thoughts on our urban future

In Defense of Questioning Spatial Assumptions

There was a sort of architectural/urban design ‘life lesson’ that I learned many years ago.  I learned this lesson when I was an undergraduate and was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad for a semester in Denmark.  It was a wonderful experience- not only to be able to learn in a different environment, but to actually live in a different country and experience a different culture.  To be honest, I didn’t know very much about Denmark when I went on the program- it just happened to be where the program that my school participated in was held. I had never been there before, and didn’t know much about the culture or the people.

I lived with a ‘family’- although my family was just a (lovely) woman whose daughter had grown and moved out so she had a spare room and enjoyed both the company and practicing her English.  There were funny quirky things about the house that I found strange and interesting.  For example, the shower was just a corner of the very large bathroom that had a curtain you could pull around it, but there really wasn’t any other differentiation.  And you had to squeegee the walls and the floor when you were finished.  None of the bedrooms had built in closets and instead had free-standing wardrobes.  My host, Greta, would bake all the bread and store it in the freezer.  It was not typical (at the time) to buy bread- you made your own.  And I also learned that Danes (again at the time- this was a a few years ago now) were the highest users of candles per capita- because every time you sat down for a meal (and you tended to sit down for every meal) you lit candles, which I thought was rather charming.

These were just some of the things I learned through living there.  But I was also studying architecture.  And I remember that we had a project to design some housing blocks for an area of the city.  I created these apartment blocks that worked on an ‘open plan’ arrangement with the kitchen has a hinge point and then two rooms off of it- one the living room, and the other the dining room.  I remember my professor coming to give me a desk crit and I was explaining my plan.  He asked me why the room I had said was the living room was the living room and why the room I had said was the dining room was the dining room.  I replied that the bigger room was the living room, and the smaller one was the dining room.  He asked why.  I didn’t really have an answer other than, “That’s how it should be I guess.”  He then went on to tell me that in Denmark it would be more likely that the bigger room would be the dining room and the slightly smaller room the living room- because Danes love to throw these epic dinner parties.  The dining room can be seen as the most communal and important room in the house.  Not the living room.  I was surprised.

A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to get to travel to Japan.  While I was there I stayed with a friend who was teaching English in Sendai.  He lived in a small ‘bachelor apartment’.  I had never seen such a home.  Now there were already some Japanese housing traditions that I was aware of- the soaking tub for example, the area for removing shoes, tatami mat rooms.  But I wasn’t prepared for the tiny fridge, the lack of an oven, or the loft bed-space.  Had I known that ovens were not original to Japan and not part of the traditional kitchen design- or had I just assumed that a modern kitchen would surely have an oven?  Of course they had these microwave convection ovens- but it’s not exactly the same thing, and you wouldn’t be fitting a thanksgiving turkey in one anytime soon.  I was also very taken with the Japanese futon, not quite like the western versions, that you could roll out and turn any room into a sleeping room, in a place where space is in such high demand, a ‘bedroom’ is a sort of novel idea (traditionally).  Japan may also have been the first time I had ever seen corner toilets, or toilets where the sink was built into the tank (and the water you use to wash your hands becomes the water for the next toilet flush).

Now I live in the UK.  It is easy to forget when you are from an English speaking country, and you are going to an English speaking country, that the things you take for granted can be so different.  In the UK the houses are much smaller than in the States.  Built in closets are not typical, and the PAX Ikea wardrobe is ubiquitous.  Washing machines are supposed to go in the kitchen, along with the boiler (both things that I still find a bit strange).  Radiators are preferred over forced air.  They don’t have screens on the windows which can let an awful lot of bugs and dust in, but allow for homes that are much more open to the outdoors.  Fridges are still often small, although copying American styles, are getting bigger.  Similarly, there is a long history of homes with rooms that all close off from one another and it is only recently that ‘open plan’ is becoming more popular, but the UK version isn’t quite like the US one or even the Australian one- as they’re typically at least half the size.

So what is the point of my musing on this?  It is simply this- what we take for granted when we think of things as simple and as basic as ‘home’ or ‘work’ or ‘school’ are not as simple or basic as they probably are in our heads.  It may not be that alternative options are better, but sometimes it’s important to remember that there are other ways to live, other ways to work, and other ways to learn that have been working perfectly well in other places for a very long time.  And I’m not talking about developed versus developing countries.  In what we consider the developed nations, it is important to recognize that we don’t all actually live the same way.  And there is a lot that we could learn from one another.  Methods and tools that have been developed and honed over a long time to provide a similar yet different sorts of services.  Often you don’t have to reinvent the wheel- you just need to find opportunities to look more critically at what is all around you.  Be open to noticing differences and understanding how or why they came to be and what impact they have on how people behave.  Because ultimately as spatial designers this is exactly what we do- work with physical things that impact how people can go about their daily lives.  So for me, in my practice it has been critical, to have my eyes opened in this way.  Now when I travel, I am always looking for how people live differently, and how those small differences can have significant implications for how places operate.

(Anyone else have interesting observations to share?  I’m always curious about such things- please feel free to add in comment below!)

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1 Comment

  1. Firstly, perhaps you should have redesigned the rooms so that the living room and dining room were the same size…

    It’s always not only interesting to notice the differences, but also understand why the differences occur. Obviously in the UK space is at a premium (the large population on a relatively small island is compounded by a strict planning system that originated to protect the countryside from development. In addition, building codes are quite strict, mandating location of bedrooms, corridors and many, many doors in flats.). I find all this rather interesting, while it often bores all those around me!

    While traveling, however, I have seen in India and throughout SE Asia how people view spaces so differently. Streets become living rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, and even bedrooms! Like traditional Japanese design, interior spaces are generic. A shop is a living space and is used at all hours of the day. Surely efficiency probably has a strong relationship to income levels, but how a culture socializes is much more complex. Trying to see a culture and understand these complex workings is fascinating, and leaves me with countless questions (How can a family have a picnic at the rat temple? Where and when might a couple get some privacy at night? At what point does a city begin to create dead streets, sanitised from all the life of the historic city?). And more importantly is raises even more questions for you own culture, and how these ideas can be re-interpreted and introduced!

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