The global financial crisis has strengthened the appeal of community as an antidote to crass individualism and material gain. And I mean flesh-and-blood community, whether relaxing at main street village cafes, fairs or festivals, creating vegetable gardens and attending farmers markets, or going to face-to-face meetings of people previously only communicated with via the internet on local or global campaigns.
This extra attention is rubbing off on a new breed of community centres too. Variously named neighbourhood centres, community houses, development projects and so on, these centres have long been 'a soft entry point to the service system for many people who do not understand what is available, or are reluctant to engage', executive director of the Local Community Services Association (LCSA) Brian Smith says.
As such they have a crucial role in making people feel at home, but, says architect Larry Melocco, they suffer from a reputation for poorly maintained facilities, or for being overgrown scout huts in out-of-the-way places, and so underutilised.
His firm, Brewster Hjorth, recently won the Master Builders Australia construction award for public buildings up to $10 million for the new multi-level library and community centre at Ingleburn in Sydney's south-west. It has study areas, outdoor seating, a sports area and playground.
Though not all councils are fortunate enough to have money to spare, where possible this new approach also emphasises the importance of an accessible location, natural light, good communication equipment and operable walls for different sized functions.
The highest profile transformation to date, the Surry Hills Library and Community Centre (SHLCC, pictured), is on the original site at 405 Crown Street in inner-city Sydney. Surry Hills, which editorial director of Indesign magazine, Paul McGillick, believes has 'the highest concentration of design-related businesses in Australia', is also a suburb of public housing estates, drug and alcohol-fuelled street violence and break-ins.
Sydney City Council and centre staff hope the SHLCC with its prominent street front and water and energy saving rainwater tank, photovoltaic array, plant-filtered, naturally cooled air, and recycled materials will attract a comprehensive mix of users.
Architect Richard Francis-Jones of Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (fjmt) says his greatest joy was 'to see a building like this in use'. At its opening in June it attracted well over 1000 people, although only 100 were expected. Every time I have visited it, people of all ages and backgrounds sit in the white couches, stools and desks and use the free Wi-Fi computers. The children's play area (separate from the upstairs childcare centre) is always busy.
Community centre manager, Kate Melhopt, says more people are looking around the centre and attending classes in a cross-fertilisation of different community strands under the one roof. Regular classes include Multicultural Cooking (there is a commercial standard kitchen) and English Conversation. This is still a core subject from the original 1950s centre, and helps migrants, especially women, feel less isolated, she says.
Sydney City Council chief executive officer, Monica Barone, is in no doubt that the $19 million centre sends a strong, positive signal to those users 'that we're investing in you. We're committed to excellent public buildings that show we think the community is deserving of this, and the community has never let us down.'
Community consultation and respect were also important at Sydney's Cabravale. The swimming pool at the leisure centre is heated to 32 degrees Celsius, which the Vietnamese and Chinese population there requested, and Learn to Swim classes have really taken off, according to marketing coordinator Christopher Zaverdinos.
Outer Melbourne's Caroline Springs Civic Centre and Library deliver community services and activities, says Mark van den Enden, practice design manager for Suters Prior Cheney Architects. His credo is to consult as widely as possible, with the unvocal voices, the 'ones least heard' and not just designated focus groups. 'Listen to them, and don't keep on saying "we can't do good work in the suburbs". We need to go out on that limb.'
Just as architecture can play an important role in community building, community building is important to the profession of architecture looking to 'break down silos of control' and develop as creative innovators. The Hippocratic oath of architecture, he says, would be, 'Above all else to do no harm'.
Through a partnership between the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Australian Local Government Association architects offer their services, initially pro bono, for the construction of community facilities worth more than $1 billion.
In a further dovetailing of community and design the themes of next year's AIA conference — people, things, living, cities — will allow architects to show fresh ways of working, operating from the bottom up, 'rejecting the detached gaze, rolling their sleeves up and searching for useful solutions', says creative director Melanie Dodd.
Design is hard to measure; it is qualitative not quantitative and can strike one unexpectedly. The international award-winning Manchester Civil Justice Centre in the north of England, from Melbourne-based architects Denton Corker Marshall, for instance, was praised for its visible layering of public and court areas, its transparency symbolising the accessibility of the law. Whether you agree with that or not, the centre's openness is popular with staff and members of appeals tribunals alike.
Equally design can only achieve so much. As the LCSA's Smith warns, 'It does not matter how attractive and modern the building is if the core funding for the services it can provide is not adequate.' Social inclusion requires the resources to make a building live and service its users — an argument for more funding to match the revitalisation that modern design can bring.
As the community comprises unemployed and underemployed, and consultants, freelancers, small business owners and others with transportable portfolios working flexible, irregular hours, there is every reason to believe these places in which the community can gather will be needed more than ever.
Deborah Singerman is a Sydney-based freelance journalist, editor and managing editor. She has over 15 years experience specialising in sustainability and sociocultural issues within the built and urban environment.