The big rethink concludes neighbourhood as the expansion of the home
Drawing on the lessons of the series, the final part of the Big Rethink proposes a new kind of prototypical neighbourhood that expresses a more resonant connection with all aspects of the human condition and suggests a genuinely enriching approach to indivual and communal life
After a hiatus, this essay returns to and concludes The Big Rethink campaign.1 It extends and adds detail to the discussion of urban design, the subject of the penultimate essay, to bring the whole series down to earth by elaborating a more concrete, if still somewhat abstracted, vision of some design implications of the ideas discussed in the series. The focus is on the neighbourhood, in part because progress towards a true sustainability, and its concomitant way of life, cannot be delivered only by buildings, let alone individual ones. Besides, a theme of this series is that sustainability cannot be achieved by attending only to such objective issues as technology and ecology, critically important though these are.
Equally necessary is attention to the subjective, psycho-cultural factors in devising a vision of a sustainable way of life sufficiently enticing to inspire impetus towards its realisation. Such a vision of a deeply satisfying way of life in an environment offering an extraordinarily rich choice of non-commercial activities and experiences − in which its residents grow up, mature and age in the embrace of community and nature − cannot be realised at a scale smaller than the neighbourhood. Progress to genuine sustainability thus requires replacing the alienating environment bequeathed by modernity, to which we could not relate and that impeded our relationships with others and ourselves, with one (here, the neighbourhood) in which we once again feel at home in the world.
Another key assumption underlying this series is that we are in the throes of epochal transition. And it is vitally necessary for environmental design practitioners to understand and participate in this transition, by furthering and helping to shape it, if we are adequately to address the near overwhelming challenges of our time. The confusions characterising much of the current architectural scene, and the inadequacy of our attempts to progress to sustainability, stem from not fully grasping the nature of the changes that are afoot. These essays have mostly focused on the implications of the waning of the modern era, which started with the Renaissance and was consolidated by the Enlightenment, and of Postmodernism, modernity’s repressed flip side that emerged to further its terminal meltdown.
The implications of just this transition, and the increasingly obvious inadequacies of the sort of thinking bequeathed to us by both modernity and postmodernity, are vast enough to have preoccupied us. But in fact, as already discussed in the second essay (AR February 2012) several epochs of much longer and differing duration are closing, extending right up to the ending of the current, Cenozoic geological era that started 66 million years ago. This is giving way to what some have termed the Anthropocene age, recognising the huge impact humans are having on the planet, and others the Ecozoic era,2 in optimistic anticipation that we might yet learn to live in harmony with the planet − our only chance of long-term survival.
This vastly expanded perspective is also germane to any discussion of sustainability because, as we shall see, the challenging questions provoked are not only about what must we do to, say, bring about the Ecozoic era. Equally, we have to raise the question (to many the much more daunting, if also exciting one) of who must we become, or be, to realise and live in this new manner. Again, the apt scale to evoke an implementable vision of what this might imply, along with some of the complexities involved, is that of the neighbourhood. Several thinkers have posited that the transition necessary to achieving true sustainability must be of similar order to that between hunter-gatherer nomadism and agricultural (and eventually urban) settlement. These thinkers have also noted how for 150,000 years of tribal nomadism we lived in relative harmony with the planet which we treated with reverence as our home; moreover, the 10,000 years since have been, in evolutionary terms, a very short period.
Thus the modern era, with its extractive and destructive ways supercharged by industrial technology and colonialism (which continue in updated forms in the quest for food and scarce resources by major manufacturing nations), has been a mere blink of the eye. And yet, our contemporary mode of living on the planet seems to most to be normal, simply and inevitably the way things are. The argument here is not to revert to tribalism; such bands were as homogeneous in make-up as our societies are heterogeneous. But instead of merely dismissing them as primitive, we might yet learn much from this long and successful phase of our historical evolution − not least about the importance of inclusive communities and an intimate relationship with nature − that might help us to shape a more sane and deeply satisfying new way of life.
A thinker I’ve only just discovered, and whose ideas resonate with much of what has been discussed in these essays, is Tony Fry. In Becoming Human by Design he mentions how during 150,000 years of nomadism we dwelt in the world, treating the whole world as our home.
But when climate change led us to settle the Fertile Crescent, initiating 10,000 years of settlement, this mode of ‘being-in-the-world’ ended, giving way to ‘making a world within the world’, home now restricted to only those parts we settled. As Fry says, this ‘instigated those processes that were eventually to lead to contemporary … unsustainability, with the emergent prospect of mass homelessness’. The Enlightenment then intensified the process of what Fry calls Unsettlement that climaxes in the current crisis. This pungent characterisation resonates strongly with the equally evocative diagrams by Richard Tarnas shown in the second of these essays.4
Thus to move forward to sustainability requires much more than knowing what to do, our current limited approach that draws on only the objective Left-Hand Quadrants of the AQAL diagram. This merely makes things − buildings, products, energy generation and so on − less unsustainable. Instead, true sustainability entails nothing less than transforming ourselves into who we must become, by attending to the Right-Hand Quadrants also, to achieve the next stage of our evolution. For Fry, the way to achieve this transformation is what he calls ‘ontological design’, the third driver of human evolution along with biology and social history. Fry argues convincingly that ontological design is intrinsic to the process by which we became human: we make things with purposive intent (designed artefacts) that help us act on or in the world, and which then persist to change us.
Although not quite the same idea as presented in earlier essays in this series, it tallies with two key ideas found there. First, that it was through the spatial deployment of activities and the choreography of their relationships − through architecture and ritual, the ways in which we project our psyches into space to better explore and elaborate them, as well as intensify the experience and meaning of activities − that we created ourselves as complex cultured beings. Second, that design should now be understood as mankind’s mode of purposively participating in evolution, both mankind’s and that of the planet.
Such elevated views of the essential purposes of architecture and design have yet to be widely acknowledged − understandably, perhaps, after Modernism’s disastrously reductionist and determinist attempts at social engineering. Yet they encapsulate precisely architecture’s most essential and ennobling purpose. Recognition of this leads to adopting the evolutionary/developmental perspective that characterises so much leading-edge 21st-century thought. It also entails embracing the Left-Hand Quadrants of the AQAL diagram, as well as the Right-Hand Quadrants to furnish an inspiring vision of an environment and lifestyle that encourages us to unfold into full humanity, according to current understandings as to what that might mean.
Creating such an inspiring vision is part of a potently effective model for initiating change that is widely used in psychotherapy and business management. This recognises that what keeps us stuck and unable to act effectively is an overly exclusive concentration on the challenges and problems we face − the almost exclusive subject of environmentalist rhetoric − which can then become depressingly and disempoweringly overwhelming. So we should also formulate an enticing vision of where we might get to, and of what life would become like, in the process of resolving these problems.
This not only provides a powerful positive motive and forward momentum but also the problems’ looming presence would seem to shrink and move aside in our mind so that we could see and concentrate also on the desired outcome. Yet this envisaged outcome may not appeal to all, particularly if it includes a level of community engagement that runs counter to the aloof hyper-individualism of our times. Yet such psychological ‘resistance’ can also be seen as positive, as proof that the proposed changes do not fall short of what is required to bring about real transformation and, moreover, what we actually want, even long for.
To overcome such resistance and impel action it is necessary to call attention to, or just imagine, a ‘back story’ that indicates how we are already progressing towards the envisioned outcome. (Part of our back story is elaborated in the next section of this essay.) The key question then becomes: what is the next small step that will advance us to the desired goal? Because they are more obviously feasible, small steps are much more likely to inspire action than a dauntingly large step that might provoke the inertia of resistance. More than that, small steps are also likely to set in motion positive feedback effects that continue and amplify the forward momentum. By contrast, large, initially destabilising and possibly difficult-to-implement interventions tend to unleash dampening negative feedback effects of various sorts.
So massive change can be initiated in a piecemeal fashion by, say, building part of a neighbourhood, a perfectly feasible proposition with the potential to inspire widespread emulation.
Before focusing on the neighbourhood and its residential buildings, it is useful to note how discussion of them would differ from that about either urban design (although a successful neighbourhood probably exemplifies sound urban design principles) or such contemporary manifestations as the housing estate or residential development. These distinctions also clarify the aptness of the neighbourhood as a closing topic for this series. An urban design masterplan may be completed by buildings, but it primarily shapes the open spaces of the public realm and is future-oriented, providing a framework within which buildings will come and go. Considered in any meaningful sense, the neighbourhood must include the buildings as utterly intrinsic to it, as well as the past of those buildings and of the spaces between them, both of which would be pregnant with the memories and meanings that have attached to them over time.
The housing estate or residential development is generally considered without such dimensions: it is merely where the home is located, and, in the apt terminology of writer and activist Lieven de Cauter, this home is a secure ‘capsule’ for the cocooned nuclear family whose members come and go enclosed in vehicular ‘capsules’, thus remote and protected from neighbourhood and neighbours.5
By contrast, any real neighbourhood is an extension of, even an intrinsic part of, the home; it is not somewhere you merely pass through going to and from home but is the environment and community within which adults meet and slowly bond and where children play, grow up and are socialised. Hence the neighbourhood is a place where we not only reside but also to which we belong: it is part of our identity and intrinsic to who we are, so providing essential psychological and existential grounding.
Such Left-Hand Quadrant concerns are extraneous to the way a housing estate is usually conceived. The real neighbourhood is thus an essential aspect of what the previous essay called the City of Being, and is near-impossible to recreate with the modern, reductively functionalist thinking and design approach that produced the modern City of Doing, of destinations dispersed in
a relative void.
Regeneration of the neighbourhood
Significantly, some of the same forces undermining the City of Doing are provoking the regeneration of neighbourhoods. Many complain that the computer is increasing the atomisation of society and the erosion of immediate community, with adults and children spending more time online and even preferring to meet others only in cyberspace. But although there is truth in this, it is also a one-sided view. Such online communities are certainly not real communities in which a diverse range of people are brought into prolonged and unavoidable contact so that each has a largely unedited view of the other. Instead, special interest groups are where you meet only the like-minded in circumstances of your choice − including anonymity or as a fictitious persona. Yet there is also evidence that online communities increase the desire for face-to-face contact and even for real community, beyond such phenomena as flash mobs. Certainly a longing for community seems part of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Besides, the computer and the Internet have led to ever more people working from home, at least part of the time. So it is not only children and house parents who are home during the day, but also those who once enjoyed the social life associated with work. So besides local shops reopening to serve these people, so too are coffee shops and other places to meet and hang out − the so-called ‘Starbucks effect’. A complementary development is that people are realising how unsustainable is suburban life, particularly with time and energy wasted in long commutes and the house parent wasting yet more time and fuel chauffeuring children to distant schools, shopping malls and sports facilities. They are also missing the vitality, choice and community of the old neighbourhoods. So, in the USA especially, people are now moving back into city centres and reviving old mixed-use neighbourhoods. Both working from home and the return to old neighbourhoods are resulting in what some Americans refer to as ‘The Return of Main Street’.
This revitalisation of the vibrant, mixed-use neighbourhood, and the creation of their contemporary equivalents, marries well with other topical agendas.
Such neighbourhoods, particularly those dense enough for efficient public transport and with pleasant and lively streets that encourage walking, are intrinsic to the mixed-use neighbourhoods of the Compact City advocated for being less unsustainable than dispersed cities of monofunctional urban areas. They are also consistent with the Slow City movement, which seeks to enhance the conviviality of cities as well as of the Transition Town movement, which extends such concerns to a wide range of strategies to increase the resilience of towns and urban areas to better face forthcoming challenges.
The modern City of Doing, with its fragmented fabric and dispersed destinations, promised convenience at the expense of such things as community, sense of place and belonging − all things the modern mindset tended to see as constraining freedom, which it valued above all. Despite the freedoms and unprecedented wealth enjoyed by many within the City of Doing, surveys suggest its lifestyle has not brought the happiness that comes with the deep satisfactions of a meaningful life with connections to community and place. This is because it prioritises standard of living over quality of life. Life encapsulated and cocooned in the isolated home (whether in tower block or suburb) and private car is not now seen by sociologists or psychologists as the best setting for raising children, nor for adults to flower into full maturity. Besides, it has a brittle fragility, dependent on supply chains and services that are easily disrupted, and offers neither the comforts nor resiliency of neighbourhood networks. It is a lifestyle unsupportive of both physical and mental health, nor of the self-knowledge that leads to emotional maturity and deep happiness. As argued in an earlier essay, self-knowledge depends on being fully known in all one’s roles by others, something the fragmented City of Doing expressly inhibits.
Sedentary work and dependency on time-wasting commuting, whether by private or public transport, has led to an epidemic of obesity and such associated health problems as diabetes, hypertension and heart trouble.
It is now also recognised that a common causal factor in many of today’s chronic diseases − such as hypertension and heart disease, cancer and others − is inflammation. And several studies suggest that, among other factors, a major cause of inflammation is living alone (or without other adults), and especially with the stresses that go with having no one to divulge problems to and share worries with. But the fragmented way of life and atomised society that have led to solitude and a sense of exclusion are almost intrinsic to the design of modern buildings and cities. These bring other social problems too, in that
some of the lonely and those who feel themselves to be not included, and who have not developed the emotional intelligence and conversational skills that aid social inclusion, develop various forms of predatory behaviour. These justify further capsularisation − such as gated communities, driving children to school and so on − fuelling further atomisation and erosion of the neighbourhood values and virtues that we now realise are vital to physical, mental and social health. The resulting problems are particularly acute for children who cannot indulge the spirit of adventure (associated with the Red Meme phase of Spiral Dynamics,6 so manifesting later in such pathological forms as gang culture) by freely roaming the city7 or immersing themselves in nature, especially meadows, wild woods, streams and so on, resulting in what is now referred to as ‘nature deficit disorder’.8
Everything discussed so far reinforces the premise that the design of the neighbourhood, whether a new one or the regeneration of an old one, is an obviously apt place to initiate the broad range of changes necessary to progress to sustainability. The manageable scale and phased implementation permits experiment, with the later stages refined or revised according to feedback in response to the earlier stages. Much of human life takes place here, and the scale is sufficient to shape an environment in which people may enjoy richly varied lives. The challenge is to ensure these do not overly tax the planet’s resources and regenerative capacities, while also being deeply satisfying because enmeshed in multiple webs of meaningful, life enhancing connection − a fundamental key to sustainability.
Preliminaries to design
However, as argued earlier in this series, envisioning and realising a sustainable civilisation is not only the great collective enterprise of our times, but one to which all creative and responsible people should contribute, not just architects. It involves far more than shaping a new environment: also new economics and politics, lifestyles and social rituals, culture and underpinning collective myths. To describe a prototypical neighbourhood of the near future somewhat contradicts this argument for the importance of collective initiative. What follows is intended to prompt such discussion. Besides, as an abstract prototype, it ignores such specifics as local context, culture and climate, which would all be major determinants of any implemented design. Moreover, as argued in an earlier essay, the future will probably see a wide range of types of settlement, perhaps as some return to the land pursuing a small-scale mixed and labour-intensive − rather than energy-intensive − farming. The model described here is only one possibility, a dense urban settlement chosen to prove that richness of experience, community interaction and pervasive contact with nature is possible even at such an extreme. Furthermore, the focus is only on the psycho-social dimensions (the Left-Hand Quadrants) of neighbourhood and residential design. Ignored are most of the objective, technical issues (the Right-Hand Quadrants) such as energy-efficient heating and ventilation, handling of sewage and waste and so on. Although obviously vitally important, these are increasingly well understood and publicised, and subject to much promising innovation. What is intended here is to counterbalance a too-exclusive focus on such concerns, both for completeness and to elaborate a more enticing vision such as might inspire at least partial emulation in real schemes.
Clearly then, the design of the first few of such neighbourhoods would not be entrusted immediately to architects. Instead design would be preceded by extensive research by experts − including depth and evolution psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists − as well as laypeople. The quest would be for the insights necessary to elaborate a sustainable lifestyle and culture and its concomitant environment − sustainable because people would be so deeply satisfied psychically from living in harmony with the planet and its people, nature and human nature, that they spurn pointless consumption. The research would draw on both the best of our human sciences and yet also dredge our sweetest and deepest of dreams that promise enchantment and fulfilment. Some of the questions pursued would be: What do we really want? What would make us truly fulfilled and happy? Who would we have to become to live such a life? And is that what the planet and evolution would want for us too?
These are not such easy questions to answer. Our expectations have been warped by materialist modern values and, most especially, by today’s advertising that uses the best of psychology’s insights to undermine our sense of adequacy so as to sell us products that promise to alleviate this. In the face of this, among the best tests as to what will bring fulfilment and meaning is to imagine reassessing life from your deathbed. What would matter now? What truly brought happiness? Almost certainly it would not be consumerism, but instead connection, with people and places, and making a lasting contribution to them. Ask people when they were happiest, say on holiday, and they are unlikely to talk about some expensive five-star vacation but rather remember camping on a beach. The point is that deep happiness and satisfaction need not cost the earth, financially or literally in terms of the eco-damage wrought.
From this research, questioning and discussion, would be distilled the briefs for urban designers and architects. But before design starts a set of goals would have to be formulated to guide and test design, only a few of the more all-embracing ones likely to be proposed being mentioned here. This too would be a collective participatory exercise, with agreement on the goals reached before design proceeds, and then continuing refinement of the goals from feedback in response to completion of early phases. As a major aspect of creating a setting for a sustainable lifestyle, the environment and the social dynamics this shapes will be designed to encourage residents to discover, explore and grow into their full potential, as that is currently understood but has as yet to become possible for much of society to achieve. This requires an environment offering a great richness of opportunity for, and choices of, experience and social encounter such as will stimulate and stretch the person and bring self-knowledge. Both the neighbourhood masterplan and the residential blocks would contribute to this.
As such the neighbourhood and its housing would be designed to support all ages and stages of human development. This would extend from dependent infant and exploring child playing in safety, to the teenager roaming further afield but still in safety, to the varied lives of working adults and parents, and on up to the retired and elderly, and even the dying. Although there would be no compulsion to stay within the neighbourhood, it would also be possible to live your whole life within the same community by moving between its various dwelling types, even within a single block. Despite that option, many would probably move for work or when marrying, although some expect a sustainable society to involve less mobility than today’s.
Reconnecting with nature
As important as accommodating all ages and stages, the design would seek to connect, or reconnect, our fragmented society in which children are unaware of much of the adult world, such as what their parents really do at work, and the aged are largely excluded and banished to care homes. It would also reconnect people with nature and heighten their awareness of its cycles, moods and forces. Abundant vegetation would not only provide shade, freshen the air, temper micro-climates and provide food but also contribute to biodiversity, both in the range of plant species and also in supporting insects and wildlife, as well as in creating continuous corridors for their movements.
Design would foster an intimate relationship with plants and also with pond and perhaps stream life. And the reverence for nature would be reflected in the total lack of residual space, as is characteristically found around so many modern buildings, where pathetically disguised by cosmetic landscaping and potently indicative of modernity’s disregard for our earth. Such a concern will extend to designing to minimise undue disruption of slowly established plant life and the wasteful destruction of resources invested in construction. So despite being designed to shape maximum variety of every sort, the masterplan and buildings will also be designed for longevity and flexibility. The housing blocks, for instance, will be built to generous space standards so that, while the street facades and structural frames will last many generations, the interiors can be rearranged as required.
Part of what gives a neighbourhood its identity is a sense of boundary, which may be indistinctly defined, and a core focus of commercial and communal uses. But here discussion is limited to only a portion of the neighbourhood and a particular aspect of it. As discussed in the penultimate essay about urban design, a key skill is to tease out into as diverse a hierarchy as possible the movement and open space systems and then interweave these to achieve the maximum richness of kinds and intensities of activity, and sorts of location and experience. Among the greatest blunders in modern planning and urban design was the Corbusian tower in a park serviced by a vehicle-only road, or Hilberseimer-type slab blocks aligned only for optimal orientation. Both approaches are dismally impoverished, with what is qualitatively only one kind of open space. Contrast these with parts of historic London such as Georgian Bloomsbury or, even better, the late-Victorian stucco terraces around Ladbroke Grove. Here the streets are social spaces framed by the flanking buildings and animated by elements (entrances, railings, windows) suggesting human scale and habitation, and the pavements are paved with handsome flagstones. In some places there are small front gardens, and always larger rear ones, which in the Ladbroke Grove area surround a shared communal garden. There are also squares with grass and trees, some still fenced for resident-only use, and nearby are the large parks. There is thus a range of kinds of outdoor space for residents to use, a minimum of three kinds in Bloomsbury and in Ladbroke Grove five or six.
A characteristic of our times is the enormous range of choice we are offered in almost everything but public urban space within new developments. But good urban design can shape a considerable range of open spaces, hard and soft, and interweave them to elaborate a rich range of experiences and potential encounters between the people using them. Our hypothetical masterplan demonstrates this. A major element in this is a broad boulevard flanked by shops, restaurants, banks and so on, which is also a public transit route for buses or trams. This boulevard passes under a limited access highway and rapid transit system with a station at their crossing. Here there is also a major square flanked by large commercial and civic buildings.
Branching off the boulevard are quiet residential streets, alternatively vehicular with pedestrian pavements and a pedestrian- and bicycle-only greenway. Where the latter meet the boulevard they widen to create a small square onto which corner cafés extend, and here and there along their length they widen into smaller squares furnished to suit the aged and toddlers. Crossing these and parallel to the boulevard is a broader greenway that connects a series of larger shaded squares onto which open various communal facilities. And further away from the boulevard is a broad linear park in which such facilities as primary schools and swimming pools are sited. These lead to a large metropolitan park that extends at right angles to the boulevard and contains secondary schools, major cultural facilities such as museums and a variety of landscaping treatments including forests and meadows. Within the variegated grid these define are courtyard housing blocks, updated versions of a familiar European type. As well as the landscaped central court, the roofs of these are used for a wide range of functions. All in all there are at least 12 kinds of qualitatively different open space, all suited to different activities, so shaping a richly diverse urban environment.
The typical residential block in this hypothetical layout is an elongated rectangle with a central courtyard. The one described stretches between the boulevard along one narrow end and a park or broad greenway along its other narrow end. The long sides are flanked by a vehicular street and a pedestrian and bicycle greenway respectively. On the bottom two levels facing the boulevard and long sides, between the entrances to the housing above, is commercial and work space, for shops and restaurants along the broad boulevard pavement, and for office and professional suites, art and craft studios and workshops on the long sides. These could also be used as live-work units, and behind them are parking, storage and service spaces. On these lower levels the corners of the boulevard front are indented to create shady outdoor areas as extensions to corner cafés and bistros.
Above these lower floors, the housing has sheer masonry facades facing outwards, capped by a cornice and articulated by both punched and projecting bay windows. These latter, like exposed columns, cornice and projecting canopies on the lower levels, are designed to interlock inside and outside spaces and are composed to form physiognomic patterns that together animate the public realm they face and help to invest these outdoor spaces with the sense of place so missing in the modern city. The inner face of the housing is very different, a lively composition of conservatories and balconies that extend each dwelling unit out to overlook and be seen from the court. These elements, all delicately spindly and festooned in vegetation that invades the conservatories to forge intimate daily contact between residents and plants, some of them fruit bearing, cascade downwards and outwards to the floor of the court raised half a level above the street.
The bottom four floors of housing are two layers of duplex maisonettes for families. The lower of these are deeper in plan and larger, with their own private gardens set a few steps down from their living areas and ringing the central communal garden that is set another few steps lower. The maisonettes above these have broad balconies. Jutting forward from each maisonette, the conservatories extend the kitchen and dining areas to command views of the central garden as well as internally of the living areas and up to the bedroom floors. So children, whether in home, private garden or balcony, or communal garden are under constant casual surveillance by parents and other adults. They can also safely make their way independently to their parents’ place of business, whether this is in the home or oriented to the street, where it can be accessed from the entrance hall to the housing − and also to the crèche and communal facilities under the housing on the narrow side away from the balcony, as well as up to the roof. Access from these areas to the outside is electronically controlled by video-answerphone and swipe card to prevent egress by small children and unauthorised entry by strangers − a safeguard still required following the exclusions of the modern city.
Besides the crèche, the communal facilities on the courtyard level may include a well-equipped DIY workshop, gym, launderette and certainly a kitchen and a community hall cum dining room where, when so inclined, residents can cook and eat together, have parties and meetings and so on. Also on this level along the middle of the side facing the pedestrian greenway would be small flats for the aged with a shared common room. This both opens onto a central court and has a balcony overlooking a small square between the old people’s portion of two adjacent housing blocks, where aged neighbours may meet. The aged are thus not banished but a highly visible part of the community who can be regularly visited by their adult offspring and grandchildren, even when dying in the hospice portion of their unit. Children are thus aware of all the cycles and passages of life, as they always were until recently.
The central garden on the floor of the courtyard is landscaped both for visual appeal and to host a wide variety of uses, particularly aimed at younger children and the elderly. There is a playground with sand pit and splash pool and a meandering paved path. Although this path twists and turns and ramps through changes in level to pass various elements of interest, it forms a complete loop to be enjoyed by toddlers on trikes and the less mobile or wheelchair-bound disabled and elderly. Along this route would be shady bowers − with benches and tables for quiet pursuits like picnics, chess and reading − and a sundial, less for telling time than to mark the sun’s ever-changing cycles.
On the levels above the two layers of maisonettes are smaller dwelling units, mainly for singles and couples without or no longer living with children. On the level directly below the roof are small flats, some perhaps for short-term lets such as for students, that are accessed from a broad gallery that overlooks the central garden and connects the heads of all the stair halls to those few that extend up to the roof. The roof is the block’s other main outdoor space, more varied and intense in use than the central garden below in the court. Here there would be mini-allotments in raised beds as well as greenhouses for vegetables, fruit and cut flowers and a tank for farmed fresh-water fish and water chestnuts, as well as perhaps hutches for pets. There would also be barbecue facilities and courts for volleyball, badminton and similar sports. And there would be a large and some small pavilions, their forms a contemporary equivalent of the chhatris that grace the roofs of Mughal architecture, with roofs shaped with an extrovert perimeter projecting beyond the columns, between which the roof defines a more inwardly-focused centre. The large pavilion would be for parties and such things as communal yoga and tai chi − perhaps at sunrise and sunset − and the smaller ones for more intimate pursuits such as quiet conversation, reading or working on your laptop. Also up here might be a small observatory with telescope as well as recliners for sunbathing and sleeping under the stars − still a common rooftop activity in many parts of the world.
‘The neighbourhood is a place where we not only reside but also to which we belong: it is part of our identity and intrinsic to who we are, so providing essential psychological and existential grounding’
Everybody in such a block thus has many opportunities for casual encounters and other forms of meetings with their neighbours as well as to participate in community-forming activities like shared meals and rituals − like sunrise yoga sessions. Such encounters are the glue of true community, in which everybody is seen and known in several differing roles and activities. And it is only by being constantly exposed to and properly known by others that people cannot live out some fantasy identity and so get properly to know themselves. There are also encouragements to be alert to the cycles of nature and the cosmos and engage intimately with plant life and nature’s creatures. In short, residents are offered many ways to connect with each other and the larger world around, including the neighbourhood and all that it too has to offer.
Each dwelling, for instance, has an urban face overlooking a street or greenway that is part of, and leads to the rest of, the neighbourhood and city beyond, with all their facilities. Yet these dwellings open out to and engage with an abundant nature as mediated through the hierarchy of planted balcony and conservatory, private garden, semi-private communal courtyard and rooftop gardens as well as greenways leading to linear and then metropolitan parks. These last forms of green space are in turn part of a continuous network of such spaces that provide another means for people (and wildlife) to move through the city as an alternative to the paved streets and spaces. And wherever these systems cross are further opportunities for casual encounter. Within this richly articulated realm, everybody − man and woman, young and old, adult and child − has a great choice of things to do and explore, potential lifestyles to shape and people to meet, all of which must contribute to discovering and stretching the self. Compared with what is possible in most urban areas today, children can lead especially adventurous lives, playing and exploring freely yet in safety. Old people are not banished but can drop in on or be visited by younger friends and relatives whenever both parties have time to spare. And once dead, they need not be forgotten either: a low wall in the central garden might have a low wall with niches in which their ashes may be placed, if they wish to add visibly to the accumulated memories that are part of a neighbourhood’s identity.
Such a scheme, both the neighbourhood masterplan and the residential block, is to be judged less for its form and visual appeal, which could nevertheless be considerable, but for the lifestyles made possible and the rich variety and satisfactions of the experiences offered. To best understand what is proposed, imagine living there, or even for just parts of what might be a typical day. Consistent with the themes of reconnecting with nature, you might rise early and greet the rising sun with yoga in your conservatory or as part of a group in a rooftop pavilion. Breakfast might be at least partially harvested from plants in the rooftop allotments or conservatory, before children drop down into the central court and meet friends with whom they walk to school along one of the vehicle-free greenways. You might later jog along the same route and exercise on the equipment placed sporadically along the route. Later in the day you might be working in your ground level studio or home office when the children pop in to exchange tales about how the day has gone, before they go up to attend the allotment on the roof. Otherwise they might drop in to see their elderly grandmother and her friends in the old-age suite of rooms or make something in the communal workshop. And in the evening, if you don’t feel like cooking you can join others sharing a meal in the communal kitchen or have a barbecue on the roof, enjoying and benefiting from the interactions of a larger group such as were once provided by the extended family and tight traditional communities. This might then be followed by examining the constellations through the rooftop telescope or enjoying the communal hot tub up there before bedding down
for the night under the stars.
Is this a sufficiently seductive yet sane vision to entice change, or is it one that provokes horror because of the constant interaction with others? Both the former reaction and, for reasons already argued, the latter one of defensive resistance could be seen as endorsing the effectiveness of such a scheme as a stepping stone towards sustainability, a crucible from which a new sustaining and sustainable culture might emerge. Whether or not this is true, the point is that it illustrates an alternative to the current fashions for theory and sculptural shape making − and the confusions, obfuscations and evasions of responsibility that go with them. Instead we can return to the centre of architectural concern the celebration of our humanity so that we can once again relate to and feel at home, expanding into our full potential by thoroughly engaging with a diverse community of others the many forms of nurture, including of the imagination, offered by nature.
1. This was always planned as a 12-essay series, spread across 2012. But unavoidable factors have disrupted the sequence. Also, some of the 12 originally planned themes expanded into two essays, so other themes have been omitted. Future essays may return to these, particularly as some coincide with requests from readers to address that subject. For instance, there have been numerous requests to write something about how to design, or how to teach design, a theme I will happily address.
2. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, Harper, San Francisco, 1992.
3. Tony Fry, Becoming Human by Design, Berg, London, 2012.
4. Farewell to Modernism - and Modernity Too, AR February 2012.
5. Lieven De Cauter, The Capsular Civilisation: On the City in the Age of Fear, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2004.
6. See the 10th essay in this series: Spiral Dynamics and Culture, AR December 2012.
7. Studies in the 1990s by Mayer Hillman (Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Institute of Policy Studies, University of Westminster) suggest that within a generation the range over which children freely roamed dropped to a ninth of what it had been.
8. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods; Saving Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, New York, 2005.
Critical thinking for critical times
Read Peter Buchanan’s campaign in its entirety:
Part 1: Towards a Complete Architecture
Part 2: Farewell to modernism − and modernity too
Part 3: Integral Theory
Part 4: The Purposes of Architecture
Part 5: Transcend And include The Past
Part 6: Learning from Four Modern Masters
Part 7: Place and Aliveness - Pattern, play and the planet
Part 8: Lessons from Peter Zumthor and other living masters
Part 9: Rethinking Architectural Education
Part 10: Spiral Dynamics and Culture
Part 11: Urban Design
Revist: Becoming Earthlings