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letchworth

DESIGNS ON DEMOCRACY

Winner: DSDHA

Runners-up: Buschow Henley EEA

How do you focus attention on the single location where the district council is located in a district with four towns of its own? That was the problem tackled head on by DSDHA, winner of the North Hertfordshire element of the competition with an attention-grabbing landmark building. Letchworth is where the council is based, but there are already separate town halls and identities for the neighbouring towns of Royston, Baldock and Hitchin.

As historian Andrew Saint has commented, for all the strengths of Unwin's Garden City, Letchworth has never had any public buildings of note. The DSDHA proposal promises to do something about this, with a building that, despite its modernity, pays imaginative homage to Garden City ideals.

The proposals include a new forum building, a hub building and glasshouse, featuring a locally based garden centre, a rooftop garden with views across the district, and a 'vertical'garden where plants and trees grow from the side of a building.

But the idea which informs the proposal, presented by a strong team including engineer Jane Wernick and services guru Max Fordham as well as the principals, Deborah Saunt and David Hills, is that local democracy needs to be explored in the context of a world in which decision-making is undertaken in the shopping mall or at home on the sofa. An attitude to retailing is required in which the 'linked trip' to the district centre, involving shopping, going to the library (which this proposal keeps in its existing building - a smart move since it is not owned by the district but by the county council) and other activities includes shopping for a bit of democracy, too.

The analysis of the town and the activities of its inhabitants, including movement across the site, had been well prepared, and the resulting buildings were laid out taking into account the diagonal views which were part of garden city planning. The physical form and bulk of the proposed buildings will inevitably be subject to negotiation. At the public workshop, participants stressed the low-rise character of the town.

Other elements where conversations will take place with the local authority will include the strategies for communication - where a large screen in front of the town hall might seem overbearing (though it faces the back of the building). However, their strategy for better communication was well argued. It included a travelling canopy that might be transportable to the other four towns and ways in which 'counter culture' can move towards 'table service'. There was also a suggestion that a public transport strategy linking the four towns in a more direct way would be worth considering. This proposal would give strong reasons not only for why one might visit the town hall complex in the first place, but why you would keep coming back to it.

You could show off the roof garden to visitors, or drop in as part of a 'normal'process of going to the town centre, but with an extra ingredient of a pleasurable engagement with your local authority. This would be an unusual experience in Britain today.

Buschow Henley modified the existing town hall, with two new buildings.One was proposed to be linked, housing additional offices on first to third floors and an 'Advice Arcade'on the ground floor (and PV cells on the roof ). Thus the new L-shaped block would create a new civic space, framing a curvaceous, stand-alone building containing a chamber, library, museum, cafe and 'e-council'. The practice wanted to create a design which distinguished between democracy and bureaucracy. A copper 'trim'at the same level on each building was admired by the judges.

EEA's scheme was substantially underground, to ensure a 'beautiful garden'could be maintained near the existing town hall, and for energy reasons. The glazed dome it conceived - a unified symbol for the four towns of the district council - was the main, open and transparent entrance to a multifunctional space connecting to the council chamber and services. The town hall was intended to be transformed into a 'visitor attraction' . The judges liked the simplicity of the approach.

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