- Issue July 4th, 2018
The Walls Between Us
Civilizations throughout the ages have built walls and drawn borders to protect themselves against invasive attacks and the elements. These walls have evolved beyond the physical form into virtual, many times imaginary ones. Countries no longer need physical structures to separate them from other nations. In their place, you have cameras, sensors, and universally accepted lines that must not be crossed without being granted welcome in the form of visas.
This progression from the physical to the abstract is observed in many areas of human life. It is especially interesting to note why these progressions are necessary. They occur as part of a shift in values and beliefs. Trade agreements between nations saw to the end of physical borders (with the exception of the looming Trump wall); a strong need for transparency has seen the use of glass walls take the place of opaque brick or cardboard walls in office buildings. In some cases these walls are gotten rid of altogether. This evolution of our relationship with space is ongoing. For the most part, the trend is towards a thin divide between nature and living spaces.
The evolution towards dissolved borders is underway in architecture. The late American architect Frank Lloyd Wright who is well known for designing Falling Water – a harmonious marriage of housing and nature over a waterfall in southwestern Pennsylvania – referred to this form of building in harmony with nature as organic architecture.
Applying organic architecture on a mass scale is a challenge not only for city planners but also for society’s relationship with housing and homes. In light of rising environmental concerns, population growth, and rapid technological advancement, an opportunity presents itself to design consciously, to build sustainable communities and to build inclusively.
Rwanda is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, an estimated 473 people per square kilometer according to Countrymeters. This puts a strain on housing and settlement. This strain is further tightened by how houses are built: with only the individual in mind. It is not rare to have an entire community sharing nothing save the streets and roads that connect it to the rest of the city. Fences and gates reminiscent of castles and fortresses shield homes from their surroundings. It reflects in part a deep-rooted need for privacy but becomes a challenge moving forward due to the absence of shared resource management, a non-existent sense of communal togetherness, and an ever stagnating mood and spirit among neighbors.
Alain De Botton, a Swiss-born British philosopher and author, has through his books on architecture and his YouTube channel ‘The School of Life’ explored the relationship of inner realities with the environment and the buildings we live and work in. In ‘The Architecture of Happiness’, De Botton argues that architecture has a real emotional impact on our lives. That we are inspired or made miserable by our surroundings. It becomes therefore a matter of our well being to design our homes and communities in accordance to design principles that improve our lives.
It can sound too idealistic to make a connection to buildings and our emotional lives. It can seem almost unnecessary but it is as practical an idea as any.
Recently, the University of Rwanda inaugurated a new building that will house the architecture the school of Architecture. The building is an interlinked complex built using locally available ‘amakoro’, a type of volcanic rock that is found in the northern and western parts of the country. Orange caps roof the complex and bring to mind Rwanda’s hilly terrain. This building is not only a good example of great design but inspires a sense of wonder and creativity in the students who will be using it for their studies. It instills a tasteful approach to design in the students which would be absent were they studying design in a blandly built building.
Communities are more productive and more secure when the buildings they inhabit reflect a sense of unity not just with one another but with the environment as well. In addition to clinging tightly to privacy, cost would seem to be another factor discouraging the construction of communal living spaces. On the question of privacy, communal living solves two problems. Privacy is achieved by design; it is embodied in the principles used to build the living spaces, not the surroundings. Security too is strengthened rather than diminished because people relate better to each other. They are nicer to each other, they wave and smile at their neighbors. While communal living doesn’t imply real human connection but it creates a space in which it can thrive.
Investing in communal living spaces encourages a sharing culture in the inhabitants. Whether it be how energy is consumed or how security and gardening are coordinated. This sharing model has worked well in the digital space with companies like Airbnb and RelayRides using it as the core business model. Will it help inhabitants turn hefty profits like these companies? No, but it can cut down on energy, maintenance, and security costs. And if you run out of honey, you can count on your neighbor to lend a hand.
Beyond the practical benefits of communal living, there is yet another wall that crumbles. The information age in which we now live has led individuals and nations to be more interconnected than ever. A kiss from a lover travels at the speed of light from across the globe, a library’s worth of books live inside highly-efficient storage devices that fit inside our pockets, and a fire starts along a thread of tweets faster than the communion between gasoline and a match stick.
And yet, there is reason to believe that people are lonelier than ever. Technology might be to blame but the physical spaces in which we stay also play a role. Current housing models isolate more than unite people. They shield people from physical interaction and the natural reaction becomes to look to the nearest windows in sight, our phones and computers. But this wall too can fall. Buildings have the power to influence our behavior in similar ways that mobile applications do. Our environment affects our state of mind through subtle and minute cues and we can take advantage of that by taking conscious strides towards communal living. In Charles Bukowski’s words: there is no other way, and there never was.