Near the top of the world—95 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to be exact—a new city hall sits on a parcel of cold, bare land dotted with cranes. It belongs to Kiruna, the northernmost city of Sweden.
Kiruna’s city hall was built under unique circumstances. This spread-out municipality of 18,000 sits on top of a century-old iron ore mine. As the heavily mined land is now too unstable to support the buildings above it, the city is relocating two miles away. The ambitious move started with the city hall, which opened in November of last year.
The city hall was envisioned as a signifier of Kiruna’s new urban-centric identity; the stout, round structure is topped with a stack of golden cubes inspired by the iron ore underground.
The building also represents something else, which visitors likely sense as they walk into its soaring lobby without encountering security or a check-in desk. There’s a public café, a stage, and cozy seating nooks designed to accommodate dance classes and children’s choir performances. Above, a public art museum displays contemporary work from the region. From floor to floor there are no barriers, with public access to everything except the offices and chamber.
It’s a stark contrast to the monumental city halls of yore, with echoing corridors and forbidding facades that framed local politics as less a community endeavor than an act of divine right. But a group of designers, architects, and city planners are rejecting that vision and replacing it with something more human and playful. To their mind, city hall is a space for citizens to act out democracy alongside their elected officials—and perhaps grab a coffee or see a show while doing it. In the face of global unrest, online polarization, and the increasing commercialization of public space, city halls are quietly becoming the communal living room of the future.
Finding transparency in city hall design
“It’s openness, democracy, flexibility, multiuse,” says Louis Becker, partner and design principal at Copenhagen-based architecture firm Henning Larsen. He’s not just musing on the firm’s design of Kiruna’s city hall. He’s talking about its philosophy toward civic architecture in general.
Becker is well aware these ideals are a stark departure from the intimidating civic design of the past.
Just look at the United States, where most civic design trends were influenced by Europe. In the 1700s, French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out Washington, D.C., gave it a grand mall flanked by monumental government structures. Beaux Arts architecture took hold during America’s City Beautiful Movement, giving us San Francisco’s grand City Hall. Brutalism left its mark too, resulting in the much-debated Boston City Hall. Though stylistically different, each of these examples follows a similar logic: It is designed to make a statement about the impressiveness of a city and how it functions. (The first city hall of the United States, a Federal-style building in New York, was considered “an early expression of the city’s cosmopolitanism.”) The idea is to leave visitors with a sense of awe—not invite them to hang around.
But in Denmark, where Henning Larsen is based, the evolution of city halls into increasingly vital public spaces has been underway for several decades. Back in the 1960s, values we now know as “the Nordic model” were taking hold and capturing the attention of architects and city planners.
“There was an ideological alliance between progressive architects and urbanists, and the political ambitions of the early welfare state and city building,” says Kristoffer Lindhardt Weiss, a Danish architect, author, and curator.
As the state invested heavily in public facilities like schools, city halls, and communal swimming pools, architects felt they could also harness design to promote better living. “They were breaking down symbols of authority,” Weiss says. “They believed the public institution should embrace the public.”
The sentiment took hold in other European cities, particularly those emerging from political upheaval.
Perhaps the most powerful example is Sir Norman Foster’s redesign of Berlin’s Reichstag soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The civic building, originally designed in 1894, caught on fire in 1933, suffered further damage during World War II, and then became a ruin symbolic of the divide between East and West Germany during the Cold War. To symbolize the transparency that was central to reunification, Foster sliced through the structure and topped it with a glass cupola through which visitors could watch the Bundestag in action—the equivalent of standing in the U.S. Capitol dome and watching Congress at work.
Foster introduced another bold design following the 2000 formation of the Greater London Authority—”a new governing body that needs to impress a skeptical electorate with a fresh approach,” as the New York Times put it back in 2003.
London’s new city hall debuted in 2002 as a silvery, egg-shaped structure with a ramp bringing constituents up toward the meeting chamber of the assembly. A ”living room” was carved from the building’s apex, literally putting citizens, not government, on top.
“Transparency was one of the primary themes that connects both projects, dissolving the barriers between the people and their representatives,” David Nelson, head of design for Foster+Partners, told Fast Company in an email. “We also wanted to create both buildings to be places that bring people together, incorporating other public functions.”
The digital influence on city hall
Today, communal city halls take on new urgency. They force a level of community engagement that digital media has rendered all too rare. “Contemporary digital relationships can often be defined by anonymity,” Nelson says. “With the [city hall] building, the idea of transparency begins to work both ways, and the public space associated with the parliament building becomes the place to be seen and heard, a place for celebration and protest.”
There’s a practical side to it too. With the rise of online forms, less civic space needs to be given over to in-person appointments and the attendant paperwork. “You have to reinvent the typology of the public institution,” Weiss says. “You still need a physical presence . . . but now it’s about providing the space for people to use.”
Some intriguing city hall designs that embrace the Nordic model have cropped up in international design competitions. Bjarke Ingels Group, based in Copenhagen, won a 2009 competition for a new city hall in Tallinn, Estonia, with a design featuring a mirrored “democratic periscope,” allowing the public to see politicians in the council chamber. (The plan was ultimately scrapped in 2013 after disagreements over the contract.) In 2016 Czech Republic firm PLUKK won first place for its concept design of a community center and town hall for Brno, a city in the Czech Republic, which includes a sprawling plaza, public seating, and multiuse space that renderings suggested could accommodate yoga. (It too was not constructed, due to budget constraints.)
Henning Larsen secures most civic projects through competition; it’s why the firm, in partnership with Adamson Associates Architects, is now overseeing Toronto’s Etobicoke Civic Centre.
The Etobicoke Civic Centre truly embraces the idea of city hall as community hub. Designed as a series of low-slung cubes fronted by a tree-dotted plaza, it will include a daycare, library, and recreation center.
“It wasn’t this ivory tower,” says Gabriella Sicheri, director of development for CreateTO, the Toronto agency overseeing the development of the center. She adds the proposal was the only one placing city hall at grade, rather than atop a podium. “It’s a connection and participation to what civic governance should be in a community that’s changing and evolving.”
Toronto, in fact, is a quickly diversifying city—according to the 2017 census, immigrants represent 46.1% of the population. In their public presentation of the design, Henning Larsen and Adamson architects spoke of the civic center as a display of democracy for people arriving from nondemocratic countries. Perhaps most importantly, it’s full of common spaces open to all Toronto residents—immigrant or not—to interact. Becker realizes this is no small offering at a time when welcoming public space is in short supply.
He cites the decline of social institutions like churches, which is happening at the same time that many commercial enterprises are trying to bill themselves as public space. (Nowhere is this more evident than Apple framing its stores as town squares.) “All the time, people are looking for places to socialize in a noncommercial way . . . things where you don’t need to buy anything, have a ticket or a membership,” he says. “The city hall is part of that.”
And yet the U.S. lags behind
There is one place the modern city hall has yet to stick: the United States. Cynthia Nikitin, senior vice president for New York-based Project for Public Spaces, says that after working to diversify public space at U.S. libraries and federal buildings, she assumed city halls would be next. “The work we’ve done with city halls has actually been in Canada,” she says.
She points to the challenge of reinventing the city hall: There must be visionary leadership to lead a campaign, secure enough funding, and assure the public it’s worth spending tax dollars. Henning Larsen recently submitted a city hall proposal for Raleigh, North Carolina, but Becker noticed there’s more hesitation from U.S. city officials to embrace transparent, accessible civic design.
“There’s more of an obsession with security . . . there are too many guns,” he says. “When you have a [check-in] counter, guards standing in front of you with a pistol, it feels different.”
Still, there are signs of change. Austin’s City Hall, by Antoine Predock and Cotera + Reed Architects, opened in 2004. With its solar panels, recycled materials, and folkish form, it’s hailed as a “terminally democratic” representation of the city.
In Eugene, Oregon, the city integrated feedback from Project for Public Spaces as it looks to rebuild City Hall with a “town square” concept using an outdoor market as the focal point. Will Dowdy, the city’s urban development manager, says the integration of a vibrant town square was crucial in gaining the support of city residents.
“There’s a huge missed opportunity here,” Nikitin says of underused city halls, adding that even small steps—like activating city hall parking lots after business hours—could make a difference. “It’s a matter of engaging the public in reimagining their city hall,” she says. “And I just don’t think those conversations are happening yet.”
The missed opportunity feels particularly pressing when you consider U.S. partisanship is high, government trust is low, and the country’s changing demographics are increasingly used by politicians to incite fear.
What if local government stepped up and invested in a living room for all its citizens? What if our city halls welcomed us in, not just to submit paperwork or gawk at architecture but to celebrate, protest, peruse artwork, sunbathe, and read, right alongside our elected officials?
“How do you underpin this idea that this is a democratic institution, where you celebrate ordinary people selected to represent us in the city council?” Becker asks. “We want a city hall,” he continues, “where it becomes a place you take a tango dancing class in the foyer.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism, and design. You can follow her on Twitter @EmilyNonko.