Discover more from The Pathos of Things
The Beauty of Boundaries
Privacy is the only refuge from the disintegration of public life
When I was eighteen, I found the anonymity of London thrilling. There was an amazing sense of freedom in the chaos of thousands of people going about their separate lives. The city was always filthy and sometimes threatening, but to my inexperienced eyes, there seemed to be some nucleus of meaning around which it all orbited, an almost mystical sense of place that made the madness cohere.
I don’t feel that way now. I am older and more jaded, yes, but I have also seen more. I spend a lot of time walking around in the city. I have tramped along hundreds of its roads, probably thousands. My overwhelming impression now is one of deep silence: so many streets and estates where there is nothing but the flapping of litter and the mute shuffling past each other of lone strangers. Increasingly, I even sense a kind of desolate silence in the deafening roar of traffic, in the throng of shopping malls and the wailing of drunks on a Saturday night.
There is another London: one that is warm, inviting, convivial. This is the private London, the enclosed London. It exists in pubs, in houses, in parks, in historic immigrant neighbourhoods and bougie enclaves. London thrives wherever it is contained. The city is turned in upon itself: islands of life in an ocean of silence.
I became interested in the evolution of urban space in part because it helped me make sense of this. There has, I think, been a destruction of public life in cities. By public life, I mean the rituals and experiences through which people recognise each other as members of a community, and upon which, ultimately, a shared identity is built. It consists of everything from the body language we adopt while shopping or travelling to spontaneous conversations and local events like festivals and fairs. Its essence is continuity and familiarity: social patterns and bonds that emerge across time.
A healthy public life does not require that we know each other, or all act the same. Rather, it provides the unspoken understanding, based on living and acting together, that makes us open to strangers.
The mega-cities that emerged in the second half of the 20th century – and I think there is some scope to generalise – have made public life increasingly difficult. These cities are amorphous leviathans sprawling for mile after mile, ravenously digesting their once-neighbouring towns. The churn of commercial development and gentrification, driven by speculation on land and property values, plunges all but the wealthiest areas into a constant state of flux. High-rise apartment buildings, whether erected as social housing or to maximise profit, isolate their inhabitants in prisons of deprivation or luxury. Floods of cars, carrying people the long distances between affordable housing and available work, rip the urban fabric apart.
Then there is the remorseless logic of transparency that permeates urban redevelopment. Lines of sight must be open to facilitate advertising and retail. People must be observable to each other across open-plan interiors and through glass facades. They must be visible to the surveillance cameras and security guards who monitor our privately controlled “pseudo-public spaces.” In this environment, it is difficult to exist as anything other than a compliant worker, an orderly consumer, or a delinquent.
I’m not going to propose any sweeping reforms that will solve these deep-rooted issues. I want to focus on one way that design can, in a small but significant way, create room for public life to flourish. That is by embracing the tendency towards bounded, private space.
The words private and public carry a big political charge today, but their meaning is rarely explored beyond the specific contexts where we brandish them: deploring the privatisation of public services, for instance, or insisting that certain personal decisions be protected due to their private nature. In most cases though, and especially when it comes to how we structure space, private and public do not form a dichotomy. They are two ends of a graded spectrum.
The Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger has illustrated how, in practice, we intuitively understand privacy to exists at different levels. Herzberger writes:
Your own room is private vis a vis the living room and e.g. the kitchen of the house you live in. … Care and maintenance of the living room and kitchen is a responsibility shared by those living in the house, all of whom have a key to the front door. In a school each classroom is private vis a vis the communal hall. This hall is in turn, like the school as a whole, private vis a vis the street outside.
In other words, most spaces are both private and public, depending on which other space they are contrasted with.
The essence of privacy is the territorial claim. A space is private insofar as an individual or group regards it as, in some sense, their space, meaning that they feel both an entitlement and a responsibility towards it. The ability to make such territorial claims seems integral to our happiness and dignity. When a person is denied any right to their own space, through homelessness for instance, we tend to view it as a dehumanising situation. We are, in fact, making territorial claims all the time: laying down a blanket in the park, finding a table at a restaurant, or claiming the street as a place to socialise on a warm evening.
As these examples suggest, there are manifestations of the private which can support public life, providing a sense of security that makes us more open to others. As Herzberger puts it, “if you don’t have a place that you can call your own, you don’t know where you stand.” We should acknowledge that, amid the chaos and atomising transparency of today’s urban world, forms of private space provide the only settings where public life can be sustained.
This is by no means an original proposition. The architect Kenneth Frampton, much cited in this newsletter, wrote in 1982: “we are, when confronted with the ubiquitous placelessness of our modern environment, nonetheless brought to posit… the absolute precondition of a bounded domain in order to create an architecture of resistance.” Looking much further back, we find the ancient Greek notion of the temenos, the strictly delineated space containing the sites most sacred to the community. Another variation is the walled garden of medieval romance, the setting proper to lovers, in which nature is bounded so as to be cultivated into beauty.
The beauty of bounded spaces is that they can be nested within one another, as with Herzberger’s example of the classroom, hallway, and street. Unsurprisingly, Herzberger is one of the architects who has applied this principle most imaginatively. His Centraal Beheer office building in Apeldoorn, completed in the early 1970s, was a radical departure from the uniform space of surveillance favoured by the modern organisation. It provided each employee with their own semi-enclosed area, which they could decorate as they wished, within a labyrinth of atriums and meeting areas. Something similar can be seen in new designs for a Tokyo school by Heatherwick Studio, where playgrounds and outdoor learning areas are embedded in the protective structure of the building at different levels.
It would be amiss of me not to acknowledge that London, too, has at least one masterpiece of private space as a setting for public life, a building where I spend much of my time. The British Library, designed by Colin St. John Wilson and MJ Long, is both a fortress and a sanctuary. You can feel the chaos of the city subside as soon as you walk into its courtyard, since this is firmly bounded against the tempest of traffic on Euston Road. Entering the building itself, you progress from an expansive atrium, via staircases, onto a series of intermediary landings, which in turn lead on to cafes and seating areas. Each space is more intimately enclosed than the preceding one, culminating in the tranquillity of the reading rooms.
Though always full of people, the building rarely feels crowded. This is due to the careful assignment of private territory throughout, from the benches set in alcoves along the walkways to the squares of leather demarcating each person’s domain on the reading room desks. As a work of design, it is brilliantly effective at cultivating public life, creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable sharing tables and talking to strangers. The resulting sense of community can be seen in spontaneous rituals like the instruction of newcomers in the operation of the storage lockers.
Such small details, insignificant as they sound, play a part in redeeming the urban world. Design cannot dictate the way people feel or act, but it can create spaces where public life is possible. In the city, this begins with the drawing of boundaries.
The Pathos of Things is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.