22 December 2018

In an era of shrinking public funds, and an increasingly complicated relationship between citizens, communities, government bodies and private enterprise, what do we want our public buildings to stand for and who should be responsible for defining their function? Grace Allen speaks to architectural designer Adam Nathaniel Furman, who has sparked conversation on the visual language of the city hall, and Louis Becker, partner and design principal at Henning Larsen Architects, about the civic architecture helping to pose and frame those questions.

The Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti had a clear conception of the architect’s civic responsibility and signifi cance. “The security, dignity and honour of the republic depend greatly on the architect,” he wrote in his mid-15th-century treatise De re aedifi catoria (On the Art of Building), a work that drew on the classical theories of Vitruvius and provided Renaissance Italy with its fi rst architectural manual. Alberti understood that the essence of a city, its reputation and understanding of itself, and therefore its civic conduct, were linked – or, indeed, dependent on – the quality of the buildings that formed it.

In an age when individual virtue had become closely linked to active contributions to the public good, Alberti would have expected every new project within a city to be attuned to the needs of the republic. Even so, a city hall carries particular weight, both in the past and now. Alberti lived and worked for a time in Florence, where the monumental medieval Palazzo Vecchio – the seat of government – dominates the centre of the city.

In the modern era, there is perhaps no better example of the value of the architect in shaping the security, dignity and honour of a city than in Toronto, where the massive and modernist New City Hall, in the words of architecture critic Alex Bozikovic, “instantly transformed Toronto’s image of itself”.

Designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell and opened in 1965, the City Hall’s semi-circular council chamber is elevated on a stem and embraced by two statuesque curved towers. The building has become an emblem of Toronto and is credited with opening the way to an innovative manifestation of the city.

The ambition and correspondingly powerful effect of Toronto City Hall illustrates the need for civic buildings to be generous in the architecture they give to a city’s residents.

“If it looks like a commercial speculative office building you could rent out, then you’re losing the point of the city hall,” says Louis Becker, partner and design principal at Henning Larsen Architects.

“There’s a lie, a great lie, that a neutral space allows anything to occur in it,” Furman says. “It does the precise opposite; it alienates people.”

Aesthetics are political

The company’s recently completed Eystur Town Hall in the Faroe Islands, a winner at the 2018 Global Architecture and Design Awards, is emblematic of the studio’s approach to the creativity possible in civic buildings. Long, low and almost invisible from some angles, the single-storey town hall forms a physical and symbolic bridge between the two municipalities it governs by spanning the river that divides them. Its green roof and blackened wood echo traditional Faroese building techniques, while glass panels offer views of the surrounding scenery and down to the river below.

The necessity and responsibility for civic architecture to ‘speak louder’ than other buildings is a conviction of artist and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman, who is also currently teaching a studio on city halls to architecture students at Central St Martins in London. Furman’s Democratic Monument, commissioned by the 2017 Architecture Fringe as part of the exhibition New Typologies, is a colour-saturated and energetic vision of civic pride where historic forms are combined with modern techniques and vivid ornamentation.

Fundamental to Furman’s conception of the city hall is the connection between civic spaces and the political expressions they inspire.

“Aesthetics are political,” he says. “People relate and respond very strongly to how things look and feel, and architects can’t ignore that.”

The Democratic Monument is, therefore, also a rejection of the neutral forms that have come to embody much civic architecture.

“There’s a lie, a great lie, that a neutral space allows anything to occur in it,” Furman says. “It does the precise opposite; it alienates people.”

A city hall has to offer a location for the expression of all aspects of democracy, including the right to protest.

“There’s a reason that political campaigns, political demonstrations, political gatherings, great events, always happen in places that have got spectacular backgrounds,” Furman asserts. “That’s where people want to manifest their ideals.”

Encouraging participation with a civic space is a priority for Henning Larsen Architects, which has worked on city halls from Denmark to Canada.

“They all share one thing; that is how you will be met when you enter the building,” Becker says. “We are very precise about that – when you enter the building you have to feel welcome.”

Transparency and inclusivity

In addition to a personal greeting, a relaxed and unthreatening atmosphere is also conjured through the use of glass and uncluttered spaces to create visibility: in the city hall in Middelfart, Denmark, an atrium and exposed staircase open up the whole building to view. Focusing on the liminal spaces between the town hall and a street or square, blurring these boundaries, minimises the sense of the town hall as a closed-off space.

Transparency is a key concept for the company. “You know there’s nothing worse than the feeling of going into an East German office – when that was still in function – and it was all brown, and there were many closed doors and you knew behind those doors something was happening, and it might not be good,” Becker says. “I think what we’re trying to do is take you as a citizen, you come to your place, it’s your building, and you look in and there’s transparency.”

Creating an inclusive sense of welcome also requires engaging with the multifaceted cultural realities of civic communities: a critical approach that Furman believes is lacking in civic architecture.

“We have queerness, we have other groupings, we have multiple cultures, we have different religions and somehow they all have to coexist,” he says. “That’s not something that has ever been allowed, in any way, to even begin being looked at as part of architecture.”

The exuberant facade of the Democratic Monument is intended to act as a counter to this, an eddying mix of styles and historic references that combine into a universal belonging.

Furman’s proposal incorporates specific regional elements – soils, stones – that tie the building to its location. A sense of place and history is also key to the town halls constructed by Henning Larsen, and this is particularly true in Kiruna, Sweden, a town moved 3km after subsidence created by mining threatened the original community. The city hall site incorporates the bell tower from the previous structure; the new building itself references the area’s mineral deposits, resembling a crystal caught within a band.

The town hall in Kiruna is designed to provide a gathering point for an uprooted and displaced community. In an age when civic services are increasingly outsourced or offered online, however, there is a challenge in making a city hall a true civic centre. In Furman’s eyes, many town halls have abdicated their role as the symbolic heart of a community, with this task taken up by selective spaces such as art galleries or shopping centres.

Collective ownership

For Louis Becker, flexible use offers a pathway to establishing the city hall as the spatial representation of a community.

“This idea, that you are building a public facility and you allow it to be used in multiple different ways, that supports this idea that it’s our building, it’s our place,” he says. “It’s collective ownership basically, at least symbolically.”

Reducing the number of fixed seats, creating a fluid space – in Middelfart City Hall, a stairway doubles as a seating area – and bringing events such as art exhibitions, concerts and leisure classes into the building opens it up to a broader section of the population.

While moving civic services online may serve to dissolve connections between citizens and the physical town hall, Becker sees the savings inherent in this process as a possible opportunity, creating funds to invest in the improved provision of those activities that remain.

Another option to maintain the town hall’s relevance to a community is to merge it with other functions such as shops, sports centres, libraries. An example is the Corby Cube by Hawkins Brown in Northamptonshire, which combines a council chamber with two theatres and a library; Middelfart City Hall is part of a complex that includes residential and retail space.

“We’ve done one where it’s totally integrated, and it works perfectly, but the hierarchy of the place is very simple,” Becker says. “It’s the city hall that’s number one.”

Furman, too, is open to this possibility. “In the past, town halls weren’t fixed things,” he says. “You had great halls in different cities, which were used as debating chambers, but also used for political events, annual music festivals, theatre.”

The ultimate consideration must be the purpose of a city hall – to serve the people.

“I understand that the owner in reality is the end users and not the people paying for it,” Becker says. “And that particularly counts for city halls.”

© Nic Lehoux
Eystur Town Hall, Faroe Islands: an awardwinning design by Henning Larsen Architects.
The Democratic Monument, Glasgow: a colour-saturated vision of civic pride.
Kiruna Town Hall, Sweden: designed by Henning Larsen to capture a sense of place and history, the site incorporates the previous structure’s bell tower and the area’s mineral deposits.

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