'Design flaw' haunts public buildings

Most of Britain’s public buildings alienate people as much as they support them, David Adjaye, one of the country’s most prominent architects has declared.

Speaking to The Observer, the Tanzanian born architect said grand and impressive features such as those on London’s City Hall threaten to isolate Britons rather than embrace them.

He claims that instead of including elements of design from peoples’ every day life, the majority of public-facing buildings are too like palaces, suggesting big is not always beautiful, rather it’s imposing.

“A building like the National Gallery, with its grand staircase and portico, is a good example,” Adjaye said.

“It’s beautiful, but unless you’re with a school group or in the art world you won’t want to go inside. For me, that’s not what a public building should be.

“It is absolutely incumbent on us to find ways of making public buildings which engage as many people as possible.”

He explained how most public buildings are “out of step with society,” because contemporary architects are still mostly working with iconography of the 19th century.

Adjaye said these buildings are not “bad,” but using City Hall as an example, illustrated how they are ‘too forbidding’ for the public eye.

“You wouldn’t want to go in there,” he said of Lord Foster’s design.

“People see those sorts of buildings as institutional immediately, and assume, ‘that’s not for me, it’s not my world.’”

As a result, the 39-year-old recommends incorporating elements from ‘non-institutionalised communal spaces’ if public buildings are to entice its intended patron inside.

His design theory stands proud in London today, after Adjaye included concepts and colours synonymous with the market place in his ‘Idea Store’ library and education centre.

According to the BBC, the Whitechapel building has more than quadrupled its number of daily visitors since 2003, in an area noted for poor literacy and sub-standard use of library facilities.

“People feel comfortable in the market, and by incorporating its colours in the design for the building I’m sending out a signal that this building is for them,” Adjaye said, reflecting on his Tower Hamlets project.

However the architect’s big idea on public building design is not universally accepted, not least because all public buildings don’t necessarily carry out the same function.

Isabel Allen, editor of Architects Journal, said: “Government buildings like City Hall are different from libraries. The public aren’t actually supposed to be invited in.”

If Adjaye gets his way, his next public building is likely to be for a religious or inspirational setting, rather than a political one.

“As soon as you start talking about things politically, people get really worried. But if you look at most contemporary art, it makes a comment about social conditions right now. It’s about time architecture did the same thing,” he said.

In contrast, the architect admitted he was ”dying” to design a church, but added that the buildings have been complicit in institutionalising and alienating people.

Adjaye said:” The message was, ‘look and believe’. Now that message has changed, and the architecture of a modern church should reflect that.”


23rd January 2006

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