Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Building community centres without...community

Our big studio project this term has been to design a community centre based off one of several long-span (read really big room) precedents. My studio prof has literally won a Governer's General Gold Medal in Architecture for her community centres. Our community centres consist of a large gymnasium area, lounge, social kitchen, meeting rooms, and washrooms/changerooms. They are designed on a north/south axis with the appropriate light control devices to create beautiful, indirect natural lighting. Thermal comfort is an issue of concern with detailed studies into the insulative qualities of the latest in architectural materials. Counters and stairs are based on the dimensions of the human body to enable ergonomic access to the various facilities. Dynamic spatial sequencing is of key importance. Sounds good so far eh?


Should not community centre should be centred around a community and involve the active participation of community members in the design process? What does the nieghbourhood need? Who will use the facility? What are the cultural and social values of the community?

As it is, a whole year of architecture students have learned a few great things about design, and one important lesson. The community is secondary to your design genius. Astute commentators may say that this is a school project and they can only do so much, and that we are learning many different and relevent 'first principles of good design'. Definitely true, given that as David Clark says "the architect is both an agent and mentor/teacher of a client". However, note in which order we are learning these roles: firstly mentor, then agent. By ignoring the stakeholder consultation aspect of the design process the school has effectively prioritized our egos over the well being of our 'client'.

In some cases this may be an appropriate response, but surely the last project on which we impose high ego-based design is a community centre. And surely not under the leadership of one of Canada's top community centre designers, at least according to the design fraternity.

Or does this expose a certain weakness among that self-same fraternity?

There are numerous other 'long span' structures from which we could learn these principles. Save the community centre for a time when we have the time and space to carry out some consultation, at least in theory.


Theodora Lamb said...

Thanks for the post Stew. Thankfully, just as there are architecture students like yourself, there are people learning how to fundraise, fill libraries, teach swimming lessons, care for children, tutor new immigrants, paint murals, repair treadmills, lead salsa aerobics - if you build it, they REALLY will come - and do their best to fill, form and build within the building, a community. And sometimes, they'll even do it for free, and without an extensive education.

Stewart Burgess said...

heh -- yep thank goodness! it would be pretty nice if they could be asked what they really wanted in their swimming pool, day care, art room, etc... rather than the architect imposing our/graphic standard's vision...

= )

John Horn said...

We have opened a Pandora's Box (well done, Stew and Theo)! "Experts" transposing their ideas on to local, community-based structures reveals an age-old and unfortunate power-relationship.

My favourite version of the "expert-learner" paradigm is in the field of international development. "Good day, African community. Sure, you might've been living for hundreds of years in a certain way with certain values and certain ideas on how to achieve balance with your environment, but, well, now things are a little messy and complicated - sorry about that, by the way. So, we're going to show you how to develop your community and catch-up to how things are done. First, here's a tractor! Second, here's a hydraulic pump for your new well. Third, here's a pamphlet on Western Democracy, women's rights and the scientifc method. Okay, so, my bill is on it's way, but I've, uh, gotta get going. Good luck, African community, and, hey, have fun with it!"

Stew, I thank you for showing us all that such a battleground also exists in our own community...centres.

Well done, sir.

Mike Boronowski said...

I wanted to chime in to defend expertise a little. Not that stakeholder consultation isn't an important step, but there are definite times where too many cooks spoil the broth. I'm inclined to suggest that while consultation is precisely what's needed at the early stages of development, it is poorly suited to stages further along the design cycle. Not that I have experience designing community centres in the real world, but I've seen (and been involved in) online communities that flounder because they have tried too hard to be everything to everyone.

I would hope that in the real world consultation is part of the process, but perhaps your professor has the wealth of research and knowledge at this point that consultation isn't as high on their list. Perhaps the lesson is not that your design genius comes before community, but that community has already come first and it is not necessary to redesign this particular wheel.