,
‘architecture is basically a social process — especially in the poorer regions of the world. It is about integrating the people, you build for, making them feel, it is their project. In this way, they identify with the building and are proud of it.’
The winning project on Goldsmith Street, Norwich, by Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley has been described as ‘a modern masterpiece.’ What had they done that was so special when designing a community of 105 homes? Their formula was inspiringly simple. There are no divides between the social (non-owned) and the limited private-tenure housing. There is shared space where children can play, and front doors face one another, connecting neighbours. As one resident put it: ‘we made instant friends across the street’. There are private balconies that overlook public space, which impacts on social responsibility, and the thoughtful designs extend to attractive energy efficiency of up to 80 per cent lower cost compared to other housing.
This considerate community building is a backlash against stacking people high in tower blocks, resulting in the demolition of streets that in turn generated social isolation. Such communities suffered in the absence of shared space. The only problem Goldsmith Street now has to contend with is the hordes of local councils from all over the world coming to witness the genius of thoughtful planning in action, where community is prioritised.
Another fascinating case study of community-focussed architecture is that of Assemble, a collective of 18 architects, artists and designers in the UK, who won the 2015 Turner Prize for art. Their work focusses on challenging the disconnect between the public and the processes by which cities are made. They have rehabilitated a street in Glasgow destined for demolition creating affordable housing, community ownership as well as the Granby Winter Garden. In Liverpool in another depressed area, they created an adventure playground for children. In both cases, their priority was to listen to the needs of the community.
“From the outset we agreed that a good neighbourhood needs more than just housing – we were actively looking for opportunities to support the creative and community activity in the area, and promote sustainable local enterprise”
– founding member of Assemble Anthony Engi Meacock.
Quite simply, these are all projects that find solutions that go beyond and inspire all who encounter them.
Build, rebuild, build, rebuild
Theaster Gates, is the internationally-recognised Chicago-based artist whose artworks have elevated social impact in the arts in inspirational ways.
His artworks have long been focussed on creating new spaces for communities in the economically depressed area of South Side Chicago, where he grew up. Early projects involved the rehabilitation of abandoned individual buildings, such as a former bank he bought for just one dollar, and then transformed into a vibrant arts hub for community use.
Scaling up of his art project was rapid, from creating individual libraries and cinemas that explored Black culture to a housing project of thirty buildings, at the centre of which he situatated a dance and music studio as a meeting place for the whole community together. Bearing in mind that all these activations took place in abandoned areas, where whole populations, except a few had departed. Rather than merely being about social regeneration, these projects demonstrated visibly the power of the arts to give hope and even employment to those left behind.
On seeing the success of his projects, Gates also founded the Rebuild Foundation – a non-profit platform aimed at galvanizing communities and the development of educational and arts programming. This Foundation now work on all his projects and he extended skills training through the Dorchester Industries job creation initiative, where craftsmen were trained in skills that they could then use to earn a living.
Gates puts art in practice. Not only did he see hope where others had only seen decay and unemployment; he also put the out of work into work, placing community and the arts at the centre of his projects and creating a legacy for us all to learn from.