Strolling down Brighton beach with my family last summer, we heard in the distance a glorious explosion of brass music coming from the city’s Victorian bandstand. As we hurried over to join the throng, I suddenly found myself blinking back a tear of joy at this unexpected gift: a moment of social connection with a crowd united by soaring melodies and architectural splendour, with absolutely nothing expected of us in return.
I’ve always judged a place by how well it cares for its citizens. A bandstand – built surely for no other purpose than collective pleasure – is a pretty good start. In their Victorian heyday, there were 1,500 exotically designed bandstands in Britain. But then the paternalistic Victorians excelled at civic architecture, providing the public with landscaped parks, elegant bathhouses and lidos, ornate piers, and abundant libraries – places for socialising, relaxing and coming together in good times.
Our need to gather is timeless though. Who didn’t feel that ache more acutely than ever during the pandemic? The sociologist Richard Sennet writes a lot about human requirements in times of crisis, especially our need to be surrounded by others, even if they’re complete strangers. During my own family’s daily lockdown outings, I would strategically position us so we might find the opportunity for random chats. Creating this possibility for meaningful engagement is a pillar of community architecture. It’s hard to feel lonely when bonded by music, play or good conversation. Its why design is so important: for civic architecture to truly work, everyone needs to feel that they belong. With ever more diverse communities, these places now need to be multifunctional, offering something for everyone.
Perhaps that’s why we’ve lost many heritage assets to rack and ruin – the Victorian one-size-fits-all response feels less relevant now. Take libraries. Many, in their stuffy old incarnation of silence and study, have not survived. But when their design has been approached with inclusivity in mind, it’s made for some exciting reinventions. The colossal, tiered-glass Library of Birmingham features rooftop gardens, an outdoor amphitheatre, and dedicated spaces for kids and teens. Inside, it feels like a palace for the people – each and every one of them. Similarly, architects Will Alsop and Jan Störmer’s fun, colourful (and award-winning) Peckham Library in south London is inviting, not excluding.
We may not have the Victorians’ budgets (funded, of course, by the spoils of empire), but it feels like civic architecture is enjoying something of a renaissance. If ever I come across a new private-sector development, I always look out for the communal elements now that planning controls have enabled local authorities to demand they’re included. The new Design District at the Greenwich Peninsula is an entire block of co-working spaces, studios, exercise areas, and eateries, all designed by a roll call of buzzy architects (among them SelgasCano, Architecture 00, and 6a architects). Its purpose? To support the creative industries with low rents and a cool, dynamic workplace in which anyone would feel proud to work.
But, to me, the most exciting type of development is what’s known as ‘activation’ – the repurposing of unused spaces for community use. It makes perfect sense, given the high volume of unused building stock and the environmental consequences of conventional construction. Building reuse is an important part of the circular economy, and perhaps the most economically viable option for civic architecture right now. The architecture collective Assemble were the first ever architects to win the Turner Prize – for renovating a rundown neighbourhood, Granby Four Streets in Liverpool, for which they also created social spaces, a homewares workshop, and a local market.
Mostly what’s happening now are bottom-up endeavours. I jump for joy every time another glorious Victorian or Edwardian swimming pool is saved from closure by local resident groups, who’ve invariably fought long battles against developers, and done everything they can to secure crowdfunding. There’s an impressive list of such rescue missions (among them Leeds’ Bramley Baths, Bristol’s Jubilee Pool, and Manchester’s Victoria Baths), all lovingly restored and returned to a happy, relieved community, along with plenty of other options – exercise, dance, food, chatting – should swimming not appeal.
On another trip to Brighton a couple of years ago, we chanced upon the designer Morag Myerscough’s ‘Belonging Bandstand’ as it travelled around Sussex. Morag, whose work is renowned for bringing a smile to people’s faces, had adorned her mobile stage with placards created in community workshops. Variously reading ‘family’, ‘safe’ and ‘be yourself together’, these slogans were people’s responses to what belonging meant to them. The message was clear: this was everyone’s bandstand. We couldn’t resist the gravitational pull. We danced, played and picnicked, and left inspired, refreshed and happy. It was a perfect example of modern-day civic architecture: a moment of wonder created by the community for the community, and proof that you don’t need extravagant new buildings to care for your fellow citizens.