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January | Culture by Design | Read time:

Design with Community in Mind

During Margit Mansfield's recent visit to the University of Texas, she met with architects Elizabeth Danze and Dean Almy. During their discussion, they explored the use of physical spaces to promote organisational wellbeing.

Architecture and design are both a product of the society in which we live and a force to shape it. Great architecture transcends both art and engineering to elicit a feeling of awe upon stepping inside places such as Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia or the Guggenheim in New York. Those experiences are completely different if one were, say, walking through the echoing halls of a supermax prison, or spending time in a cosy country homestead.

Places and spaces matter to wellbeing, but it can be difficult to comprehend how to best utilise design in the realms in which we work and share. For example, interior designers and social psychologists have debated throughout the modern industrial revolution whether open-plan offices are ideal for productivity and communication, or a cortisol-raising heart-attack factory.

It may not be an either/or situation, but requires a healthy mix of purposeful space. The right combination of private, quiet spaces for deep thinking, as well as break out rooms and shared areas for conversation and ‘chance encounters’ has shown to deliver positive results for organisational innovation.

On visiting the University of Texas, I met with Elizabeth Danze and Dean Almy. Both architects, I was keen to talk with them about the use of physical spaces to promote organisational wellbeing, which relies on the individual wellbeing of the people.

The word ‘permeability’ dominated our discussion. In relation to the ideal university campus, the entire institution has to fulfil a number of functions: to maximise learning, promote wellbeing, incubate great ideas, and create work-ready students. Each of these aims cannot be designed in isolation, one concept will affect the others in any number of ways.

Austin Library - Design with community in mind - Margit Mansfield

Elizabeth and Dean talked about creating permeability between campuses, communities and businesses, in essence, blending private and public spaces.  

Rather than zones, UT offers interconnecting student housing and sports fields throughout the campus. Back home, Exchange, Curtin’s first dedicated industry-connected innovation precinct is another example of permeable spaces.  

Austin Library 2 - Design with community in mind - Margit Mansfield

We’re also starting to see this concept applied more in multi-residential architecture. Apartment buildings are rarely approved if they’re not mixed-use. The ‘70s designed blocks of brown brick ‘fortresses’ are being slowly transplanted with more community-spirited designs, such as the proposed Trellis building in Subiaco.

Kings Square and Yagan Square in Perth are also examples of developments built on the very notion of permeability.      

Designing for a sense of place is an important consideration in town planning. Still, even today, some councils implement measures to keep people moving through spaces, arguably to mitigate issues surrounding homelessness or ‘undesirable activity’. Benches that are impossible to lay down on, shrill music and skate-blocks are just a few examples of this ‘hostile design’, all of which do nothing to address the underlying issues. 

But what happens when we invite people to own or create the space in some way? This goes for workplaces too.    

Gensler notes that: “The best workplaces will take on a synergistic relationship with their local communities — leveraging existing assets, providing amenities, and creating local partnerships that benefit companies and their local communities too.”

People respect the places that they feel like they own, that they have a stake in, or help to create. We brought this thinking into designing our own Subiaco offices, inviting clients to help us explore ways to use the space and create an environment that they would like to spend time in. 

Keogh Consulting Subiaco Office

With breakout spaces, private sanctuaries and an energised yet calm ambience, we think the results are fantastic – thank you to all who participated. Whether you’ve seen it or not, we invite you to join in any upcoming workshops, subscribe below to stay updated.