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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 5 (February-March 1949)

Community Centres

page 8

Community Centres

Basic Needs

The Community Centre should be designed to meet three fundamental needs of modern man: his need for fellowship, his need for self expression, and his need to learn. The kind of building and the nature of the activities to be carried on within it will depend upon what is already provided in the local community: the Centre should fill in the gaps, supplying what the community has so far failed to supply in the realm of education and recreation.

Rooms and Facilities

All Centres should have as a focal point near the entrance a comfortably furnished common room where people may meet freely for conversation. The common room should be designed so that two of the walls at least may be used for the exhibition of paintings and prints. There should be room for occasional exhibits of sculpture; there should also be a well-lighted show-case for changing exhibits.

Near the common room one would expect to find a kitchen or cafeteria. If there is to be a separate library, it should also open from the common room.

Having designed the hub of the wheel, so to speak, we must now consider the spokes and the rim. It is here that there is much difference of opinion; some want it to be like a school—a place for lectures and discussions; others look upon the Centre as a kind of super-pub, the modern counterpart of the village inn; others again see it as a sports' centre—a place for indoor games and contests of one kind or another. Others make out a good case for creating something more in the nature of an Arts' Centre, with a music room, little theatre, and a crafts' room. A glance over the Centres in existence in England will reveal all these types—most of them merely extensions of what already exists in another form—and catering in more generous measure for activities that have already established themselves elsewhere.

Community Centres designed upon a partial conception of their function are sure to be inadequate. The only way to design one is to look upon it as something completely new in the life of society, something as novel as a broad-casting station.

The Use of Leisure Time

It is necessary to remember that a Centre is not a pantechnicon for the housing of every social and recreational activity of the place. It is desirable that groups catering for well-established activities such as cricket and football, band music and the like, should remain in their own premises, though they may call upon the Centre for assistance in any way possible through the use of special services and equipment. It is likely, for instance, that the Community Centre will have a film projector which should be made available to sports' bodies and others for instructional purposes. The Centre exists to serve the locality, but it will defeat its purpose if it sets out to cater for too large a part of the leisure time of the community.

A sensitive approach recognizes that there are well-established ways of spending leisure which a majority of the people use without much persuasion; it goes on to assume that there are alternative activities in which many people would be interested if the opportunity were offering. It is the function of the Centre to be aware of these more subtle needs, and, by providing for them to aim at the enrichment of the life of the community. If, for instance, there is no amateur drama, the Centre should gather together those who are interested and start a little-theatre group. If in the area there is no opportunity for the study of literature or poetry or art or world affairs or child psychology or gardening or home decoration, then the Centre has work to do in these fields. If in an area of small houses adults find there is little opportunity for reading in the evenings, then the Centre should provide a quiet and comfortable reading-room for the purpose. In these and many other ways the Centre becomes a growing point in community life.

The essence of community is communication. The first essentials of any community (apart from roads, railway, the post office and the telephone, all means of communication, by the way) are shops for the transmission of goods. Reaching away behind every shop are well-preserved lines of communication for such things as bread and meat, petrol and cars, pressure cookers and nylon hose. Commercial interests see to it, quite properly, that all these goods reach the people who need them. In the universe of ideas the lines of communication are not so well preserved. It is usually nobody's business to carry them much beyond the terminals in the university colleges.

When Do We Stop Learning?

Schools deal only in elementary ideas; the Centre is concerned with the adult mind. It is part of its duty to see, for instance, that what Susan Isaacs has discovered in her studies of children is passed on to young parents; that everyone should have the opportunity, in the small town as well as in the large, of knowing something of the significance of the work of such as Einstein and Rutherford, Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder, T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender, Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. Ideas are also goods to be kept moving.

It may be objected that people cannot comprehend these things and that if they could, the place to learn about them would be in the university college. That, of course, is an argument drawn from our specialist-vocational attitude to learning. Every man in the community learns his vocation; beyond that he needs knowledge applied to the business of living in the modern world. He need not know all about the history of poetry, all about metre and symbolism, but he should realize that T. S. Eliot had something important to say when he wrote The Hollow Men; he need know little of the structure of the atom, but there should be some place in his town where he can discuss intelligently the long-range effects of that day in Hiroshima; he need not do an honours course in psychology to learn how to respect the page 9 growing mind of his child. Furthermore, he should be able to take these things slowly; he has his whole life before him, not the few short years of schooling.

Not High-brow

It should not be inferred that the Centre should have a bias towards intellectual and artistic studies. In New Zealand, with its large number of small communities, the Centre must be multi-purpose. In England, where a single town like Manchester has a population equal to that of the whole of our country, there is room for youth centres, adult education centres, arts' centres, and many variants of these. Here it is desirable that they should be combined.

Let us then design the spokes of the wheel beyond the common-room. There should be a noise-proof wing for the activities of young people-in their teens as well as a place for arts and crafts, a stage for drama, quiet rooms for reading and study, rooms for lectures and music. Most Centres will begin with little more than two or three rooms, but provision for extensions should always be made in any plan.

Something for Everyone

Again, we should not fall into the glih error of trying to cater for all tastes: we should think rather of catering for people with their various approaches to thought and feeling. For this purpose it is convenient to think in terms of the useful classification of human types, suggested in the recent work of W. H. Sheldon. He recognizes three extreme types of temperament (the viscerotonic, cerebrotonic, and somatotonic). The viscerotonic is the ‘good, easy man’, the good talker, fond of a comfortable chair, good food, and good company; the cerebrotonic is the spare type given to thinking. Like Cassius,-

He reads much;
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men; he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music.

The somatotonic is the active, muscular type, fond of games and vigorous exercise. Very few of us could be described as being entirely one of these extremes, but most of us, while having some of the qualities of all, incline somewhat towards one of the three types. Sheldon has found that intelligence is evenly distributed among all types. My own experience of many years of adult education has tended to show that the first or sociable type is enthusiastic about the arts, films, gardening, and home-making: the cerebrotonics second type, the thinker, is attracted to courses on world affairs, psychology, literature, and poetry; the physically active type is naturally attracted to gymnasium, dancing, nature-study rambles, and to the more vigorous crafts. The one activity which attracts all types equally is play acting; that is not surprising for it is the most inclusive of all the arts and the most valuable integrating factor in the community centre.

It will be seen, therefore, that it is through no concession to expediency that I recommend the multi-purpose Centre; if we are to make it of value to everyone in the community, multi-purpose it must be, with the integrating units in the common room, the library, and the little theatre—no matter how little.

No Community Centre in this country has been designed for the purpose. It is a theme that calls for the utmost skill in design to produce something worthy of being a local home for the human spirit and at the same time capable of adaptation as the spirit moves.