The Necessity of Community Engagement in Contemporary Architecture

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8th Feb 2020 Architecture Reference this

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Introduction

Community engagement is a process of working with community groups to solve problems affecting their well-being. In terms of architecture, it means the inclusion of the users in design procedure and partnership with non-professionals. In the Royal Institute of British Architects’s Guide to Localism: Opportunities for Architects, which is produced to encourage contemporary architects to embrace localism and cooperate with local resident bodies, has described community engagement as new skill requirement “in building effective dialogue and developing a shared understanding of places and their potential”[1].

Nowadays, the expectation is growing on the contemporary architect to embrace community engagement and to play a role in promoting successful social participation. Unfortunately, there is a trend of architectural culture trying to avoid it. Even though there is little doubt that social participation is “a crucial part of the design process” [2], especially because it ensures that buildings and spaces will fit in the end user’s needs. However, at the same time, the complexity of the social context is seen to “upset the purity of architectural values” [3], the architect finds it is difficult in cooperation and communication with non-professionals. Also, it requires the architect to spend a huge amount of time on it. Therefore, a broad debate about the necessity of the resident participating in the design process is discussed.

This writing is going to explore the necessity of community involvement according to the nature of architecture, the user thinking and the government’s attitude. Why does community engagement important in design process? How does the necessity of social participation present in architectural practices? The view in this paper will also be supported by case studies to illustrate the necessity of community involvement.

The nature of architecture


Architecture is “a typical superstructural activity”[4]. Giancarlo De Carlo, an Italian architect who had devoted his life in studying the relationship between life and architecture, said that (the architecture) has ability to alter “the context in which it is placed.”[5]. It might change the social relations or the residents’ living conditions. Architecture’s public nature decides it cannot be created by the architect himself and the process is always “embedded in society dynamics”[6]. Contemporary architecture’s function should not only to impress the viewer by its form, but also it needs to serve the user and create strong connection with the community.

A successful example of social participation improves the spatial and social relation in architectural practice is Passage 56, done by Atelier d’architecture autogérée in a Parisian neighbourhood. The architects in this project acted as enablers whilst at the same time “leaving enough room for others to take over responsibility”. The whole design is a continuous participatory process. From the planning to construction, the residents mostly led the project. For example, there are some small details like the orientation of the bench had been left to the local resident to decide and also the materials they using were collected by themselves. This project has also improved the relationship between the residents. Some people have never met each other before and cooperation for building garden provides them a chance to know their neighbours and so this area has become more harmonious and friendly. In addition, the project has transformed an abandoned passageway into a productive garden, which has invited more pedestrains over and made this area become more attractive and active.

Figure 1, Passage 56, photographed by Atelier d’architecture autogérée, 2006

The users joined the process of building making them feel that they have regained the ownership of this area. Passage 56 provides a good example that even a small daily practice has an ability to change the context.

User thinking

From the user’s point of view, their involvement is necessary and significant. In Successes and failures of participation-in-design: Cases from Old Havana, Cuba , the author has ascribed the importance of community engagement to the fact that the built environment is a result of “numerous decisions made by residents over long periods”[7]. Blundell Jones, a British architect and architectural historian, has also argued in his Architecture and Participation that the reason why community engagement is indispensable is because it creates “a sense of belonging to the world in which they (the user) live”[8], which will build the user’s responsibility to the architecture and also can avoid future conflicts.

In fact, in many cases, architecture has failed because the design was unable to satisfy the user or make them to support it. It may be caused by the community did not participate in their formulation of the work at all. However, this has rarely happened since the pressure from society and the government has made the importance of participation essential in design procedure. The real reason behind it is that the architects of the failed projects did not accept participation critically. It is known that the essence of architecture is to serve users, but usually the end user will reject the carefully considered neighbourhoods or buildings plan done by the architect. Such refusal is generally attributed to misunderstanding or lack of prior communication. The architect’s unilateral understanding of the building context and the willing of planning “for” the user normally will fail because the users are not personally involved in the design process. If they have no way to understand the purpose of the design, or if the building ultimately fails to meet their needs and their opinions are not reflected in the results, then their sense of responsibility will be lost for the building, and

so, there is no reason for them to support it.

For instance, the new CCTV Headquarters was unsuccessful in terms of lack of private office room. It was designed by Rem Koolhaas and now it has become a landmark in Beijing. The design is easy to attract the pedestrian’s attention by its unique form and ultimate height. However, according to the front-line staff, this building is not very functional as there is a limited number of rooms. “There is no place for me to sit down and work alone. If you want to do something then you have to sit with the others in a giant hall.”[9] Wentao Dou, a well-known talk-show host complained in his program. Rem Koolhaas has created a lot of generous community area. He might think working in today’s society is flexible and movable and there is no longer need to separate the working place into many little rooms. However, he did not consider the cultural context where in China people generally pay more attention on privacy. This project offers evidence that lack of participatory design techniques and communication with the user will lead to an unsatisfied result.

Figure 2. CCTV Headquarters, photographed by OMA, 2012

Figure 3. CCTV Headquarters Elements, produced by OMA, 2012

In this type of engagement, the community “ [has] participated in participation” but all that the architect “achieves is the evidence that they have gone through the required motions of involving ‘those people’ ”[10]. Instead of planning the architecture “for” the user, the architect should plan “with” the user. Although Rem Koolhaas and his team had done survey and questionnaire before the project starts, according to Sherry Arnstein ‘s “A ladder of citizen participation”, it still remains as at Tokenism and it is a “window dressing ritual” as only consultation exercise did not make the user have a feeling of participation. Measuring how many questionnaires have been returned after the meeting has “no assurance that community concerns and ideas will be taken into account”[11]. A report for Locality (2014) concluded that the reason of local people take part in their neighbourhood designing ­process is “to have some control over development in their area”[12]. For CCTV Headquarters, because the final outcome has neglected the impact of the participator’s contribution, the user does not feel a sense of controlling to the architecture. At the end, it not only made community engagement become an “empty and frustrating process for the powerless”[13], but also lost the trust from the community.

Figure 4. Eight Rungs On the Ladder of Citizen Participation, produced by Sherry Arnstein, 1969


Figure 5: Sketch of the Garden, done by Niall McLaughlin Architects, 2012

This failure could have been avoided if the architect had been willing to listen to the user’s voice and expound their requirement, instead of letting the process stifle the sound. Home for Older People, designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects, has adopted a well-thought-out and sensitive counseling process to involve older persons – the future end user of the building in the development of a design strategy for Camden nursing homes to meet the needs and aspirations of the population. Architects have arranged several different workshops to communicate closely with users and understand their wishes. For example, at the second workshop, participants were invited to two existing nursing homes to discover what is workable for staff and residents and which will not work. Large-scale models have been developed to record reviews and observations. The architect had even stayed nights over in the car home and really immersed into the elderly’s life. How to build social interaction and mobility has become the key to the design strategy. After the research, Niall McLaughlin and his team has decided to put social spaces, gardens and courtyards as their working priorities. The architect seriously listened to the participator’s voice and finally the elderly’s opinions have all been shown in the design, including small details like the height of the handrail and the distance from the garden to the bedroom. It not only makes all the users feel that their participation in the studios is worth it, and also the architect has successfully gained their trust. While in use, the resident will not have any dissatisfaction or opposition, as this building is also their product of work.

Figure 6: Niall Discussing Gardens With Consultees, photographed by Niall McLaughlin Architects, 2012

 

The government’s attitude

Policy and financial constraints have also changed, which put even more pressure on the design industry. The contemporary architect has been required not only to be skilled and confident in design, but also has ability to conceive and implement effective community engagement strategies. The European and the USA governments have already made participation a necessary part of regeneration and public architecture. ­­­On 13 December 2010, in order to enhance communication between the architects and the user, the UK government has introduced the Decentralisation and Localism Bill[14]. The key policy proposals include the end user’s duty to consult, the community’s right to build and buy. In general, it has delegated authority to the local resident and also provided them the opportunity to communicate with the architect before the project starts. These all show how much they attach importance to community engagement in architecture design process.

 

­Conclusion

This paper has tried to explain the necessity of community engagement through the nature of architecture, the user thinking and the government’s attitude. The significance of participation in contemporary architecture is demonstrated through describing three positive and negative case studies and at the end the UK government’s Decentralisation and Localism Bill in 2010 further proves its importance in today’s society. To conclude, it is complex and inconvenient to make non-professional local residents collaborate with the architect, however, as long as it has reflected their opinion and requirement, it can guarantee that end user’s degree of satisfaction of the final results.

Bibliography

  1. Valladres, Arturo, SUCCESSS AND FAILURES OF PARTICIPATION-IN-DESIGN: CASES FROM OLD HAVANA, CUBA (Canada: School of Urban Planning, McGill University, September 2017), p. 401-411
  2. Arnstein, Sherry, A LADDER OF CITIZEN PARTICIPATION (London: Routledge, July 1969), p. 216-224.
  3. Frampton, Kenneth, MODERN ARCHITECTURE: A CRITICAL HISTORY” (third edition Thames and Hudson World of Art, 1992).
  4. De Carlo, Giancarlo, ‘ARCHITECTURE’S PUBLIC’, in ARCHITECTURE & PARTICIPATION, ed. by Peter Blundell Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till(Great Britain: Spon Press, 2005), p. 3-22
  5. Richardson, Time; Connelly Stephen, ‘REINVENTING PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: PLANNING IN THE AGE OF CONSENSUS’, in ARCHITECTURE & PARTICIPATION, ed. by Peter Blundell, Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till(Great Britain: Spon Press, 2005), p. 77-104
  6. Sulzer, Peter, ‘NOTES ON PARTICIPATION’, in ARCHITECTURE & PARTICIPATION, ed. by Peter Blundell Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till(Great Britain: Spon Press, 2005), p. 149-160
  7. Jenkins, Paul; Forsyth, Leslie, ARCHITECTURE, PARTICIPATION AND SOCIETY (Oxon: Routledge, 2010).
  8. Brady, Angela, ‘GUIDE TO LOCALISM: OPPORTUNITIES FOR ARCHITECTURE – PART TWO: GETTING COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT RIGHT’, , , (2010), , in Royal Institute of British Architects <http://www.fluidoffice.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/0420-RIBA-Guide-Part-2.pdf> [accessed 10 April 2019].
  9. Taylor, David, LOCALISM IN ACTION: HOW CAN WE INVOLVE THE COMMUNITY IN REGENERATION PROJECTS? (1 May 2014) <https://www.newlondonarchitecture.org/news/2014/may/localism-in-action-how-can-we-involve-the-community-in-regeneration-projects> [accessed 20 March 2019].
  10. Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2010 to 2015 GOVERNMENT POLICY: LOCALISM (8 May 2015) <https://www.newlondonarchitecture.org/news/2014/may/localism-in-action-how-can-we-involve-the-community-in-regeneration-projects> [accessed 1 April 2019].
  11. Scottish Government, BARRIERS TO COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IN PLANNING: RESEARCH STUDY (22 May 2017) <https://www.gov.scot/publications/barriers-to-community-engagement-in-planning-research/> [accessed 1 April 2019].

List of Illustrations

  • Figure 1: Passage 56, photographed by Atelier d’architecture autogérée, 2006,
  • http://www.urbantactics.org/projects/passage%2056/passage56html.html
  • Figure 2: CCTV Headquarters, photographed by OMA, 2012, https://www.archdaily.com/236175/cctv-headquarters-oma?ad_medium=gallery
  • Figure 3: CCTV Headquarters Elements, produced by OMA, 2012, https://www.archdaily.com/236175/cctv-headquarters-oma?ad_medium=gallery
  • Figure 4: Eight Rungs On the Ladder of Citizen Participation, produced by Sherry Arnstein, https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=21024&section=4.1
  • Figure 5: Sketch of the Garden, done by Niall McLaughlin Architects, 2012 http://www.niallmclaughlin.com/projects/care-homes-camden/
  • Figure 6: Figure 6: Niall Discussing Gardens With Consultees, photographed by Niall McLaughlin Architects, 2012 http://www.niallmclaughlin.com/projects/care-homes-camden/

[1] RIBA, Guide to Localism- Opportunities for architects, Part two: Getting community engagement right, p.2

[2] RIBA, Guide to Localism – Opportunities for architects, Part two: Getting community engagement right

[3] Jeremy Till, Architecture, Participation and Society, xii

[4] Architecture and Participation, p.12

[5] Giancarlo De Carlo, Architecture’s Public

[6] Architecture, Participation and Society, p.12

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095263517300377

[8] Blundell Jones, Architecture and Participation

[9] Dou, Wentao, Season 2, Episode 14, ROUND TABLE TALK SHOW

[10] Arnstein, Sherry, A LADDER OF CITIZEN PARTICIPATION (London: Routledge, July 1969)

[11] Arnstein, Sherry, A LADDER OF CITIZEN PARTICIPATION (London: Routledge, July 1969)

[12] Scottish Government, BARRIERS TO COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IN PLANNING: RESEARCH STUDY (22 May 2017) <https://www.gov.scot/publications/barriers-to-community-engagement-in-planning-research/> [accessed 1 April 2019].

[13] Arnstein, Sherry, A LADDER OF CITIZEN PARTICIPATION (London: Routledge, July 1969)

[14] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2010 to 2015 GOVERNMENT POLICY: LOCALISM (8 May 2015) <https://www.newlondonarchitecture.org/news/2014/may/localism-in-action-how-can-we-involve-the-community-in-regeneration-projects> [accessed 1 April 2019].

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