Last month I attended a SPACE10 forum led by New York-based design duo Anton and Irene on the resurgence of co-living. They suggest the financial squeeze of modern life combined with an upsurge in digital nomads is bringing the ‘sharing economy’ into the home. As 40% of the urban areas required by 2030 are not yet built—which means a city the size of New York needs to be constructed globally every month—it is crucial architects stay up-to-date with contemporary living patterns to respond appropriately to shifts in housing requirements. My last Archinect feature of the year will provide a short overview of the history and challenges that co-living has previously faced, discuss trends emerging from the ‘ONE SHARED HOUSE 2030‘ survey and speak to Dorte Mandrup, architect of the Lang Eng Co-housing Community, on how to approach the challenge of designing successful spaces for co-living.
‘Co-living’, an umbrella term for different types of ‘co-housing’ setups, can loosely be defined as a home where two or more people live together who are not related. While ‘co-housing’ is an intentional community created and run by residents, ‘co-living’ may also encompass shared accommodation initiated by an external agent, such as a developer or entrepreneur.
Aside from the investor rush to fuel co-living startups, concrete figures on the international co-living boom are not yet available. However, early indicators such as the UN now offering support to co-living initiatives within their sustainable development goals and last year’s prestigious Harvard Wheelwright architecture prize being awarded to a project innovating in co-living, suggest it is gaining traction. While it is indisputable that young people strapped for cash have always had roommates—think Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords—co-living is now simultaneously becoming part of everyday urban life and billion-dollar business.
I expect most people reading this who have lived in cities during their 20’s have experienced a houseshare, myself included. I rented a terrace with friends in Sheffield, moved into a Danish kollegium when I started my masters in Copenhagen and had a stint in a family attic while working in London. But rather than remaining a student necessity, increasing numbers of families and professionals are now opting to co-share. This also reflects a surge in the rental market, which in the US has jumped from 52% of total adults in 2005 to 60% in 2013. This is perhaps unsurprising with soaring urban property prices and take-home wages barely rising across the country, a pattern which is echoed in cities worldwide.
Last year Anton and Irene initiated ONE SHARED HOUSE as they became fascinated in how co-living seemed to be experiencing a cultural resurgence. The documentary maps Irene’s childhood experience of growing up in a communal house in Amsterdam. In the early 1980’s Amsterdam was facing an acute housing shortage so the government enacted a law ruling that 1% of all apartments had to be communal. In 1984 Irene’s mom responded to a newspaper ad for a co-share and moved their family into Kollontai, a communal house with 8 other women and their 3 children designed by the new brutalist architect Sier van Rhijn. In the film, Irene explains “they were feminists and non-conformists […] and many were rebelling against the traditional 1950’s families they had grown up in.”
“Whenever I would tell people I grew up in a communal house”, Irene explains to me, “it inevitably turns into a 30-minute conversation about the pros and cons of communal living.” To delve deeper into the subject, she contacted architect Sier van Rhijn about his experience of designing Dutch co-living spaces during that period. “It was fun,” he explained, “even though [the occupants] had no experience designing living spaces, they were very engaged and very idealistic. As an architect, it was sometimes hard to deal with their ever-changing demands, and sometimes it drove us a little crazy.”
It was fun. Even though [the occupants] had no experience designing living spaces, they were very engaged and very idealistic. As an architect, it was sometimes hard to deal with their ever-changing demands, and sometimes it drove us a little crazy.” Sier van Rhijn, architect
Modern co-living can be traced back to thoughts emerging from Denmark in the 1960s, which crystallized in Bodil Graae’s 1967 newspaper article ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. There was a consensus at the time that modern housing was unable to provide adequate wellbeing for occupants over their lifetimes, and that ‘bofællesskab’ (living community) should instead be the aim for future housing projects. In 1972, a group of families were inspired to create the Sættedammen co-share, realized by architects Palle Dyreborg and Theo Bjerg. The project is generally accepted to be one of the first contemporary co-shares, favoring both autonomy from powerful landlords and the Danish government. The living community approach was introduced to the States in 1989 by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in their book ‘Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves’.
Its going to happen to all of us – “Done got Old – can’t do the things I use to!” – Junior Kimbaugh – even those of us in deep denial who intend to work till we die ( most designers and architects I know do not intend to retire). Yet the existing models for later life living are pretty poor and none of the regularly offered ones are very satisfactory. This in-depth review of the options is worthwhile reading for anyone involved in design or management of the aged or making place for aging in our society.
Illustration Evgenia Barinova
Global populations are aging—according to the UN, by 2030 the number of citizens aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56%, a figure which by 2050 is expected to double again, to a total of 2.1 billion seniors worldwide, skewed towards ‘greying economies’ such as those of the US and Europe. Where and how will our seniors live in the future? This month I speak to architect and KADK professor Deane Simpson, who researches shifts in the built environment which are occurring as a consequence of population aging, and Stephen Bates of award-winning firm Sergison Bates who recently completed the Housing for Older Residents project in Hampstead, London. Is it possible to move beyond stereotypes to create an architecture which is functional, healthy and beneficial for the older generation?
It was a visit to St Petersburg, Florida, during the mid-1990s which first sparked Simpson’s interest in the peculiarities of elderly lifestyle communities. With a group of friends, he had stumbled into a housing district exclusively for the over 65’s which challenged their preconceptions of the modern mixed-demographic city. In a bar brimming with vivacious seniors, they felt like complete outsiders. It was an experience which inspired him to lead an architecture study group from ETH-Zurich back to Florida to research deeper into what he saw as a distinct shift in senior living which later informed his award-winning book ‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society’.
“A common understanding of seniors would be people with physical or mental difficulties who required care”, explains Simpson, “but my sense was that that housing and urbanism for the ‘Young-Old’ was not really being discussed. I became interested in how emphasis had shifted from care towards entertainment and leisure, and how these communities were self-segregating on an urban scale”.
Old age is now widely understood to have subdivided into two separate phases of life—the ‘Young-Old’ can now expect to enjoy 20-30 years of good health prior to becoming ‘Old-Old’, when they require special care and support. Historian Peter Laslett, in his 1996 book ‘A Fresh Map of Life’, suggests this phenomenon first emerged as a consequence of the older generation becoming liberated by improvements in healthcare and lifestyle and possessing significant comparative wealth compared to other demographic groups. In the decades following 1950, there was a limited precedent for the ‘Young-Old’ in terms of societal expectations and conventions of how and where to live.
The US is recognized to have pioneered early trends in retirement living as it was not tied to the need to rebuild after the Second World War, a task which preoccupied both Europe and Japan. The world’s first documented age-segregated retirement community, Sun City Arizona, built in 1954 and now home to 37,000 seniors, was the first to explore accommodation options for the emerging ‘Young-Old’ demographic. Sun City promised year-long sunshine, leisure-based social activities, companionship and fun—a far cry from the dreaded nursing home.
My sense was that housing and urbanism for the ‘Young-Old’ was not really being discussed. I became interested in how emphasis had shifted from care and rest to entertainment and leisure, and how these senior communities were self-segregating on an urban scale” Deane Simpson
Owner-occupied retirement housing now represents 17% of the total housing stock in the US, a figure which is steadily increasing year after year. According to the Financial Times, the wealth of the ‘baby boomer’ generation has enabled age-specialist developers to bid for the first time against mainstream development firms to supply prime real-estate. In New Zealand, 12% of over 75s now live in retirement communities, a figure which has risen from 9% in 2014. Meanwhile, housing typology options for seniors have continued to diversify to a certain extent, with an emphasis on familiar styles and forms arranged into neighborhood groupings. I was interested to explore the main trends and innovations in senior housing, so I went in search of architects who are addressing the needs and desires of the older generation with a variety of contrasting approaches.
Senior living dream 1: The Retirement Village
Taking after the Sun City model, the retirement village is characterized by separate dwellings designed specifically for the over 55’s, separated from the rest of the city. Organizations such as the UK-based International Longevity Center warn that the global upsurge in the construction of privatized retirement villages might spell the end for the traditional care home and a state-driven model of elderly care. While most villages take a detached, suburban picket-fence type outlook to housing as seen in Sun City, others adopt a more experimental approach.
One of the most extraordinary propositions I came across was that of Guedes Cruz Architects’ Alcabideche Social Complex near Lisbon, Portugal. The community of 52 cube-like dwellings, constructed from concrete and plexiglass, shade elderly residents from scorching summer sun. Unlike almost all other retirement communities I researched, this project embraces some of the harder to stomach realities of aging—when a resident sounds an alarm within the house, the entire roof of the building lights up red, a glowing distress signal which is broadcasted to the entire community. The 10,000m2 neighborhood also houses a support building and an undulating landscape of public terraces and pools which connect the dwellings.
Senior living dream 2: The High-End Apartment
This interview with a New York resident underlines the older generation are just as diverse as any other age group, not all of whom are searching for the quiet life. “Living in the city is so much better than in the country or burbs”, the 82-year old told the reporter. Some developers are responding to the need of housing seniors within the city by peppering apartment complexes within the existing urban fabric, as a preference to creating detached retirement communities. I spoke to architect Stephen Bates of renowned London-based practice Sergison Bates regarding their Housing for Older Residents project in Hampstead, north London, completed earlier this year. The residential scheme consists of 29 individual apartments with shared facilities, such as social spaces, spa and a communal garden. The community is to be supported by an in-house caretaker whose role is to facilitate both daily activities and care for resident’s needs.
Bates explained that a key driver behind the design was to find an architectural typology appropriate for elderly residents with respect to the context and conservation area of the surrounding site. “We were inspired by the mansion blocks which characterize the area and used this existing urban form to mediate with the townscape of large Arts and Crafts stand alone or semi-detached villas in Hampstead”, he told me. The innovative ‘honeycomb’ plan which first drew me to the project was in part defined by the site footprint and a diagonal emphasis to allow long views across the site towards the gardens. The plan is organized into a number of ‘bedroom suites’ which group changing, bathrooms and sleeping areas together to form definable territories which allow privacy and flexibility of occupation, linked by a ‘middle room’ at the heart of each apartment. “Multi-sided rooms make it possible to have different orientations within the apartment”, describes Bates, “and allowed us to form a collection of ‘good’ rooms rather than aligning purely functional spaces one next to the other.” While offering visual interest to residents spending significant time indoors, a further aim of the design was to enable a live-in carer, visiting family members or a spouse to enjoy different degrees of privacy.
“Many of the residents would have come from a large house, possibly within the area of Hampstead itself”, Bates explains, “and the transition to horizontal living would have to be facilitated by the careful organization of internal spaces. We designed a plan that incorporates a series of areas that allow differentiated access, with interlocking rooms and long diagonal views across them. This creates a landscape of spaces one can move through in more than one way, so that the needs of individual residents can best be met.”
We designed a plan that incorporates a series of areas that allow differentiated access, with interlocking rooms and long diagonal views across them. This creates a landscape of spaces one can move through in more than one way, so that the needs of individual residents can best be met.” Stephen Bates, Sergison Bates Architects.
Portuguese practice Aires Mateus Arquitectos have taken the senior high-rise typology into a rural context for their ‘Residências assistidas em Alcácer do Sal’ (Houses for elderly people in Alcácer do Sal) project, also in Portugal. Speaking to Dezeen, they describe the scheme as a “micro-society”, “between a hotel and a hospital”. They suggest an aim of the project was to address the limited mobility of the building’s residents by forming a patchwork of gently sloping walkways which meander across the site. While the architectural intervention is striking and sculptural due to the way it slices into the topography, it is unclear what access the elderly residents have to medical facilities or social spaces to promote their health and well-being in the long term.
Senior living dream 3: Aging in Place
While not a new concept, aging in place has garnered significant public attention and commendation in recent years. While critics suggest ‘lifelong homes’ is a convenient policy to promote while cutting public spending budgets, there is also significant grassroots support. Furniture fixes and small interventions are the most cost-effective way of adapting a home as the occupants’ physical abilities deteriorate. In this report, the American Architectural Foundation suggest that enabling people to remain in their previous homes or original communities is the most favorable outcome according to their survey preferences. In the 2007 study ‘aging in Place in America’ commissioned by the Clarity and the EAR Foundation, elderly people fear moving away, losing their independence and exile from their communities, more than they fear death. While this may highlight certain misunderstandings of what alternative options there are available, the severity of this statement is nonetheless significant.
The de-institutionalized approach to senior living may have significant benefits when the built environment is tuned to support and assist elderly residents. Aging in place has been proven to support independence and retain community ties which are difficult to sustain when people are uprooted after they reach a certain age. “At the same time,” suggests Simpson, “[Aging in place] is not a perfect solution as it still poses challenges—on both the housing and neighborhood scale. Immobile seniors who have aged in place in low-density car-based housing areas can be vulnerable to social isolation, and can be beyond walking distance to local amenities or a supermarket. Environments like these can also be more costly to service with healthcare provision.”
[Aging in place] is not a perfect solution as it still poses challenges—on both the housing and neighborhood scale. Immobile seniors who have aged in place in low-density car-based housing areas can be vulnerable to social isolation, and can be beyond walking distance to local amenities or a supermarket.” Deane Simpson
The challenge of creating communities that allow people to age in place may also offer an opportunity to rethink suburban or low-density neighborhoods which have long been a challenge to both architects and urban planners. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) support the ‘lifelong homes’ concept—a dwelling that adapts to people’s needs and desires as they grow older. The London Mayor’s design advisory group have offered guidance to both architects and urbanists on how to create ‘Lifetime Neighborhoods’ in this recent report.
Patel Taylor’s Courtyard Housing in Barking, London, aims to address some of the challenges of maintaining an affordable, mixed-generation neighborhood. The economic model of their housing development in Barking is based on that of traditional English almshouse, in which accommodation is provided by a charitable body for citizens who are unable to support themselves. The social housing project was designed to support independent living as residents grow older, but can be occupied by people and families of any age. “The scheme aims to provide council tenants with quality of life and pride in their homes”, say Patel Taylor.
Interestingly, some retirement communities may spontaneously arise from a natural process of aging in place, which is one of Simpson’s ongoing research interests at KADK. Brooklyn-based design studio Interboro Partners have analyzed a number of housing projects in New York City which have emerged due to families moving in during at a specific time then remaining in the same housing block. “I believe that the naturally occurring retirement community is an interesting case to discuss when we focus on dense urban environments”, suggests Simpson, “in the NYC examples, they make use of elevator access and nearby park-like space, at the same time they are tightly integrated into a vibrant and amenity-rich city.”
A main characteristic of a co-living approach is to form independent but connected living arrangement to ensure sufficient degrees of privacy, while benefiting from shared social spaces.”
Senior living dream 4: Co-living
Loneliness and the rising cost of care are some of the most challenging aspects faced by both ‘Young-Old’ and ‘Old-Old’ age groups. Based on a traditional Japanese concept first trialed in Tokyo, some architects are experimenting with combining seniors with other demographic groups with free time but minimal disposable income to create skill-sharing communities. Examples include this nursing home in the Netherlands which is also a student dorm and the Mount’s Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle.
A main characteristic of the co-living approach is to form an independent but connected living arrangement to ensure sufficient degrees of privacy, while benefiting from shared social spaces. When applied to senior living, this approach aims to challenge the stigma of the ‘granny annex’ to create a multigenerational family home where two or more generations can co-exist peacefully. Lennar’s Next Gen Home is innovating in this market—their new build homes combine two separate houses together to form a ‘home within a home’, each area accessible from a separate entrance. In their promotional material, the ‘Next Gen Suite’ has been tested both with aging relatives and adult children with severe disabilities. For more on co-living stay tuned for next month’s feature.
Senior living dream 5: The Cruise Ship
While at first glance it might seem slightly farfetched, increasing numbers of cruise liner companies are now offering live-in possibilities following a wave of media speculation that constant cruising was a more cost-effective prospect than a room in a traditional care home. Back in 2015, USA Today covered the story of 86-year-old Lee Wachtstetter, who took her daughter’s advice to sell her home after the death of her husband to go and live on the Crystal Serenity cruise liner.
The Florida-based shipping company Residences at Sea were one of the first to provide an exclusive long-term rental offering and other enterprises such as Crystal are now following suit with customisable apartments, some as large as 4000 square feet. Cruise Retirement now allows retirees to buy their own cabins. This reflects a boom in the cruise industry overall—according to the The Cruise Lines International Association, over 25 million passengers are predicted to set sail in 2017, with over half of them in the 50-74 age range. However, it is unclear what data the cost predictions that cruise living is cheaper than other accommodation preferences is based on, as circumstances and prices vary dramatically for seniors across the globe. Difficulty in securing affordable insurance, few complimentary onboard meals and lack of access to specialist care onboard may well outweigh the senior discount. In addition, the logistics of living constantly on a cruise ship may be impractical at best—where would possessions be stored? What would the arrangements be while the ship is in port? How might this lifestyle be sustained year after year?
Cruise lines are also selling their elderly living packages as lifestyle products, bearing certain similarities to the first retirement villages. This phenomenon is what Simpson refers to as ‘youthfulness without youth’—environments which, while alluring, are unfortunately seldom designed to support their residents during the complex process of physical and mental decline. “It is only recently that some of these retirement villages have given in to pressure to provide assisted care facilities”, he explains, “it’s not part of their branding as lifestyle products. They do not have cemeteries, sometimes they remove the deceased during the night, reflecting taboos about death and illness amongst this age group.”
It is only recently that some of these retirement villages have given in to pressure to provide assisted care facilities, it’s not part of their branding as lifestyle products. They do not have cemeteries, sometimes they remove the deceased during the night, reflecting taboos about death and illness amongst this age group.” Deane Simpson
Since the 2008 financial crash, the perception of the ‘Young-Old’ as a pleasure-seeking group that is benefiting from the welfare economy while leaving other groups disadvantaged has generated a great deal of anger. Yet, societal expectations of this age group are changing fast. While 30-40 years ago, the ‘Young-Old’ might expect to retire to warmer climes to enjoy an expanse of leisure time—whether moving from the Midwest to Florida, or from the UK to Spain, up to 60% of Americans over 60 now say they will look for a new job after retiring according to Careerbuilder.com, a US jobs website. Many people in this age group are also taking on additional childcare responsibilities, as their children often have a two working parent household which is now required to support a modest income.
However, the push factors forcing people out of their homes today remain broadly similar to what they were back in the 1960s—including an inability to maintain a household, inadequate neighborhood leisure amenities, proximity to healthcare and other amenities, high living costs, adverse climate aggravating health conditions such as arthritis, fear of crime, or the death of a spouse. Yet new experiments in senior living promise companionship, lower housing expenses, provision for poor health, and closeness to family. Housing for the ‘Young-Old’ remains a site of experimentation and innovation, which will have an increasingly significant impact on the market overall. “In the past decade or so”, suggests Deane, “the great majority [of citizens who fall into the ‘Young-Old’ age category] have opted to age in place. This does not mean the desire for a fresh start and to move away is necessarily disappearing. Outcomes of different surveys also emphasize what can be problematic about the current living conditions for those who are aging in place.”
Outcomes of different surveys also emphasize what can be problematic about the current living conditions for those who are aging in place.” Deane Simpson
What makes an age-friendly city? How can architects and urban planners ensure communities possess a rich social life and cross-generational activities? How can segregation and social isolation be reduced? Throughout 2014 the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) compiled a volume of knowledge from both industry and breakthrough research into an Alternative Age Friendly Handbook, which offers some helpful insights. In the US, the American Architectural Foundation cites a lack of diversity, lack of access to continuous and accessible walking routes, few intentional social spaces and restricted access to both healthcare and crisis assistance as key areas for improvement. While these features are aimed at older adults, it is necessary to recognize improvements in these areas are also of great benefit to everyone in the community.
Bates recommends that architects engaged with accommodation for the elderly acknowledge the specific needs and requirements of aging residents, some of which are often overlooked. “There are many models that still need to be explored, in particular, the development more mixed-age collective housing solutions rather than residential forms that cater to a homogeneous age group,” he suggests, “architects need to go back to experimenting with housing in the way they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More experimental housing typologies should also be tested to respond to other demographic trends, such as the growing number of single households in western cities. The proliferation of micro[flats is definitely not the only, nor the most appropriate answer.”
Both Bates and Simpson are in agreement that complex, vibrant, diverse and amenity-rich neighborhoods should drive the development of housing in this sector. “That means thinking beyond the conventional real estate modernist plan”, suggests Bates, “to look at pre-modernist models, as there is much to learn from them, and being more imaginative and flexible about how daily lives can unfold within domestic settings. Housing is the most codified sector in construction and too often homes end up being the unimaginative result of compliance with existing standards and regulations”, Bates continues, “I think we should be much more ambitious and much more open to looking beyond modernist orthodoxy.”
Architects need to go back to experimenting with housing in the way they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More experimental housing typologies should also be tested to respond to other demographic trends, such as the growing number of single households in western cities” Stephen Bates, Sergison Bates Architects.
According to the American Architectural Foundation, senior housing has positioned itself at cutting edge of innovation in the housing sector due to a willingness to try the new with a hope that it will improve on what we remember of the old. “The ritual of aging is that of continual reinvention, not of tradition, and the senior housing industry is deeply vested in understanding and responding to evolving market desire,” they state. The emergence of AI in household care and the opportunities of digital mobility also present interesting opportunities for tailored elderly care suited to individual needs, therefore unlocking previously unimagined living arrangements. Might a domesticated model of care be delivered without a semi-hospitalized environment? How could healthy routines be designed into the building fabric of new developments using new technologies?
“The architect’s role in this would be to produce a diversity of possible models. This diversity should develop through an openness and willingness to experiment and promote the exploration of alternative models to the limited bandwidth of options in the current market environment,” suggests Simpson. “When one is designing for a certain age group, an essential aspect is to address the fact that the user, him or herself, will age in that given environment. This is sometimes overlooked. When designing for the ‘Young-Old’, one has to bear in mind that in 20 years they are likely to be amongst the ‘Old-Old’. So it becomes relevant to factor in how one develops the capacity for these environments to support the people dwelling in them, in different stages of life which in turn correspond to different needs. In responding to this challenge, it becomes relevant to overcome the stigmatization of elderly-friendly design aspects”, he continues, “ as well embracing a diversity of users and preferences. We should keep in mind that seniors are as diverse a population as the rest of us.”
The ritual of aging is that of continual reinvention, not of tradition, and the senior housing industry is deeply vested in understanding and responding to evolving market desire.” American Architectural Foundation
In the US, the Living in Place Insitute provide additional assistance on the options for renovating an existing home to the needs of aging.
To read more about the urban and architectural experiments which come out of these different urban environments, different typologies of retirement see Deane Simpson’s ‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an aging Society, published by Lars Muller.
A common fallacy of the design professions is that the objects we design such as buildings, parks , chairs etc. can be adequately represented by our drawings and computer renderings of these designs and that these will suffice to create the objects themselves by means of the usual contracting mechanisms. Alberto Perez-Gomez calls attention to the origins and problems of this idea in his recent book. In revue of the book in Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Vol .28 No.1 the following excerpts from the book review illustrate the authors ” critical (view) of the two dominant approaches to architectural design today: on one hand, functionalism, including sustainable architecture; on the other hand, a purely aesthetic approach to architecture, including parametric design. He writes that, for the past two centuries, architecture has suffered “from either the banality of functionalism (an architecture that attests to its own process) or from the limitations of potential solipsism and near nonsense, the syndrome of ‘architecture made for archi-tects’.”
The need, Pérez-Gómez concludes, is “for continuing formal exploration in a fluid and changing world” but also returning attention to “the fundamental existential questions to which architecture traditionally answered—the profound necessity for humans to inhabit a resonant world they may call home, even when separated by global technological civ-ilization from an innate sense of place.” The excerpts, below, present two passages from Attunement.
Alberto Pérez-Gómez, 2016. Attunement: Architectural Meaning after the Crisis of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
“A dangerous misunderstanding”
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the assumption has been that architectural space (subsuming all aspects of real place) is easily represented through the geometric systems of descriptive geometry and axonometric projection, which translates seamlessly today into the digital space of the computer screen through standard architectural software. Thus, it seems obvious that architectural meanings would have to be created from scratch, through ingenious formal manipulation of the architect-artist, assumed to be relevant merely through their novel, shocking, or seductive character.
Whenever the physical context is invoked as an argument for design decisions, it is mostly through its visual attributes, imagining the site as a picture or objective site plan that merely provides some formal or functional cues.
This is a dangerous misunderstanding. The deep emotional and narrative aspects that articulate places in a particular natural or cultural milieu are usually marginalized by a desire to produce fashionable innovations. These narrative qualities, however, are crucial considerations as we seek the appropriateness of a given project for its intended purpose in a particular culture: framing a “focalized action” (Heidegger) or event that may bring people together and allow for a sense of orientation and belonging….
We can obviously perceive the qualities of places, particularly when cities have deep histories and their layers are present to our experience. Yet these are still obvious if we compare the “spaces” of newer urban centers, such as Toronto and Sydney (both with similar colonial pasts), which, indeed, ultimately appear as qualitatively different; despite their Anglo-Saxon character, the two cities have a different light and a feel, a different aroma, stemming from such features as the lake or the sea and the “air” of their respective climates.
We can also realize that we think different thoughts in different places, necessarily accompanied and enabled by diverse emotions, albeit usually unintended by the generic architecture of modern development; location affects us deeply, as does more generally the geographical environment (pp. 108-09).
“Architecture as attunement”
Architecture is not what appears in a glossy magazine: buildings rendered as two-dimensional or three-dimensional pictures on the computer screen, or comprehensive sets of precise working drawings.
The most significant architecture is not necessarily photogenic. In fact, often the opposite is true. Its meanings are conveyed through sound and eloquent silence, the tactility and poetic resonance of materials, smell and the sense of humidity, among infinite other factors that appear through the motility of embodied perception and are given across the senses.
Furthermore, because good architecture fundamentally offers a possibility of attunement, atmospheres appropriate to focal actions that allow for dwelling in the world, it is very problematic to reduce its effect (and critical import) to the aesthetic experience of an object, as is often customary. Strictly speaking, architecture first conveys its meanings as a situation or event; it partakes of the ephemeral quality of music for example, as it addresses the living body, and only secondly does it become an object for tourist visits or expert critical judgments (pp. 148-149).
About the Author
Alberto Pérez Gómez directs the History and Theory of Architecture Program at McGill University, where he is Saidye Rosner Bronfman Professor of the History of Architecture. He is the author of Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics (both published by the MIT Press), and other books.
“A real tour de force, this is the work of an intellectual craftsman in full possession of the materials and tools of his trade: a broad sweep of historical material, from the present day to remote antiquity, and then back again, sized and shaped with the precision instruments of his art: philology, philosophical hermeneutics, and poetic reformulation. The workplace is contemporary culture; his task, nothing less than reshaping the way architecture is understood today. Architecture is shown to endow experience with attunements that are equally material, spatial, and linguistic, apprehended by both the body and the mind, through emotions and ideas, providing us with the kind of architectural atmospheres we would not only love to inhabit but dream of designing. For that last purpose there will be no better guide than this book”
—David Leatherbarrow, Professor of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania
A current proposal by architect Michael Maltzan Michael Maltzan Envisions the Future of LA’s Infrastructure inArchinect showing copious planting overlaid on the 134 freeway in Los Angeles illustrates what has been a trend with architects c0-operating with engineers , in this case ARUP, to envision what infrastructural interventions in the urban fabric might become in terms of making more use of them and reducing their ecological footprint through green building, carbon reduction interventions and by covering them in photoshop planting, led me to these thoughts that are here combined with excerpts from a recent conference paper I gave at the ILASA Conference 2016 in Pretoria:
View from above of Michael Maltzan’s proposed Arroyo Seco bridge overlay. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture
Section Perspective. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture
With impressive design diagrams and pictorial renderings the viewer is challenged to engage with a seeming reality that ignores or subsumes most of the actors emergent realities that these behemoths that they are trying to camouflage, represent: The unsustainable and incoherent consumerism that underpins the way engineering and architectural solutions generally ignore the real environmental pickle that cities are in:
Green cruising: the view of the proposed overlay through a vehicle. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture
In a lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Bruno Latour posed the following question:
“When we ponder how the global world could be made habitable – a question especially important for architects and designers – we now mean habitable for billions of humans and trillions of other creatures that no longer form a nature or, of course, a society, but rather, to use my term, a possible collective… But why has the world been made uninhabitable in the first place? More precisely, why has it not been conceived as if the question of its habitability was the only question worth asking? I am more and more convinced that the answer lies in this extremely short formula: lack of space” (Latour, B. 2009. Spheres and Networks: Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization, Harvard Design Magazine Spring/Summer, 30 pp. 138-144, ).
Maybe this lack of space is why we need to rethink how we live together in the world. As human actors that have so dramatically altered the world, it is said that we have entered the Anthropocene. Latour continues by answering the question posed above:
“As is now well known, the notion of environment began to occupy public consciousness precisely when it was realized that no human action could count on an outside environment anymore: There is no reserve outside which the unwanted consequences of our collective actions could be allowed to linger and disappear from view. Literally there is no outside, no décharge where we could discharge the refuse of our activity” (Latour 2009 p.3).
It is now widely accepted that cities are the primary source of this problem. With more than 50% of the world’s population being urbanised, cities must become resilient in the face of the uncertainties of climate, economy and politics. Various attempts have been made to quantify the resource imbalances of cities’ consumption and waste in the form of: ecological footprints , urban metabolism and urban political ecology . These quantifications are needed so that the extent of the problems become visible. Research may lead to solutions to limit ongoing damage to the environment and may also redress this imbalance by making cities more sustainable and resilient for the survival of all their occupants, human and non-human, both now and in the future.
The smart cities and engineered solutions of architects and engineers fall far short of this goal in their version of “greenscaping” with aesthetically beautiful structures in verdant “nature” with scattered people looking on in wonder at their grand creations.
Rendering for the new Sixth Street Bridge. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture
Maltzan describes his proposal
“Well, the proposal for the 134 freeway, the reason I got extremely excited about the 134 is the piece of infrastructure that we would take on, it could carry so many different pieces of the larger puzzle—not only in how you change infrastructure’s role in the city but how you change all of the pieces of the environmental portfolio of benefit. In our proposal, we’re dealing with sounds, lessening the negative acoustic impacts that extend way beyond the freeway. We’re talking about miles of effect that any piece of the freeway has because of how far sound travels. We were looking at a collection of water because It’s a little like a menu: you can pick and choose which pieces you useyou have a significant amount of acreage that the top of the bridge or any piece of the highway creates. We were looking at solar and electricity generation for exactly the same reason: it’s very difficult to find large places to put solar farms in a dense urban environment. And one of the most underutilized pieces of land literally are the air rights over any of the highways, whether they’re elevated or sunken or a bridge. And then the greening of the sides of the bridge to work from an environmental standpoint, and just aesthetically for the visual environment of where that bridge goes through. And then finally the catalytic roof that we’re proposing, that takes the emissions from the cars and converts it, because of the way UV reacts to these titanium dioxide crates, and that acts as a catalytic converter.”
Section Detail. Image: Michael Maltzan Architecture
While I am sure that their intentions are laudable and their goal is to stimulate large scale public works to counter the past and present environmental and social crisis, it is unlikely that the results of their visions will improve anyone except a select fews lives into city.
“All of these pieces don’t have to be in play for every mile of the highway all combined. It’s a little like a menu: you can pick and choose which pieces you use or you employ depending on what the different characteristics of the freeway are, and if it’s elevated or sunken down or at grade. I think that if you begin to take this and other ideas that could be added to the laundry list, and started to look at the highway network as a real positive and begin to retrofit pieces of it (especially when it goes through and affects different neighborhoods), I think it could be one of the largest transformative urban projects of any city, for any place on the planet.
CalTrans used to dream at that scale. The highways, when they were being built, coming out of post-World War II, were seen as one of the most progressive civic governmental projects that was being done any place on the planet. There were all these positive things that were meant to come from that. And I think it’s possible for an agency like CalTrans to reinvigorate the benefit of the highways. I think they’re going to be under more and more pressure to do that, especially as you start looking at the realities of autonomous cars and other means of transportation. That’s going to start to minimize or reduce traffic on the freeways, or at least the traffic footprint. I think it’s going to open up more and more space for the highways to perform in a very different way.”
The proposal, although on grand scale and while attacking many problems of the inefficient metabolism of cites, largely ignores the underlying causes of this problem: the unsustainable consumerism that architects, engineers and city planners are dependent on for their livelihood – yes folks we have created the problem, through our designs, but designs alone, however smart they are, will not be enough to solve these problems
Overcoming these limitations requires a rethinking of the current development design process both by the relevant authorities, bureaucracies and by the design professions, the two entities who appear to be in cahoots in this process and who benefit the most by the exclusion of significant others from participating in the development agenda. They, the authorities and design professionals, have in, Latour’s terminology, “black-boxed” this process i.e. hidden its working from view and any attempts by politicians or others to disentangle it or make its workings transparent seem doomed to failure . Some local examples of how this process results in urban “white elephants” in our local South African context are the Cape Town Stadium and Green Point Urban Park, built for the Soccer World Cup 2010, the Cape Town BRT system and the Gautrain, all of which are in my opinion examples of vested interests gaining control of huge public budgets to facilitate their own economic or political agendas. While admitting that the large-scale improvements in public spaces related to the stadiums generated an awareness of the importance of public space improvement and management, Edgar Pieterse head of the African Centre for Cities criticises the results of these public space enhancements that were carried out in this process, as not having achieved the potential they might have. He writes;
“It [the design of the public spaces] remains predominately an imaginary infused with middle class café culture expectations, replete with Lavazza cappuccinos and generous pedestrian orientated pavements. To be sure these are elements that greatly enhance the public realm but at the same time reinforce the dramatic bifurcation of public life for the rich and poor.” (Pieterse 2012 ).
Cape Town Stadium Source Wikipedia
I believe that a political engagement is required to ignite a renewed interest in re-imaging the roles of the built environments’ participants, ecological environmentalists, social activists and those seeking a future for themselves and their offspring. It seems we should change from thinking about ourselves alone and think rather, for everyone as a whole, thereby supporting this process of change to more equitable and liveable settlements and cities. This applies especially to the “have-nots” who, if not catered for, will topple the entire structure with their neediness, frightening the “haves” with their greediness.
Pieterse suggests that in order to realise more dynamic and original public spaces, we need a more inclusive approach, one that encompasses and incorporates more of who we really are as a South African public:
“….such sensibility calls for a [landscape?] architectural agenda, design approach, urban aesthetic and built fabric that opens up opportunities for frank engagements across lines of difference and privilege in order to induce the necessary discomfort and untidiness that can lead to the thorny conversations about who we are, and how we represent ourselves in space and where we may be going as cities and distinctive cultures” (Pieterse 2012 p.87).
The situation that ~Pieterse criticizes in the context of the South Africa is equally relevant to LA as was highlighted at the ILASA conference by landscape architect Astrid Sykes from Mia Lehrer Associates who are based in LA right next toto the river, in presenting their work of the last 20 years on the LA River and a 2007 study done by a large multidisciplinary team for the city of Los Angeles on the future of the river that MLA were part of. While very positive in achieving consultation and buy-in from residents and the Mayor, it seems that this has been subverted by the City now 8 years later in appointing Frank Gehry’s office to do a project on the future of the river that teemingly ignores the previous work and as yet shows no signs of the public participation and co-design the earlier project was tasked with. It remains to be seen if this is an extension earlier work or more “green sky” City Brand building that Gehry is famous for with his Bilboa Effect.
ARMY CORPS APPROVES $1.3-BILLION LOS ANGELES RIVER RESTORATION PROPOSAL
“For the latest installment of Archinect’s live podcasting series, Next Up, we’re focusing on the L.A. River, and the wide swath of urbanist concerns within its ongoing master planning efforts.
It could be the project that makes, or breaks, Los Angeles. With a complex historical legacy and an often-misunderstood ecology, the L.A. River’s 51-mile stretch is at once a huge urban opportunity, and to many, an even bigger eyesore. Thirty years ago, nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River was founded to protect and advocate for the river, and shortly after, the City of L.A. began looking at ways to take better advantage of the immense resource. Since then, many more communities and stakeholders have joined the conversation, raising concerns of ecology, sustainability, gentrification, public space, affordable housing, social equity—a wealth of complexities that testifies to what a lightning rod of urbanist discourse the River has become.
While conversations about the L.A. River’s future have been percolating for decades, not until only a few years ago did the plans become a divisive topic for the general public—in no small part due to the appointment of Frank Gehry’s office as a leader in the city’s master planning initiative. Reporting on the public’s first peek at the firm’s plans, Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “as the river takes on new shades of economic and political meaning—becoming a magnet for attention and investment after decades of near invisibility—the race to reimagine it is growing more crowded.”
This engagement with the physical infrastructure, social dynamics and politics of the city might seem far from Landscape Architectures usual verdant concerns. To paraphrase the words of Brenner, Latour, Pieterse and Swyngedouw, “everything is political now” and if we wish our discipline to survive in this sea of change, we must become political and design and proselytize our own future place in this new cyborg or assemblage. Research is needed on how to create a transdisciplinary environment that can facilitate higher levels of engagement, participation and co-learning by politicians, publics, professionals and authorities alike, and is something that seems to be lacking in much of the current design process.
From the examples quoted above, it seems that large scale infrastructure is the very place to focus this engagement and to get out of the office, away from the computer and to get involved in a river, freeway proposal or public space project near you now!
With my apologies to Michael Maltzan Architecture, Frank Gehry and ARUP .
Like many others I love the Eames’ chairs and own a couple of copies (unfortunately I have not committed to paying the price of the originals) – their iconic designs and the ethos of their work is inspirational – here is a new book and an excerpt of their advice for designers from ARCHDAILY
Charles & Ray Eames
he forthcoming An Eames Anthology, edited by Daniel Ostroff and published by Yale University Press, chronicles the careers of Ray and Charles Eames in their pursuits as designers, architects, teachers, artists, filmmakers, and writers. As Ostroff attests, with over 130,000 documents archived in the Library of Congress, the Eameses were nothing if not prolific; this volume, accordingly, is not comprehensive so much as representative, curated to reflect the breadth of interests and accomplishments of the pair.
In preparation for a 1949 lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles on “Advice for Students,” Charles made the following notes on inspiration, methodology, and career strategy. They are excerpted here from An Eames Anthology:
Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time
Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the “pat” answer—the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need—physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your work
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude toward it
Design is a full time job
It is the way you look at politics, funny papers, listen to music, raise children
Art is not a thing in a vacuum—
No personal signature
Economy of material
Avoid the contrived
Apprentice system and why it is impractical for them
No office wants to add another prima donna to its staff
No office is looking for a great creative genius
No office—or at least very few—can train employees from scratch
There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly
There are things you can do to prepare yourself—to be desirable
orderly work habits
ability to bring any job to a conclusion
a presentation that “reads” well
willingness to do outside work and study on a problem . . .
Primitive spear is not the work of an individual nor is a good tool or utensil.
To be a good designer you must be a good engineer in every sense: curious, inquisitive.
I am interested in course because I have great faith in the engineer, but to those who are serious
(avoid putting on art hat) Boulder Dam all’s great not due engineer
By the nature of his problems the engineer has high percentage of known factors relatively little left to intuition
(the chemical engineer asking if he should call in Sulphur)
Source: Charles Eames, handwritten notes on talks at University of California, Los Angeles, January 1949, Part II: Speeches and Writings series, Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C
Guilio Foscari’s book Element of Venice, while modelled on a process described a being similar to that of Rem Koolhaas’ at the Venice Biennial , appears to me to be, in the vein of Bruno Labours Actor Network Theory (ANT), an examination of the city’s history, in urban design and architecture in terms that show how the city we as tourists see and take of granted as being “real” a 16th century authentic historical city, is in fact an assemblage and pastiche, not much different to the shopping centres so popular in the post-modern era of the nineties such as Canal Walk in Cape Town’s Century City.
I remember seeing how the famous Roman churches used faux marble paint effects above the dado rails and real marble below, where it could be touched, these are the standard “theming ” techniques of any restaurant or five star hotel establishments decorative chicanery , so denounced by the authentisicm of contemporary architecture.
From ArchDaily by Guilia Foscari
The following is an excerpt from Giulia Foscari’s Elements of Venice, a book that applies the dissection strategy Rem Koolhaas explored in “Elements of Architecture” at this year’s Venice Biennale. The book aims to demystify the notion that Venice has remained unchanged throughout its history and addresses contemporary issues along with strictly historical considerations. Read on for a preview of Elements of Venice, including Rem Koolhaas’ introduction to the book.
FROM THE FAÇADE CHAPTER: Pedestrian Reform.
The new pedestrian streets cut into Venice’s ancient urban fabric (in which the old walkways connected the insulae without guaranteeing the same capillary reach of the current network) would have appeared with brutal evidence had the construction of new buildings along the sides of these streets not acted to “cauterise” the incisions made by the numerous demolitions. The pedestrian reform, put to motion in the early 19th century, was the result of a substantial shift in governance of the city.
New power structures, such as banking and insurance, and new public institutions, such as the chamber of commerce and the postal service – alternatives to those of the mercantile oligarchic Republic of the Serenissima – called for the construction of new representational buildings. New buildings were thus erected facing onto new streets, which, in turn, marked the discovery of “traffic” as a powerful tool of urban control in the hands of a “ruling class interested at once in political and commercial power”. At the expense of a traditionally compact urban fabric, the new government created, with public money, “urban voids” that were to become catalysts for representative buildings,commercial thoroughfares and modern infrastructure (such as electrical wiring).
Millions of tourists reaching San Marco from the Accademia or Rialto Bridge are thus deceived. The urban landscape they see as a striking testimony of ancient Venice is actually a particular collection of façades designed by 19th-century (academic and eclectic) architects, each responsible for designing a cluster of buildings along new circulation axes. Among these are projects by Giovan Battista Meduna near the ponte del Lovo in San Fantin, by the architect Pividor near Campo San Vio, by engineers Fuin and Balduin near San Moisé and on the Riva degli Schiavoni, by engineer Calzavara in the Frezzeria, and by Berchet and then Ludovico Cadorin at San Trovaso. All devoted to the notion of “revival” and “reusing of architectural styles” (Bellavitis, Romanelli, 1985) these architects could be grouped according to two separate tendencies: “the party using terracotta, emphasising on polychrome solutions with reference to late central-Italy and Lombard Renaissance style (practised by Cadorin, engineers Calzavara and Romano, for example); and the party referencing to severe Lombard architecture of the quattrocento, featuring Istrian stone and scarce use of ornament – Meduna, Fuin, Trevisanato” (Giandomenico Romanelli,1998).
There are no longer banks or institutions in the buildings flanking these pedestrian thoroughfares, which are now described as “Venetian bottlenecks”, given the density of persons found in these very streets at any given time. Fashion boutiques from the world’s most famous brands have taken their place. This is yet another example of how Venice has gone from being the capital of the mainland area of Padania, as it was still at the end of the 19th century, to being a capital of global tourism.
Reciprocal Contamination. Icons.
Our contemporary world, in which forms quickly dissolve into one other, is thirsty for icons. Each tourist – the common denominator of a mass phenomenon – is hunting for images, travelling the world without letting go of his camera, his smartphone, his iPad. Icons are not histories or phenomena. Thus a tourist does not know, is not interested in knowing, the history behind the city’s pedestrian reform, or distinguishing an ancient building from a 19th-century construction. He does not wonder whether tourism helps or harms the city. He is searching for images. One such icon could easily be the Doge’s Palace, or St Mark’s bell tower, or the Rialto Bridge. Even lesser things suffice: gondolas, winged lions, pigeons walking, horses held high in the air. Even masks. By propagating her symbols, Venice has reached the entire world and has become a commoditised image. Enterprising managers – perhaps better than intellectuals – have understood and seized the (conceptual) reality of this contamination, reproducing Venetian icons on a vast scale, as if they were masks of their own identity, to use on their casinos and on customers visiting shopping centres, the special fascination created by the allure of entering an imaginary world (a “fantastic mutation of normal reality”, as Thomas Mann would write in Death in Venice) and leaving – if for a while – the at times oppressive contingency of reality.
Combining two obsessions: music and archi-culture David Byrne sits in the middle as a self appointed commentator on our lives and lifetimes, we have heard of our paranoia ash our obsessive lives since the seventies with Talking Heads, I remember “Life during Wartime”as especially poignant and his collaborations with Brain Eno, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” spoke mysteriously of a strange in-between world and predated the mix-uped shift to Remix. In his Bicycle Diaries he explored a first person view of urbanism and in How Music Really Works gave us an insiders view of music and the music industry now in ArchinectJulia Ingallssets forth..
“It’s a multi-purpose shape – a box.” Byrne as “The Deadpan Docent” in “True Stories”.
Unlike those architects who long to be thought of as artists, Byrne is an artist who loves to thinks about architecture. Like the deadpan docent of the infrastructural realm, David Byrne’s work has inadvertently helped make architecture into a pop culture staple. While his commentary may not be mind-blowing to an architect, the method of his commentary – the diversity and size of his audience, the innovative visual and aural techniques in which he conveys highly abstract concepts – is a major contribution to architectural discourse.
Very few popular songwriters have as many instantly hummable, building-oriented tunes in their catalogues as David Byrne. It’s way beyond “Burning Down the House”; take a closer look at the entirety of Byrne’s 38-year output, working with Talking Heads, Brian Eno or any of a dozen other musical collaborators. Instead of writing love songs that focus on interpersonal rapture, Byrne tends to frame his romanticism in potentially isolating structures: dry ice factories, wartime brownstones, shotgun shacks. Byrne’s lyricism is usually never content to celebrate love between people; it’s a celebration of love between people and structures. Notably, the way structures and spaces influence relationships isn’t a tract in an out-of-print textbook but a danceable groove.
David with bike and organ at Aria, Minneapolis, MN 2012. Image via davidbyrne.com.
In tracks “Don’t Worry About the Government”, “Cities”, and “Strange Overtones”, Byrne explores the buoyant (if misguided) expansionist mindset of late capitalism, the suburban isolation resulting from utopian mid-century urban planning, and the Great Recession-era social retrenching. “Don’t Worry About the Government” places the joy of work and life firmly in the hands of expanding infrastructure; Byrne makes comparisons between civil servants and his loved ones, although his main focus is the inherent power of the building itself: “my building has every convenience / it’s gonna make life easy for me.”
My building has every convenience
It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax alone with my loved ones
– “Don’t Worry About the Government”, Talking Heads, Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
milan has historically been home to some of the world’s most recognized brands. being the hub of fabrication for many of them,
the city now finds itself with decommissioned factories, closed, abandoned and often times forgotten, leaving a considerable amount of space
unusable and often times unsightly. the falck steel plant of sesto san giovani in northern milan is one such place, leaving behind many
aged social housing units, an industrial skeleton, and a greying landscape. renzo piano has recently been given legal rights to the 1.3 million square-meter site
where he plans to restore it as a vibrant place for the community, complete with a museum, library, research centers, universities, homes, shops,
and a 1 million square-meter park tying it all together – slated for completion by 2018. the master plan follows a bi-axial concept whereby
the north-south axis (dubbed the ‘rambla’) will contain commercial and residential program and will add approximately 1270 new housing units.
the east-west datum will host the public functions mentioned above, merged with a newly green landscape. the rambla will feature a series of towers
ranging between 40 and 90 meters tall, elevated on columns above the ground with hanging green gardens clad in terracotta-colored tiles.
a project of this size must also take energy use and infrastructure into account if it is to be successful. the entire campus is designed to be autonomously
powered, relieving the grid of more energy loads. connections with various parts of the city will also be improved; a redesigned train station will better link
to existing public transport services and the ‘elf’ – alternative energy vehicles – will be introduced as a new means of low-capacity mobility.
From Dezeen – South Africa brought into focus with Oscar Pistorius’s newsworthiness bringing media eyes to focus for a moment on this negative aspect of South African urban life – but it is not here alone that this in their “Splintering Urbanism” Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin list this as one of the many symptoms of depressing global malaise. I have added on of the comments here – in response to what the writer saw as the one sided view expressed in this piece.
Opinion: in his latest column, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs discusses why gated communities are “becoming the default setting in towns and cities around the world” and asks whether it matters who owns the land beneath our feet.
From the air, it’s easier to spot wealth than poverty. Climbing out of Cape Town International Airport the informal settlements soon become a blur but the private developments remain in crisp focus, their pristine loops of asphalt standing out like Nazca lines, the bulk of their road-straddling gatehouses unmissable and their clustered tricolours of lawn, pool and villa conspicuous against the dun landscape.
Later, descending into Johannesburg in darkness, the city lights reveal the same pattern: random, dull and fuzzy in the shack districts but bright and purposeful in the secure enclaves. The British euphemistically call these developments “gated communities” but South African developers use the more straightforward “security estate”.
In one such as these, near Pretoria to the north, Oscar Pistorius felt safe enough behind high walls, razor wire, attack dogs and armed guards to sleep with the patio doors open (albeit with a gun under his bed and a cricket bat behind the bathroom door).
Pistorius lived on the Silver Woods Country Estate (shown in the aerial image above) – a “prestigious security estate” of 290 homes and still-vacant building plots set amid similar districts with names like Willow Acres and Faerie Glen. This still-growing Securicor suburb will eventually house 25,000 people.
The sleeping and bathing quarters at Casa Pistorius are now among the most familiar interior layouts of all time thanks to numerous media reconstructions of the night he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Yet the urban design of Silver Woods has hardly been discussed, even though its paranoia-driven features might provide the only mitigating circumstances in Pistorius’ favour: people who live in these places clearly fear for their lives.
Like most security estates, Silver Woods has a single point of entry and departure: a covered, manned and barriered gateway, bristling with CCTV and biometric scanners and resembling a sub-tropical Checkpoint Charlie. It is connected to the public domain but not of it.
The estate is “enclosed with a solid, electrified security wall” and is planned “in such a way that it has the feel of a village.” All building work is subject to “a strict architectural and aesthetics specification”.
Yet this is a village with no facilities on offer beyond raw security: no stores, playgrounds, bars or cafes. Residents have to journey by car for all their daily needs, or get them delivered. Hinting perhaps at the fearful priorities of its residents, the estate’s website boasts of its proximity to hospitals and medical clinics first of all, before listing the distance to local schools and shops. The location of the nearest police station is not regarded as a benefit worth mentioning.
While security estates respond to violent crime they do not solve it. Despite its precautions Silver Woods has suffered “incidents” in the past. Beneath a brief statement on its website from the Silver Woods management commiserating on the Valentine’s Day tragedy a woman called Colleen has commented: “We moved to the UK to avoid the crime. While living in a ‘secure’ suburb in Johannesburg we experienced many an incident with regards safety, burglary etc. Our children were victims of hijacking attempts as well.”
Developments like Silver Woods attract universal disdain from architectural writers and urbanists. They are seen as a betrayal of civilised values and an abandonment of design’s potential to benignly regulate behaviour in the urban environment. Former Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey called gated communities a “social ill” and wrote: “It’s time we opened our gates, and to shoo the fear away as we do.”
Easy to talk from london. One in three South African women has been raped. It is not paranoia; it is a fact. I don´t particularly like those neighbourhoods, but I live in a place where, unlike South Africa, one can walk in the streets safely. Don´t make an academic discussion out of a more serious matter. By the way, it is in bad taste talking like that of the Pistorius case.