One of the best antidotes to the destruction of consumer capitalism is ‘public affluence‘. As the name suggests, this is affluence that is for everybody. Not private wealth, but shared amenities of the highest quality, open to all. For developed countries that are already consuming more than their fair share of the world’s resources, public affluence offers a way to raise people’s standard of living without raising their consumption of energy and materials.
There are many forms of public affluence, but one of the most obvious is high quality public buildings and public spaces, including streets, squares, parks, playgrounds. I think architecture has a particular role in serving public affluence.
The built environment can include or exclude. It can be beautiful or ugly, inviting or foreboding. A building or a space can project power and ego, or it can project welcome and belonging. We need more of the welcoming kind, a generous architecture for a world beyond endless private accumulation as the end goal of a good life.
“Generous architecture is always about people” writes Emily Booth at the Architect’s Journal.
Building for people means leaving room for community and for interaction. For example, the Peruvian husband and wife team Barclay & Crousse talk about ‘non-programmatic spaces‘. The in-between places are important because that’s where people meet and mingle, off the clock. These are places to ‘hang out’ or cross paths, and it’s where community happens.
A well designed space like this can also be very creative. Take the Maaloev Axis, a pedestrian cut-through by the Danish practice Adept. The jagged layers reference the glacial topography of the area, but also invite people to sit on them, climb on them and through them. It’s a space that leaves room for visitors’ own ideas about what you’re expected to do there. And as children know, you’re only allowed to clamber about in places that are yours. Playful public space make people feel at home.
Beauty is another aspect of generous architecture. Today I was down in Luton town centre, which is dominated by a shopping mall. The mall has been designed entirely for the benefit of those inside it. If you’re on the outside, especially round the back by the bus-stops, the architect has given you no consideration at all. This building, for decades now, has communicated to Luton residents that unless they are inside spending money, they have no value. Generous architecture, on the other hand, enhances the land that is built on. And it does that for everybody, not just those inside.
Finally, architecture can be generous by considering future generations. That would include its impact on the environment, both in construction and in operation. It can also include materials. I’ve profiled the Triodos bank headquarters before, which are designed so that the whole building can be taken apart and reused. That’s a gift to future generations. When the building reaches the end of its useful life, it won’t be a problem or a burden. It will be a bank of materials for another project.
This is architecture fit for a postgrowth economy, one that is no longer defining success as growth, but that finds satisfaction in strong communities, a healthy environment, and lives well lived.
“We believe that generosity manifests itself in architecture that moves beyond solving specific needs – our aim is to create spaces that offers new value to users and surroundings” say Adept of their approach. “Generous buildings, public spaces, landscapes and urban plans can change the world.”