The Problem of Architecture (The Loss of Tribe)

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.

This entry was posted in Architecture, Art, Christianity, Drawing, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Problem of Architecture (The Loss of Tribe)

  1. Great post! It seems like everyone in my neighborhood wants to establish this feel of a community where I live. However, we more or less just want to keep to ourselves. We had less people concerning themselves with who we were and what we did when we lived in a condo believe it or not. The only time people tried to “reach out” to others is when this guy was leaving his cigarette butts out in the stairwell. Someone put up a sign saying, “Please throw your cigarettes away.” He responded by burning a hole into the sign with his cigarette… 0_o

    • mdkiehl says:

      Yea, That is exactly what I’m getting at – community would just happen if the architecture was designed for it. You shouldn’t have to try to reach out to people to make community happen. When people want privacy they should have it to – but current architectural models are not designed for community, only for privacy. For example, often community develops within lounges on college dorms – but only if people use it and other people know, “Hey. We’re hanging out doing X,Y,Z, you can join us.” If the lounge is awesome and people want to be there, and people use it – amazing things can happen. In most suburbs though, the closest thing you might get is a clubhouse or a church- but even these are not so easily a hangout place. Starbucks is often the best people get – and that hardly compares to the atmosphere of a college dorm lounge ( some I’ve been involved in). I may post on this issue again. A condo tends to have less possibilities than some apartment complexes because there is no elevator, no lounge. When most of the doors have no windows – a stranger would hardly ever approach. If your neighbors want to make community in your Cul-de-sac they should probably approach it through architecture and habits: Retrofit their garaged into a Starbucks (or a bar), and whoever comes can build the habits and activities 😛

      Thanks Stephen!

      • Rosa Sheng says:

        While your thesis about society needing to go back to a model of tribes, I think you title “The Problem with Architecture” is oversimplistic finger pointing a profession whose primary values are to create community and a sense of place simultaneously for the individual, families, groups and the society. While there is an issue with Architecture that we see in Amercian suburban development as you refer to in your article, there are many examples of Architecture in urban areas which are trying to create a place for community. The same goes true for the work environment of the desire for private offices. The Problem is Not Architecture, but People and the spoils of excess and greed (Think Wolf of Wall Street) Societies which do not have abundant land and rich GDPs have successful density and communal spaces out if necessity.

      • mdkiehl says:

        I think what you are saying comes from a minor misunderstanding of my title, and I did think about changing it. The title is the “problem of Architecture”. As in, this is the current problem architecture faces, or the problem architecture can create. Another way to frame what I’ve said is to say, “The problem of the loss of tribe is architectural in root”. I’m not pointing a finger at all of architecture and all architects, because architecture is unavoidable – even tents are architectural and a cave with a door is architectural. Under my view there is good architecture and bad architecture. Good architecture can be part of a solution to the loss of tribe, a destruction of resources, or almost any problem, but it can also exacerbate a problem or even say, “This problem is not a problem. We like the loss of tribe, we don’t want community, we want self-indulgence”.

        Rosa, I hope that clarifies things? Often bloggers – like novel writers, or publishers with book titles – like to make titles that are a little edgy in order to grab your attention. I hope you see through this that I offered several simple architectural methods that can be employed in order to recreate community (the examples of how a store (like Starbucks), or college dorms differ in design when compared with suburban housing).

        A big question however is: do people want community? In the loss of tribe is anything really lost or am I just a nostalgic? Is the suburb ultimately what people want? Let me know your thoughts!

        Just today I went to visit Boneyard Studios – A micro architecture (tiny-house) community in Washington DC. Maybe 100 people were there for their open house/tour. I’ve been considering (for about 10 years) if micro architecture might be one solution or tool for restoring a sense of community or tribe.

        In many ways the problem isn’t simply “the way we build” – as I stated, “architecture, like art, is a product of a culture’s value’s.” The Values are the root cause – Architecture can be a tool in preaching that cause (those values), but so can magazines, and paintings, and songs, and poems, and political speeches. So, I believe I could write several more essays where I state “The Problem of Song,” or “The Problem of Politics”… and ultimately the underlying question will be values: because my values differ from what I see broadly in American culture.

        I’m not sure if we even need to “model tribes”…Gangs can model tribes and I don’t want to see more of those. All I’m really saying is that when designing for humans we ought to think about what a human is; our design (or architecture) needs to be “ergonomic”, aware of human needs beyond simply “shape”. Good design – or architecture, art, culinary arts, politics – does not treat people as robots.

        In a metaphorical way we could even say that people’s values (needs and desires, be them right or wrong) are a type of architecture – a structural hierarchy (but in the mind). In this sense the problem is architecture.

  2. Rosa Sheng says:

    Architecture should be viewed as part of the solution, rather than suggesting that it is the sole problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s