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Revisiting Middlesbrough’s Community in a Cube

In 2012, I wandered around the Community in a Cube (CIAC) in Middlesbrough after I had a meeting nearby. This visually striking, sustainable, RIBA award shortlisted block of 82 flats in the redeveloping Middlehaven area of the town was of particular interest as it seemed to have become flavour of the month among architects.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the development has been back in the news for rather less welcome reasons. According to local and national press reports, inspections of the building in the wake of the Grenfell disaster have revealed that the building—and, in particular, the distinctive timber claddingare not compliant with fire regulations. ‘Not compliant’ to the extent that a 24/7 ‘waking watch’ patrol has been implemented at a huge cost.

So, when fate brought me to a nearby meeting again today, I thought I’d use the lunch break for another quick wander to see how the development had aged.


Over the last seven years, CIAC has become a local landmark. Its visibility from the A66 and the nearby railway line, combined with the eye-catching “sky homes” perched on top of it, have made the building a familiar and commonly mentioned icon of Middlesbrough.

That said, the intended ‘riverside vision’ has never quite emerged, with CIAC remaining the sole residential development in the area. It seems somewhat isolated as a result. The current plan is for a £30m snow centre to be build nearby.

The surrounding ‘naked streets’, which I found “disconcerting” on my first visit, are now much more traditionally clothed, with separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. There’s also no shortage of weeds on display, which actually somewhat pleasingly soften the visual impact.

Close up, the building looks minimally weathered. The distinctive black stripes on the cladding have mostly worn away on the front of the building, but less so on the less exposed elevations.

The gigantic zebra crossing like paving remains in place at the rear. The geometrically patterned inset wall looks as sharp and fresh as ever. From this angle, I think I’d be hard-pressed to identify photographs taken today from those taken when the building was first completed.

And while seven years ago I said this building “isn’t quite to my taste”, gazing at it across the water of Middlehaven Dock today, I could almost change my mind. Perhaps it’s partly familiarity, but it feels less ‘alien spaceship’ than it did when it was first completed.

All things considered, it has aged pretty well. I’ve no idea how well it has done from a sales perspective: I hear tell from local colleagues that some of the flats are now let to students of the nearby Middlesbrough College, but there are certainly a fair few owner occupiers.


Of course, though, as successful as the visual impact has been, I wouldn’t have dreamed that such a modern building would now be deemed a major fire risk in need of hundreds of thousands of pounds of remedial work. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for the owners and residents of the flats to be living somewhere where they don’t feel as safe as they once did, let alone the financial consequences.

While I understand from the media coverage that it was compliant with regulations when built, this experience must surely raise questions about when the right things are really prioritised when landmark architectural developments are being designed.

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