Where has community gone? Why are so many lonely? The problem is architecture.
1) People’s houses are too big, so they don’t need to go somewhere else. If you live in a small apartment you might feel a need to get out. But if you live in a “big” house you would rather just stay and have others over. If you live in a house – with a pool, a theater, and a gym – why would you ever leave?
2) A house is not considered a public space – and most come with a “moat” (yard) to keep visitors at bay. It does not easily become a “just drop by” kind of place because people feel like they are intruding. So our houses today do not foster community.
3) More space costs more time to maintain – and working harder at your job to maintain the mortgage. Ultimately, you have less time and energy for social activities. Our lifestyle and consumerist behaviors around property/house ownership do not foster community.
This seems to be less of a problem in apartments and dormitories, college campuses, and inner cities – depending on the design.
Like art, Architecture is a product of people’s values. Contemporary suburbs are a sign of our culture’s values: self-importance, privacy, status, consumerism (seeing what you own as a statement about who you are – your worth, importance and value being dependent on ownership). People who live in small apartments can even be made to feel guilty in our culture. Having a small apartment seems like an invalid endpoint, just a stepping stone to owning a house in the suburbs.
Think about the way stores are designed. Stores are designed so that you feel less inhibited to enter: big windows, big glass doors, flat faces (the roof does not slope down toward you), you can park up next to it, the sidewalk is next to the building (not 10, 20 or more feet out – if there is a sidewalk at all by your house). Open air markets are even less inhibiting. But our houses are designed for privacy – even to keep others away.
We’ve designed our houses today into places where we feel inhibited to leave – as in, we would rather just stay in. We have “everything”: light, warmth (or escape from heat), food, water, information. Many people can even work from home now. We even have our communities at home in our social networks… Who would want to be bothered with going anywhere? It can be seen as an inconvenience to leave our home.
But, something seems to be missing.
I think that we forget we were once tribal peoples, living in true and necessary communities. These communities where built from our extended families. Imagine all your aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and everyone’s children, all living together in a group of tents that would move with the seasons. Forget the discomfort of the heat and cold – and all the hard work – and imagine how that community would feel. Someone you trust would be beside you every day, every hour. In your free time you would all sing, dance, tell stories and craft together. There is no social status – just respect and love, family member to family member. There is no “getting ahead,” only working hard for the love and respect and honor of your extended family: the tribe.
There were other problems living a tribal lifestyle but this is really what has been lost in the modern era: the community of the tribe. Until the automobile people mostly still had these kinds of groups, or churches/religious groups who facilitated this sense of tribe. Now many people do not even have this, and if they do it does not get deep to a degree of needing one another for survival.
Consider for a moment the times in your life that have fostered deep relationships: For some it might be a time at a camp with other young people, living in close quarters whispering stories to each other at night. For some it might have been in dorms at college (living in close quarters). For others it is military service, or living aboard a ship (in close quarters). The members of sci-fi space-ship crews have communities that we desire; we are often lacking this kind of depth even in our families.
Can we recover the tribe? This is often an element in my art, a return to a more “primitive” method of craft. You could even say it is “crafting” a new tribe, or trying to recover some missing element in contemporary life. However, without dramatic changes in architecture I do not think we will see a recovery of tribe.
I started writing this as a response to Kenneth (The culture monk) regarding his recent posts “Being friends with people at the bottom” and “Scheduling Community” but it was really too much to leave him as a response… so I hope he gets a chance to read this.