Ben Holliday

Sticks in the ground for public services

Earlier this year I wrote about sticks in the ground. My belief that design has to be bold. It has to start with an idea.

It’s arrogant to think you can change the world. But it’s also necessary

I was reminded yesterday of some of the great examples of civic architecture we have in the UK. This is a photo I took in Salford and shared.

Lancastrian Hall and Central Library, Swinton, Salford
Lancastrian Hall and Central Library, Swinton, Salford

There’s something about these civic buildings. They’re of their time, but I like the bold ambition they represent.

Ian Ames then shared another example of civic architecture in Plymouth.

I love the boldness and scale of some brutalist architecture. There is a (perhaps naive and arrogant) positivity and optimism to it

Plymouth Civic Centre
Plymouth Civic Centre

I also like the (naive and arrogant) positivity and optimism still attached to many of our civic buildings. Working mostly with local government I get to see examples like this all over the country.

Buildings like these were ‘sticks in the ground’ for our public spaces and services. They were big ideas, and often brutalist in their application. They put services visibly at the centre of local communities.

Many of these buildings are now disused or in different states of disrepair. It’s an important reminder. The fact is, no matter how bold you set out to be. No matter how big or successfully your original statement of intent, eventually the roof will start to leak.

Buildings, just like ideas, need maintenance. They fall into disrepair over time.

Big ideas need reimagining from time to time as well. Some of the most impressive public spaces I’ve seen that still deliver services have managed to re-invent themselves beyond their original architectural statements.

We also need new big ideas. New intent, and ways of delivering value in community spaces.

The size and scale of this original vision of civic architecture should make us question our ambition for the future digital equivalents of local services and spaces. This is very much the challenge for those of us designing public services and spaces for the digital age.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.