Read an article or listen to any lecture about architecture, and you will likely be struck by how much architects talk about the idea of community. Fostering it, creating it, choreographing it, reenergizing it. The idea of community is, if not the mandate of architecture, certainly a responsibility of it. What, otherwise, is the point?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For all our fixation—and despite all our insistence—we should remember: architecture does not conjure community from thin air. It is a medium for facilitating relationships and staging interaction. Put another way, architecture is the container for the community, but not the community itself.
We can break it down. The one thing that the community needs in order to be one is an identity. This, in turn, is often created with some idea of strong activity, something you do together. Or it may be a physical thing that you react to—for us, that means architecture; buildings or spaces or places. It’s difficult to be a community around nothing.
In architecture, the goal is to reflect that identity and represent the community in the design. It might be buttoned-up or exuberant, ostentatious or humble, welcoming or rebuffing; any number of things.
That is not to say it is a clear-cut process. Designing for the community is like aiming at a barely visible target. New buildings typically intend to coax a different kind of community from one that already exists or to stage the kinds of interactions that did not previously happen. You can support a sense of community or the meeting of people by how you design architecture; almost make people bump into each other to say hello by accident—but it’s not by accident.
It helps when people already feel proud of the building that you create. Within our own office, the whole philosophy has always been that if you have something to say and something to offer, you will be heard regardless of position or seniority. The design process is democratic, which means that everyone has a stake in it. The same is true outside the office walls. If you listen to the people you are truly designing for—the users and the community around the building—it generates a collective feeling of ownership.
Buildings can be a strong statement of change, for people to share and rally around.