What is a public building? The dictionary tells us, somewhat unhelpfully, that it is ‘a building that belongs to a town or state, and is used by the public’ – which doesn’t get us much further forward. Not all buildings owned by the state or by civic authorities are accessible by the public – and anyway, what is meant by ‘public’?
We could argue that human beings have had public buildings ever since the time when we lived in caves, but the distinction between public and private must have begun when people constructed their own buildings for their private occupancy, and when some sort of communal meeting hut or shelter was put up for them to meet on supposedly-neutral ground.
At much the same time, religious structures began to appear – soon formalised into temples. We can think of the temples of ancient Egypt and of Greece and Rome. Are these public buildings?
By most definitions they are, though parts may have been reserved for the priests – think of the ‘Holy of Holies’ of the Temple in Jerusalem, for example.
In parallel with the appearance of temples, administrative buildings began to appear. Empires need civil servants to administer them, and civil servants need offices. The thousands of pottery tablets with cuneiform script dating back 5,000 years to the Sumerian civilisation in southern Mesopotamia suggest that there was already a body of administrators and scribes cataloguing and directing trade from their own structures.
By the time we get to the Roman Empire the administrative apparatus was very sophisticated and was housed in specially-built structures at the heart of the empire and in administrative centres throughout its vast territories. In one sense these were public buildings – just as No 10 Downing Street is a public building; for the public use – but not accessible to the public.
More public were the law courts. In the time of the Roman Empire these were housed in purpose-built structures – one in the very heart of every Roman town and city. They were usually rectangular, and they were often divided by two rows of columns into a central part and aisles. At one end was a semi-circular projection in which sat the chief magistrate or other judge.
These structures were known as basilicas.
When Constantine the Great decreed that, after his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, the Empire should become Christian, many basilicas were converted into churches; it was felt that it would be impious to convert the former pagan temples for Christian worship.
The bishop’s throne replaced the magistrate’s seat, the altar was placed before it, and the structure, with apse, nave and aisles, became the pattern for Christian churches for the next millennium and a half.
Even when Gothic rather than classical became the language of architecture, the same basic layout of churches prevailed. Are churches public buildings?
Not according to the definition with which we began, but most of us would argue that they certainly are – specialised (and consecrated) public buildings where members of the public are welcome.
The specialisation of public buildings became usual from the Middle Ages. The earliest medieval block of offices, for example, is said to be the Palazzo del Broletto in Como, Italy; it was built in 1215 – the year King John was signing the Magna Carta in England. The most famous of the Italian office blocks is probably the Uffizi – the word means ‘offices’ – in Florence, designed for Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1560, and now the world-famous art gallery. The Uffizi and its contemporaries were, in most senses, government buildings, and therefore not strictly open to the public.
The same was true for most government buildings. If we consider the history of the Palace of Westminster, its very name gives us a clue; it was a royal palace that gradually came to house the machinery of government, and was therefore mostly inaccessible to the public.
It was also inconvenient because it wasn’t designed for the purpose it had come to serve. Plenty of plans were put forward in the 17th and 18th centuries to rebuild the seat of government, but they came to nothing. Only when the Palace was largely destroyed by fire in October 1834 was anything done.
The new structure in many ways reproduced the inconveniences of the old one, and parliamentarians have lived with the consequences ever since.
And what of our local public buildings? As local government became more important in the 18th and 19th centuries, town halls were constructed. In the 1750s the classical-style Liverpool Town Hall was built to house the Lord Mayor and the council chamber.
Manchester Town Hall, completed in the Gothic style 120 years later, has always been the administrative centre of the city.
Other places had their town halls, with various purposes; Leeds Town Hall was primarily a great meeting and concert hall, with offices and a police station as ancillaries. Birmingham Town Hall was also built for meetings and music.
Ripon’s Town Hall has always been a public building, but not a municipal one; it was a piece of private enterprise, begun as the Assembly Rooms and only gradually taken over by the city council. It did not belong to the city until the 1890s, when the Marquess of Ripon, who owned it, gave it to the city in his term of office as mayor.
And we mustn’t forget some much smaller, though very important, public buildings – the village and community halls up and down the land that host meetings and events to which everyone is welcome. Often run by committees of dedicated and unsung local champions, they provide what these days is fashionably called a ‘hub’ for their area.
Some are new and comfortable; others older and less immediately attractive, but all play a vital role as genuinely public buildings and deserve our continued support.