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Love thy neighbour

Emily Cockayne peers through the lace curtains to discover that, while well-designed houses can foster a sense of community, thoughtless design can be more divisive than an overgrown leylandii

Architecture cannot determine whether a spirit of neighbourliness exists in a place but it has a strong influence. The materials used, the spaces between dwellings and the configuration of living arrangements all affect the ways that people are accessible, audible and visible to neighbours. The thickness and density of walls and the positioning of doorways can enhance or suppress neighbour noises. Glazing can obscure or reveal views into and out of buildings − and on occasion has dazzled neighbours opposite. A well- designed building must not only complement the street aesthetically but also help occupants to forge a healthy relationship with their neighbours by minimising sensory nuisances and enabling them to elect to be sociable or private.

Designing houses involves creating neighbours. Build one house and you might create the conditions for as few as one or two new relationships between existing and new residents in a street. If you build flats or a housing estate then myriad relationships will be formed. These can be between people moving into the new development or between them and people who already live in
the neighbourhood. These relationships also change over time and can mature well or badly. Each permutation is sensitive and poses a unique design challenge.

‘From “belonging” − identity − comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails’, noted Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953, in their response to the CIAM VIII report. This hint of architectural humility recognised the need for caution when experimenting with new models of housing, especially for the poor; an insight they perhaps forgot when designing Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, London. 

The basic desire for privacy and sanctuary was relegated in the design of Robin Hood Gardens. Not so in the work of Walter Segal. He thought privacy was ‘to be able to live one’s own life without one’s neighbours voluntarily or involuntarily taking a part of it’, and he designed houses that helped to protect ‘those little domestic secrets which the neighbour is so keen to discover’. In 1948, he argued that bedrooms should not be placed on either side of a party wall without sufficient insulation. ‘Neighbourly feelings’, Segal explains, ‘are not enforced by a kind of planning which allows the windows and balconies of one flat to be overlooked by those neighbouring.’ Segal also pushed for separate private accesses in newly built flats, to avoid conversations at doors being overheard.

The construction of walls directly influences neighbourly experiences. Medieval partitions were often thin and pockmarked with peepholes. Similarly, walls between many 1920s-built ‘Homes for Heroes’ were so thin that ‘one could almost hear one’s neighbour change his mind’. Modern volume house builders are sometimes criticised for their flimsy build quality. Householders whose privacy within the home has been compromised are unlikely to greet their neighbours warmly in the street.

In 1953, the same year the Smithsons were writing, sociologist Leo Kuper published a study of Thimbler Road, a neighbourhood of houses built around greens on the edge of Coventry. He aimed to discover something about the ‘potential contribution of the town planner to more intimate relations between neighbours, through his control of the physical environment’. The steel frames of these houses allowed noises to permeate neighbouring properties. One heard ‘the neighbour’s wife scratching at her grate with a poker’, which was remarkable given that the fireplaces were not located on party walls. Others heard water cisterns refilling. The open arrangement of the plots, which lacked demarcation between gardens and led to uninterrupted surveillance between the houses, conflicted with the growing desire for domestic privacy at the time. These factors conspired to create ‘an awareness of neighbours even within the inner sanctum’.

A person living in a terraced house or flat has more neighbours than a person living in a detached house and needs to show more consideration. Some types of property are less conducive to easy neighbouring than others. Not all families could cope with the tiptoeing needed to remain cordial in Coventry’s steel houses. Detached houses give inhabitants more freedom to be noisy without intruding on the lives of others.

In the 20th century, the semi became the most desirable type of home for people on middle incomes. New plan variations were introduced. One design partnered the two front doors in the middle with the stairs ascending the party wall, with only two rooms adjoining the neighbouring house, thereby exposing the occupants to less noise. Alternatively, having the doors at the ends removed the need to exchange pleasantries with the neighbours when fumbling for a house key and it was this design that had kerbside appeal.

Opportunities to bump into the neighbours declined in the 20th century. Until the end of the 19th century most neighbours shared water supplies. In 1951, 21 per cent of the population still shared a lavatory with a neighbour. Women doing laundry would often ‘hang out’ together in shared yards. Houses were eventually connected directly to systems of water and sewerage, and there was less need for communal facilities like water pumps, wc blocks and waste containers. Life became increasingly self-contained.

In 1944 two opposing plans were drawn up for the Woodchurch Estate in Birkenhead. The Borough Engineer’s plan allowed the estate’s residents ‘to keep away from each other as much as possible’. Separate houses sat on curving roads in a garden suburb arrangement. In contrast, a design by Charles Reilly clustered houses around 44 greens, to mimic a necklace of villages, and included communal features designed to foster ‘neighbourly living’, such as a shared hot water system. Reilly rejected suburban layouts, with their houses that ‘look away from each other and so do the people’. The Conservative-run council selected the isolationist plan of their Borough Engineer.

The later Thimbler Road development did have some of the characteristics of the Reilly plan, but there was too much unwanted involvement with the neighbours and this often resulted in discord rather than cooperation. Architectural theory and practice is one of many factors that have changed the ways that neighbours interact. Rising affluence, changing patterns of work and a proliferation of cars are strong influences on planning and architecture. Architects are in an unusually privileged position of being able to help to ameliorate the decline of neighbourliness by creating homes that accommodate modern requirements without isolating people in hermetic boxes. Sensitive architecture allows occupants to regulate their privacy − sometimes cultivating relations with people living nearby and at other times allowing retreat. When neighbours can meet each other casually and routinely in the street or glimpse each other in less private parts of the house, friendly familiarity can flourish. The architecture of neighbourliness would allow us to watch our neighbours, but only out of the corner of one eye.

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