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How can we make space more democratic? 

This is a question that is regularly on our minds at Wright & Wright, as we often find ourselves working in buildings that have historically been private and we are seeking to open them up. Working with clients who have the ambition to reaffirm their institution’s relationship with the public presents an exciting opportunity to begin to answer this question. One exemplary case of this transformation is the British Academy, where we are transforming a Grade I-listed site and previously private building into a highly accessible and truly public destination, one that will be a hub of both live and virtual programming in the heart of London.

The British Academy is not an isolated example. Many organizations have been striving to open up their physical infrastructure and invite the public in, especially as the world transitions back to in-person programming and increased visitation rates. This shift requires a careful evaluation of how our built environment functions and feels to its audiences. As more private areas within our cultural sector recognize the value of opening their hidden or less accessible spaces to the public, there is a growing interest in democratizing space.

Of course, each project presents unique challenges regarding spatial ownership, and we welcome these complexities as learning opportunities to advance our own practice and the collective practice of architecture in the UK. We actively participate in conversations about the best ways to deliver solutions and help clients achieve their goal of opening up and democratizing their spaces.

Physical, visual barriers remain a dominant reason why so many members of the public do not visit already public spaces. Imposing facades, inaccessible entrances, and gated buildings that were once possibly admired can now hinder audience engagement. We often take for granted the ease of entering spaces that we are familiar with; these hard boundaries become less visible to us, less daunting over time. However, we must consider how these same buildings are perceived by first-time visitors. To truly foster a sense of collective ownership of our built environment and enhance its accessibility, both in perception and reality, we must design spaces that are inclusive, adaptable, and useful for everyone, approaching the public as if they were first-time visitors.

The physical structure of a building can greatly influence our confidence and comfort when visiting spaces. In many cases, it serves as our first point of contact. After all, first impressions matter. As cultural institutions strive to increase their relevance, engage with broader audiences, and demonstrate inclusivity, it is crucial for them to provide a welcoming and public threshold—a critical first step in creating a sense of openness.

To truly democratize the city, every institution and its buildings must evolve and adapt to meet the needs of our ever-changing residents and visitors. When contemplating who cities are for and how we, as designers, can foster inclusivity, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs' simple yet profound words: "cities are for people." All people.

A forum for public convening and international exchange in the humanities, the future British Academy synthesizes new design into an iconic historic site.

Facade of the British Academy on Carlton House Terrace in London with view of sculpture atop column in the background.