The Cultural Centre typology

The Cultural Centre is a new building and institution typology developed during the post-war European welfare state governance, where culture was regarded as a social instrument with same standing as sanitation or education. Public building is an embodiment of the policy, and the physical space often reflect the institutional intention. With the intention to provide cultural opportunity to a wide spectrum of the population, the building of cultural centres proliferated in many European cities large or small. Through different cases in Europe built in the post-war decades, this article intend to analysis the concept of the Culture Centre as an institution and an architectural type, and how it has influenced the development of cultural institutions today.

The welfare state cultural policy

Cultural activities from performance or art viewing were largely private practices in the pre-modern days. From aristocratic patronage of artist in exchange of private entertainment, sponsorship of art for the public started along with the practice of philanthropic act to help urban poor in the 18th century industrialized cities. The idea of cultural provision as state responsibility emerged around 19th century in the UK, discussed in terms of culture’s utility and its “civilizing effect” to the working class, which could benefit industrial productivity and social stability (Bennett, 1995). In 1852, the South Kensington Museum in London was opened as the first public museum, and its purpose was made explicitly to give access to the working class, with free-entry and after work opening hours to encourage visits.

This has set the tone to include cultural services in state welfare policy, particularly for the post-war UK Labor government. The party won the General Election in 1945, and one of its promises to voters is all-accessible culture. The welfare state function based on a principle of equality of opportunity (Britannia), where the role of the state is to provide social welfare, especially the underprivileged working class. For cultural services, the Arts Council of Great Britain was established in 1946 as a semi-governmental agency to administrate state-patronage of arts. There is an expectation of culture should become ordinary upbringing of every citizen, and that it could reduce social disparity. Although the vision of the Arts Council is an egalitarian one, there were questions about its preference towards more established art form, for the funding committee and target audience were mostly the newly emerged middle class, who are also key voters. Therefore, instead of brining closer the class differences, the Arts Council might have reinforced it by state-endorsement of “high art” (Grafe).

The French government further elaborates on the role of culture to society, which can be seen by the establishment of the Cultural Ministry in 1957 headed by Andre Malraux with full support of the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. It proposed a similar mission to make the work of art accessible to all, with a notion of pride in national cultural heritage that should be disseminated to the people of France (and the world). This idea of “democratization of culture” is manifested through the building of a number of Maison de la Culture (House of Culture) across the country as the vehicle to bring culture to the provinces. However, there was also a contradiction of the avant-garde approach to culture with an inherently centralized ministry operation. This has built up criticism towards the establishment before and during the 1968 social movements, and eventually leading to Malraux’s resignation in 1969.

In both cases of the UK and France, post-war cultural policy aims to rebuild national confidence and solidarity, with an egalitarian approach in attempt to diminish the elitist status of “high-art” through state patronage. Although the outcome can be arguable, accessibility to culture was certainly the central theme at the time, manifested through the architecture and institution of the Cultural Centre typology.

Art for all (an institutional concept)

The Cultural Centre as an institution to provide art for all has a socialist precedent in the “House of People” (or People’s Palace). In the late 19th century and early 20th century, civic organizations such as the worker’s union or urban political groups have gained substantial momentum and in need of a dedicated location for its activities. The first of such buildings could be the Maison du Peuple in Brussel designed by Victor Horta in 1893. Its function corresponds to the needs of civic organizations – an assembly hall for large gathering, gallery space for exhibition or events, a series of rooms to house various interest groups or classes, also a salon for everyday social activities. Although the House of People has a selective membership by default (of a certain profession or affiliation), it is an institution of solidarity for all those with a similar purpose. Through nominal social activities from adult education to performances and exhibition, bonding is created among people and social or political messages were dissimilated. Through the modern to contemporary time in Europe, the House of People continuing to proliferate in the socialist and communist states on both sides of the iron curtain.

The Cultural Centre of the late 20th century inherited this public mission, with the belief that culture can contribute to building a democratic/egalitarian society. Different then the archetype of Theatre or Museum, the Cultural Centre was not made to serve specific art form (and therefore specific class) but indented to be a flexible venue that can accommodate different type of cultural activities. The purpose is to provide exposure to culture for the public and to stimulate social interaction and therefore solidarity, similar to the intention of House of People as an institution for all. Cultural accessibility is seen as a tool that would allow upward mobility of the citizen (Bennett), therefore to ensure equality of access to culture is the mission of the early days Cultural Center institution. In both the UK and French, this vision is manifested through the building scheme of Arts Centre in the UK, and the Maison de la Culture in France.

Besides the more famous and elaborate Cultural Centres in the metropolitan area (such as London’s South Bank Centre or Paris’ Centre Pompidou), the institution of Cultural Centre also played an important role as state-sponsor cultural venue in smaller cities of Europe where local groups might not be able to support its own venue. Whether it is the Arts Centre built in industrial towns in the UK, or the provincial Maison de la Culture in France, or the municipal theatres in Germany, these local institutions has provided an opportunity for ameture arts group to develop, as well as to provide a venue for national or international touring company to perform (or hold exhibitions). (In the case of Hong Kong, there is also a network of “civic centre” that serves a similar function as district cultural venues.)

Space for all (an architectural concept)

Stated in the first annual report of the Arts Council of Great Britain, the lack of proper buildings for culture seem to be the major difficulty in the effort in promoting “art for all” (Arts Council, 1945b). To address this issue and as part of the post-war reconstruction public building project, a proposal was written for the building of Arts Centres in towns with 15000-30000 population (Arts Council, 1945a). It suggested three main components: an 600-seat auditorium, an exhibition gallery and a 200-seat restaurant, which can be configured in various option according to site condition. For smaller township who couldn’t afford to build a formal concert hall and/or museum, the Arts Centre became the venue for cultural activities that can host local amateur arts group or to receive touring companies or exhibitions. The gallery space conceived as an extended foyer reflects the purpose to be open and accessible, together with the large restaurant space that can be used for social gathering and festive events. Although this pragmatic proposal is made as a basis for functional (rather than aesthetic) discussion, it became the typology adopted in many cultural architecture in the following decades.

The theatre has a particularly central position in the program of Maison de la Culture, owing to the tradition since the French revolution to use theatre as a platform for social discourse. The Cultural Ministry advocated contemporary cultural forms, which influenced theatres at these new cultural centres to be built as large flexible performance space instead of the traditional proscenium horseshoe auditorium. The cultural centres were also equipped with TV rooms, libraries and food & beverage outlet that allows anyone to use without purchasing a ticket, as well as for everyday use despite of performance schedule. Flexibility became a key criteria for the architecture of Cultural Centre, in terms of both function and spatial experience. This approach to flexible space not only allows for many types of cultural activities, but it is also forward-thinking about new form of cultural events that it could accommodate. The idea of accessibility is further manifested through the quality of transparency in spatial and material term. While the auditorium is an enclosed (solid) element at the core of the cultural centre, its foyer and gallery spaces became the open interior space is spatially transparent. This is the accessible public space, further enhanced by visual transparency through extensive use of glass facade.

Space at the cultural center is essentially public, yet different than the nominal public space like a park or a plaza as it has an additional layer of institutional input. The question of the Cultural Centre’s position therefore lies in the balance of a neutral space “of” the public and a carefully curated space “for” the public. There were already critique on the top-down approach in cultural planning since the late 60s/ 70s, and it is further exacerbated by the proliferating mass culture and entertainment in (neo)liberal society since the 1990s.

Also available in Chinese edition


  • Bennett, T. (1995a). The Multiplication of Culture’s Utility. Critical Inquiry, 21(4), 861-889.
  • Bennett, T. (1995b). The Birth of the Museum : History, Theory, Politics.
  • Grafe, C. (2014). People’s palaces : Architecture, culture and democracy in post-war Western Europe. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura.
  • The Arts Council of Great Britain (1945). Plans for an arts centre. London: L. Humphries
  • The Arts Council of Great Britain (1945). First Annual Report 1945-46.

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