Civic buildings are, as a rule, both austere and intimidating. They are often designed to represent authority above all, taking cues from Classical architectural language to construct an image of power, dominance, and civic unity. Adam Nathaniel Furman, a London-based architect and thinker, has at once eschewed and reengaged this typology in order to propose an entirely new type of civic center (“Town Hall”) for British cities. The proposal is currently on display at the 2017 Scottish Architectural Fringe in Glasgow.
By “re-grouping various civic functions into one visually symbolic composition of architectural forms,” references and types of ornament and allusions have been configured “depending on the metropolitan area within which it is situated in and embodies.” In short, Furman states, the Democratic Monument “is an expression of urban pride, chromatic joy, and architectural complexity” which has universal symbolism but remains a beacon to its vicinity.
What Town Halls are, their names, their forms, their programs, and the way they relate to the public and the city has changed dramatically over the centuries, with each new incarnation absorbing lessons from the last, and building up a rich legacy full of successes and lessons that can be brought forward into future manifestations.
Democratic Monument / Adam Nathaniel Furman
The 1800s was an era of dramatic change, tumultuous growth, vigour, and pride for British cities, all of which was anchored and guided by the Victorian Town Hall. Liberal Mayors across the country spearheaded reforms, and massive urban improvements that transformed the lives of those living in the new metropolises. Huge resources were funnelled through local government, with half of all national public spending being dispensed from Town Halls. As well as directing public improvements, better schools, infrastructural provision and housing programs, these homes of local government themselves became symbolic embodiments of their respective cities. Their eloquent facades spoke of civic pride, communal purpose, economic strength, and artistic verve. Their interiors contained multipurpose halls, whose size and opulence made Buckingham Palace seem twee and quaint, and which were used for events and meetings whose purpose was the pursuit of public betterment through the spectacle of public art and democracy, rather than the pageantry of an isolated monarchy.
After the second World War, in a national equivalent of the pioneering reforms of the great Liberal mayors of the 19th Century, Britain was reconfigured into a nation that designed itself into a more equal and opportune disposition, in which infrastructure and opportunity were crafted by the public purse, for the broadest possible demographic. Gone were the vast republican roman temples competing with the beautiful behemoths of British Neo-Baroque, the people palaces of competing virtual city-states, and in came Modernity, a universal design language that spoke of a shared future, and universal values. The distinctly monumental Town Hall became the Civic Complex, and the deliciously florid interiors of pomp-for-the-people became the shining, diamond-cut glass, and rough-hewn concrete collected forms of libraries, sports centres, polytechnics and municipal offices, all carefully orchestrated around and within plazas, spaces slightly removed from the profane life of the city, elevated and set apart as glimpses of an organised, perfected collective destiny.
As globalisation, deregulation, and the European dream reached their respective zeniths in the 2000s under “New Labour,” architecture once again took on a starring role in the perpetual transformation of our cities. Private capital mingled with state funding to deliver colourful new spaces which mixed consumption and education, and profit and provision, in an apotheosis of an historical compromise between society and the market. The presence of municipal bodies and of the state was reduced, modified, and rebranded within the context of leisure and shopping, of pleasure and experience. Single function iconic architectural objects, libraries, galleries and music halls, were inserted into the partially-privatised, super-slick new urban environments in a manner that sutured the feeling of growing wealth and cultural expansion, with the idea of an otherwise visually retreating state.
We are fast moving into another period of profound change in which society is resurgent, cities are once again looking to govern themselves, and there is an expectation that the state will return in a novel and more varied form to give sustenance to a population that has grown tired of the empty calories of shopping, and their sense of separation from the centres of bureaucratic power. Our cities are expanding at a rate not seen in a century, and as Mayors and city councils with muscle and financial independence begin to return to regions clamouring for devolved autonomy, there is an opportunity to reconfigure the balance of our cities. Through reforms and muscular policy agendas these political units will need to reinvigorate the agency of civic authorities, while at the same time there is an opportunity to anchor our expanding urban areas with symbolic social fulcrums that embody a shared sense of progress, of cultural production, of history, and of democratic projection.
It is time for the Town Hall as Democratic Monument. So what would it entail?
Density and concentration, both pragmatically and representationally, are to cohere currently hidden and separate functions into singular, iconographically loaded architectural compositions, in a complex owned and run by the state, but utilising aesthetic and formal tools gathered from across the cultural—and economic—spectrum.
Municipal bureaucratic offices, council chambers, mayors’ executives, libraries (or whatever mix of functions one prefers to call a safe space for individual learning), civic halls, city galleries, and ceremonial spaces for public celebration and protest are brought into a tight and manifold unity which both opens itself up to the urban sprawl around it, and creates an elevated internal environment of reflection and engagement.
Within the image of a unified entity, each element is articulated as a distinct architectural expression, generating a tension between the whole and its parts which embodies the perpetual dialogue in our Liberal democracy between the need for consensus and shared values, and the vital fostering and celebration of minority needs and interests. Architectural plurality in compositional unity.
A civic façade whose emblematic role is to speak louder, more eloquently, with greater garrulousness and verbosity than any of the other buildings, commercial, private, public, infrastructural, or otherwise, in the city, takes up its place at the most prominent side of the Monument’s plot.
These are to be giant frameworks for craft, design, and art from the city, utilising the entire panoply of available skills and technology. Permanent outdoor exhibitions of urban finery, that provide an “unmissably” iconic foundation for the ephemeral and digital initiatives and events that occur within the complex.
Large, multipurpose indoor spaces eschew the neutral aesthetics of flexibility, and are entirely suffused with decorative schemes that imprint a shared pride and confidence into the very walls of the rooms. The mechanics of democracy, debates, votes, committees, and hustings, are not only to be accessible and transparent, but are to be framed and presented in the most spectacular light, as awesome processes worthy of participation and respect.
Council leaders and mayors will time-share the same halls of state with LGBT groups, unions, trade bodies, music festivals and faith events, all within interiors that make the shopping centres of a generation before seem dull, meaningless, and unadventurous.
A city staircase acts as a stage for events, a route for ceremonies traditional and invented, and a place to linger, while a small square in front of the civic façade acts as a backdrop for broadcasts, postcard opportunities and tourist photographs, and a raised plaza forms an outdoor city room, from where the urban landscape can be observed from a slight remove, meetings can occur with officials housed in the municipal offices at whose feet it sits, and protestations can be registered in a sanctioned space.
The next incarnation of the Town Hall is to be a monumental embodiment of our evolving Liberal democracy as it moves into another new phase of energetic activity and robust intervention, in which architectural language and expression can both embody, and reconcile, the perpetual tensions between market & state, and minority and majority.
In which a fragmenting society and a diffuse urban realm is given new symbolic anchors that neither ignore the deep veins of difference, nor impose an arbitrary uniformity, but celebrate the constant tensions, debates and engagement that keep any one aspect of society from eclipsing the others.
We are living through what is perceived to be one of our democracy’s most intense crises in generations, which means it is in fact the perfect moment to build Monuments to its rebirth. In crisis lies the greatest opportunity for reinvention. In each island of progress may their rise Democratic Monuments of symbolic sustenance, and practical pageantry, for our sprawling cities, for our expanding towns, for the many, and for the few; beauty, but for everyone.
This project was sponsored by model-makers Lee3d.