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Reinventing our gathering places

  • 26 November 2009
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.