Denise Scott Brown once said: “Architecture can’t force people to connect; it can only plan the crossing points, remove barriers, and make the meeting places useful and attractive.” Although it cannot control the outcome, architecture holds the potential to set the stage for chance encounters and social interactions, thus nurturing community building and influencing the fabric of our social culture. The following explores how architecture can improve the social capital of its surroundings through design strategies and thoughtful programming, creating the fertile ground for social interaction among different groups of people.
Social capital refers to the relationships established between social groups in heterogeneous societies, through shared values, trust and reciprocity. Substantial social capital means increased cooperation among citizens, less friction and a keen awareness of the common grounds and entwined fates. Architecture can help build social capital, and numerous design strategies can generate fertile ground for social interaction and various unplanned activities. For a variety of reasons, from fostering social cohesion, promoting social justice, to tackling loneliness and mental health, architecture that encourages social interaction is a topic of great interest. In light of architecture’s (re)acknowledgement of its potential to nurture community building, it is worth examining different ideas and projects that could help define a design method focusing on creating social interaction.
Programming for Social Intensity
Sometimes, architecture’s potential to bring people together lies more in the programming of the building than the spatial form itself. In this case, space is a container for whatever function suits the collective; therefore, the careful assemblage of activities is the driver for social interaction. One such example is Absalon Community Centre in Copenhagen. The former church has been converted into its neighbourhood’s living room by ArcgencY architects. In the course of a single regular weekday, the church’s central nave is the setting of a great number of activities, from yoga classes to ping-pong, movie screenings, theatre performances, music events, while also serving as a cafe and a great dining hall. Sharing a meal around long dinner tables, with almost 200 of your neighbours, from all kinds of backgrounds is undoubtedly an element of cohesion within the community. The vast array of activities create a vibrant place, complemented by its informal setting.
Challenging Spatial Expectations
What could better provoke people’s imagination and create a path to dialogue than the unexpected? With a brief that required neither more nor less than the design of a building that brings people together and improves the quality of life, MVRDV and ADEPT developed a new building typology centred around movement. The Ku.Be House of Culture in Movement blends theatre, sports and learning spaces into an architectural promenade, where activities are informing one another and where a diverse range of visual and physical connections are established between the different functions. The spatial typology of the building and the design strategies employed here create the fertile ground for interaction, stimulating links between people that wouldn’t otherwise connect.
Designing the Common Ground
The potential for social interaction is not reserved for community centres and public amenities. Intergenerational housing projects are starting to emerge across Europe and involve people of different ages living together, sharing their skills and time. The mutually beneficial arrangement caters to the increased sense of loneliness of the senior generation, as well as the lack of affordable housing for the younger ones. Intergenerational living fosters learning and can make an essential contribution to bridging the gap between different social groups. Pilot programs for senior- youth housing have been developed in Finland and Sweden, and several new housing projects like zwei+plus Intergenerational Housing in Wien, Austria have also adopted the idea.
Re-imagine Civic Assets as Social Connectors
In an interview with Vladimir Belogolovsky, Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang Architects explained her view of the architect as relationship builder: “I think of architecture as a system; how you set up various opportunities for people to relate to one another, and to be empowered. What are the opportunities for people to interact? How can buildings spark new relationships?” On these lines, Studio Gang’s research project, Reimagining The Civic Commons, proposes different strategies for increasing the potential for social interaction of existing public buildings and amenities, thus creating more resilient communities. The proposals range from expanding the function of libraries to accommodate gatherings and support digital development, to adapting parks into more activity-oriented spaces with more diverse topographies, or making police station more friendly environments, allowing for much more positive interaction, thus building trust. The research is part of a larger endeavour to re-imagine civic assets across US cities, to foster engagement, equity and economic development. The initiative is a remarkable example of working with the existing built environment and local communities to address specific social issues.
Allowing for Unplanned Activities
As many architects have said before, architecture should also leave room for the unplanned, for spontaneous activities and encounters. The Herstedlund Community Centre designed by Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter is a user-driven community centre commissioned for a then-new residential area in Albertslund, Denmark. The project incorporates unprogrammed spaces, while also creating surprising connections between the different functions of the building. The design allows for people of all ages and with diverse interests to use the building simultaneously while providing the users with the agency to re-programme the building according to their needs.
The social realm and its issues are vast, and so are the architectural means through which the profession can contribute to the creation of a more cohesive society. By devising the spatial relationships and programmatic layouts that spark chance encounters, encourage communication, interaction and consolidate communities, architects take a more active stand in providing the setting for social dialogue.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: How Will We Live Together. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.