Community architecture

Miriama Butková

SUMMARY

This article is a reaction to an ever-increasing development of active citizenship in the community sector in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. People are gathering more frequently based on their common interests; the number of communities of interest is growing and they are becoming more active as civic associations. I perceive the negative impact on people of the digitized world and social media oversaturation as a reason for the increasing number of neighboring communities.

Architecture internationally responds promptly to the needs of active communities. There is an increased demand for facilities that reflect the community’s needs and provide space for people with common interests. Community centers reflect human needs to play, learn, co-work, create meaningful relationships, and enhance community spirit regardless of social background, age, or political and spiritual beliefs. New community centers have acquired an important role in community development. Their design for program fulfillment, ecology, and inclusivity are creating an image of the community they serve.

The study of community centers requires not only defining the term “community center”, but also understanding the principles of “community architecture”. The latter is a relatively new erm, most often referring to a “movement” or branch of architecture with various interpretations. This article discusses some of them and wishes to offer a more coherent definition that presents community architecture as a created architectural environment, which we can approach by preferring individual solutions typical for existing architecture for communities. This type of architecture represents an alternative approach to conventional architectural practice, transforming architects into facilitators and creators of change.

Socio-cultural leisure facilities, together with hybrids with additional social functions, are being inconsistently termed, yet we could comprehend them as community centers. Many attributes are associated with these places. They are often called social, civic, neighborhood, multifunctional, leisure, recreational, multigenerational, or meeting centers. Dated terms, such as house of culture, social house, leisure center, center for culture and education, center of art or a rather vague expression socio-cultural facility, are typical for the Slovak facilities that most resemble the concept of the community center. However, these terms are not adequate to label new community concepts, since concepts can combine more functions than just cultural and educational.  Community centers might be a place for sport and wellness activities, health and social services, retail, public catering, or more.

Unclear definition of the term “community center” and the wide spectrum of its program may be some reasons for this.  Research of successful projects allows us to understand and verify design solutions, and typical repeating patterns.

The community center can be perceived as a multifunctional leisure facility, focused on facilitating community interaction and strengthening community ties, thus contributing to community development. It creates a democratic environment that enables and encourages the fulfillment of fundamental human rights, but only if it is accessible to each member of the community “on an equal basis with others” and following “design for all” principles. Due to the possibility of providing a wide range of leisure activities corresponding to the needs of community members, the community center can be considered as one of the most important local leisure facilities.

The article presents a basic categorization of community centers divided according to their origin, size, targeted age group, and degree of multifunctionality. Three examples are selected and elaborated to demonstrate different characters of multifunctionality.

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the topic of community architecture as a response to the lack of these facilities in Slovakia. The need for informal leisure places designed to strengthen the sense of community is increasing along with the need to create meaningful relationships among people. The role of architects is to respond by designing to the needs of users and to create an environment accessible to all. Such facilities should be the heart of the community and connect different people through a varied program under one roof. This design requires an architect with ingenuity, finding balance in fulfilling the needs of contractor and final users, choosing the right form and scale, and finding logic in a complex concept. Community centers are playgrounds for people and architects as well.

As mentioned before, community architecture provides a broad scope waiting to be researched. Especially in Slovakia, this type of architecture is still an unexplored phenomenon. There is a scarcity of information from community architecture theory and its implementation in practice. Therefore, this paper elaborates on the concept of community architecture and community centers, as well as presenting unique local projects and community concepts from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The opinion that community architecture deserves more attention in practice, whether as a small public intervention, reconstruction, conversion, adaptation, or new construction, is presented in the article’s conclusion. The practice is crucial for further research on this topic, and enables transdisciplinary cooperation with other fields of research (e.g. applied psychology). The role of architects is emphasized, since their attitude to the issue will determine whether high-quality architecture is to become the setting for community life in Slovakia.

Keywords: community architecture, community center, design for all, social center