Open-Close - Midsteeple Quarter Ideas Competition

Placing arts, culture and community at the centre of a town makes a positive statement, which can be articulated through well considered architectural interventions.  Dumfries High Street is edged with shopfronts and accessed through Closes.  The Open-Close concept activates these edges and encourages movement though the Closes to revitalise the Midsteeple Quarter and define it as a centre for the community.

In a nation of towns and within the context of a movement of community-led initiatives, the Midsteeple Quarter is an opportunity to re-define the town centre.  As retail moves away from town centres across Scotland, the geographical centre of a town can be re-defined as the hub of community activity.  As buildings are re-claimed for living and working in the town centre, the relationship between these buildings and the public space between them must also be re-defined.  Successful re-population of the town centre is therefore about designing armatures to accommodate a new live-work dynamic and articulate a reciprocal relationship with the High Street.

Self-empowered communities such as Dumfries are leading the way in re-defining town-centres.  A sense of shared responsibility and ownership in the community is very powerful, even more so when the ownership becomes literal.  The same principle can be applied to a live-work dynamic to facilitate closer ties between them and link these uses within a building.  Community resources such as makers’ spaces and social enterprises then become a natural extension of these uses and a more intuitive way to connect with the wider town.

Shopfronts form an edge through which the internal use of a building interfaces with what’s outside.  The nature of this edge reflects the activity within and therefore the nature of its relationship with the street.  Shopfronts are designed to engage by means of a display window, inviting people to enter the building as consumers.  Without this relationship the shopfront is an inactive edge, and the space in front becomes more of a route than a true street.  Reactivating this edge must therefore be to establish a new relationship, based on the community activities to be housed within the buildings.

Closes connect the High Street to the surrounding town.  They are routes rather than streets, but crucially, they are pedestrian routes.  Movement through these is therefore critical to the town centre being experienced on foot.  Signalling of the Closes and encouraging people through them can therefore help to link the High Street to surrounding areas, such as the Whitesands.

The Open Close concept re-defines the relationship between buildings and street and encourages movement by fraying edges and making Closes open.  The former shop-front edge would be made more permeable by carving into it, enabling the community to move more freely into the buildings.  Elements of re-designed facades would also fold and turn out, reaching out and engaging with the street.  Cutting the corners of closes would open them to the High street.  The structure used to do so would reach out, signalling the close, and drawing the eye through it.

137-139 High Street could be the first of a series of buildings to accommodate the new live-work model.  The former shop on the ground floor could be reimagined as a community resource, such a workshop or makers’ space.  This open community-led approach could be communicated through a series of architectural interventions following the Open-Close concept. 

Removing the corner of the ground floor adjacent to the Close would make the building permeable, drawing people into its ground floor footprint and encouraging movement within the Close.  The structural element used to retain the façade above would signal the Close, drawing the eye down the former building line.  This would be further “ghosted” by a ribbon of core-ten steel, folding around the former shop-front and down the Close to encourage more dynamic movement.  Similarly, timber screens along the building-line would also fold up and out, reaching into the street.

The Midsteeple Quarter has the potential to give rebirth to the High Street as the heart of the Dumfires community, and be an exemplar for other towns.  This starts with re-defining what happens in the buildings, and flows through the articulation of an active edge into a vibrant street scene.  Movement through this and connection to the surrounding town defines the Open Close.