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An Architecture of Sharing (2’nd Attempt)

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This post is a reworking of a post of almost exactly one year ago, in an attempt to find a better way of approaching the subject. It’s mostly the preamble that’s different as the manifestations remain much the same although some of my examples are more extreme. This is because an architecture of sharing isn’t so much about people using/sharing out of kindness the building elements and the spaces they create, but about the need to benefit from the positive environmental and social effects of doing so.

Here I’m not talking about sharing as in a cake or pizza where using the object depletes it at twice the rate and each person has only half of the whole. I’m taking about sharing as in walls that are party walls and not external walls, and slabs that are one person’s ceiling and another person’s floor at the same time. In this sense, if two people share something, they only need one thing and not two. The economic sense of this is not lost on builders and developers. The environmental sense of sharing is not fully recognized. (The first letter of sharing is not R.) Instead of focussing solely on concepts such as defensible space in response to negative aspects of people living in close proximity, equal attention should at least be paid to simple tweaks to our building fabric that could bring positive social benefits for those same people.

An Architecture of Sharing is thus about building elements shared by multiple persons. It’s about a way of seeing and thinking about building elements in terms of what they do rather than in terms of what they are. It is about not seeing walls in terms of visual characteristics such as colour, texture or shape, physical properties such as strength, availability or economy, or even in terms of any historical or cultural associations that wall may evoke. With all that now in the background, the architecture that results is going to be different from anything we had in the 20th century or anything we’ve ever had before. If we can think of walls in terms of how they accentuate differences between the values of persons on each side, then we should be able to think of them in terms of how they might reinforce what values they may share.

But historically ingrained habits are difficult to fix, especially when they’ve been codified by architecture. As soon as space is divided, it has tended to become political. For millennia, walls have divided space into that on one side and that on the other and, by extension, the people on those respective sides. Walls not only physically divide and separate but are also statements of division and differentiation.

At the most basic level, enclosing space by building a wall articulates the possession of the enclosed space as well as the resources to enclose it. This has left us with a history of architecture articulating the possession of property and wealth. Such an architecture (and the aesthetic and moral codes for its evaluation) are proving unable, or at least resistant, to responding to new environmental, climatic, and social challenges. 

If you encounter a blank wall, you’ll know you’re not welcome or even entitled to know whether anyone is on the other side or what happens there. Walls such as these have existed for the protection of those on the outside (as with the case of jails and other places of confinement) but they more commonly exist for the protection of the people and things on the inside. The wall of Syrian supercastle Krak des Chevaliers doesn’t give much away apart from telling you you’re not welcome.

Now think of that same wall but now it has a door. It’s not important what type of door it is. What’s important is whether you have the means and rights to pass through that door. The extent of those rights will differ according to whether you are the owner, a resident, an employee, invited guest or visitor, or none of these.

The walls of a hotel room corridor are much like this. The doors are numbered and your cards has the number of your room on it, conferring you the right to occupy that room for a number of nights. A person in the corridor isn’t aware of other guests, cleaners, porters and room service who use that corridor, and a person in the room is similarly unaware of the internal life of the hotel. The hotel corridor is used by different people but is not shared. We accept this in hotels because hotels are for short-term stays, privacy and rest are these are more important than feeling one is sharing a floor and a building with many other people. There are lobbies and dining and leisure amenities for that. However, this configuration is also extremely common in residential buildings with single-aspect apartments. Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments is probably not prototypical but may as well be. It’s an example of everything that’s inadequate about 20th century apartment design.

This Architecture of Sharing I’m proposing doesn’t see a wall as something that divides people or groups of people but as something shared by those on each side. It’s not necessary for those two groups of people to have the same expectations with respect to that wall, but their expectations will be shaped by how much or how little they know about each other and that knowledge will largely come from what can be seen through openings in that wall. 

The 20th century obsession with architecture as space skewed debate towards the difference between inside space and outside space and “blurring the distinction” between the two. In the Architecture of Sharing, this is a false distinction when inside space and outside space are both owned by the same person. (Glass walls were never going to be a solution when one side of the wall was private space and the other side of the wall was public or even communal space.)

Higher housing densities and a more efficient use of resources are possible because apartment buildings share building elements. Two people or two groups of people share the same wall. The same stairwell and elevator is used to access apartments on different levels. An architecture of sharing promotes the efficient use of resources, whatever they are. Entrance and elevator lobbies are spaces shared by all occupants of a building. Corridors are spaces shared by the occupants of  all apartments on the same floor. Negative spaces such as courtyards and light-wells can be horizontally shared by multiple persons and also can be shared vertically by multiple persons. None of this is new, but having an awareness of it is.

The Architecture of Sharing is not only about building elements such as walls and floors but also about the spaces they create. The Architecture of Sharing is concerned with making people more aware they are sharing these elements and spaces with other people. Its purpose is to configuring residential units that are more socially permeable. Closing the front door does not necessarily isolate residents from the building or its internal life. 

An idea of an architecture of sharing was contained in the now-disused term “streets in the sky”. That well-known photograph of Park Hill (1957–61) in Sheffield by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith showed children playing and housewives chatting along a deck access corridor. The implication is that these corridors would be regarded as and used as social amenity space. However, apart from the solid panel front doors themselves, the only awareness the residents had of the corridor on the other side was via the narrow panel of obscured-glass beside the front door. Streets were always much more than this.

One theme shared by many of the proposals here is how to make the shared spaces of multiple occupation residential buildings more like actual streets and what we like about them. We all know of shared surfaces where pedestrians and vehicles traverse the same surface at the same time. They work because drivers and pedestrians are each aware of the presence of the other. This mutual awareness is something that can be applied not only to horizontal surfaces but also to the spaces on either side of those vertical surfaces known as walls. I’m going to try to define some of the ways in which building elements can work together to create what I’ll call An Architecture of Sharing.

Horizontally Shared Walls

I’ve written a lot about walls already but the wall of the next example divides a single internal space into two internal spaces that, though un-equivalent, complement each other. The space on one side is snug and comforting and conducive to rest, while the space on the other side is more expansive and brighter and conducive to activity despite having the same floor area. Moreover, the window in the inclined wall allows a person on one side to be aware of the presence or absence of a person on the other. It is a simple example but it is what the Architecture of Sharing is about.

Vertically Shared Floors

Vertically shared floors happen when the ceiling of one level becomes the floor for the one above. It allows more floor area to be created on the same amount of land. A residential building with one residential unit per floor is the simplest case but, even then, noise transmission – usually from above – can still make people aware their floor slabs are vertically shared.

Vertically Shared Floors and Horizontally Shared Walls

Most residential buildings have a combination of vertically shared floors and horizontally shared walls known as party walls. In this next example, the only horizontally shared wall is the one separating the two areas indicated as sleeping areas. It is a wall that should not allow an awareness of persons on the other side yet, a person or persons on one side are expected to behave in consideration of a person or persons on the other and to not make noise to a level that will disturb people on the other side of that wall. On the other side of the plan are two walls that separate areas indicated as private living space from the stairwell which is communal access space. Walls such as these should also not allow an awareness of persons on the other side yet, but more so in the case of people using the stairwell and who are also expected not make noise to a level that will disturb people in their living rooms.

This is also an example of the simplest possible configuration of communal access and a communal stairwell and where the access corridor is also the stair landing. It’s a configuration that was standard in low-cost housing in many countries around the world but perhaps most commonly in Eastern Europe in buildings without elevators. As stairwells were relatively expensive to build, there came deck access with some rooms fronting the open corridor, and then to corridor access (as in Lake Point Drive). Shared access has sub-categories but the communal corridor is probably the most typical.

Communal Corridors

Communal corridors are an important element of the configuration of a conventional multi-household multi-storey residential building that also has horizontally shared walls + vertically shared floors. The communal corridor enables the walls and floors to be shared but the norm is for the corridor to be enclosed. There’s no need to talk about communal corridors because they are mainly used by different people and different times and so not shared in any meaningful way.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space #1

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but a view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Apartment entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Sometimes just knowing that other people are at home is sufficient.

The example here is a variation of deck access but the residential units could also be mirrored about the deck to create a double loaded deck lit and ventilated by light-wells. This proposal has bathroom and kitchen/living area windows opening onto light-wells adjacent to the deck. It puts a distance between the deck and openable kitchen and bathroom windows. The plan is tight and probably more suited to student or key-worker accommodation.

In this example, the access deck is also treated as a kind of outdoor space at half-level to the unit windows to minimize unnecessary eye contact while allowing people on either side of those windows to have an awareness of people in and moving around the building.

Shared Outdoor Space

In this next example, a conventional Australian suburban house is reconfigured as a house for a nuclear family or a boarding house house or some other house for multiple occupation. Once again, there is private space with a view of the communal outdoor space and the (mostly) communal indoor space by which that private space is accessed.

Shared Indoor Space

Shared inside spaces are generally about domesticity and so domestic rules apply. The market for private housing still assumes a nuclear family as the norm and that persons who aren’t part of a nuclear family will still aspire to live as if they were in a dwelling designed for one. This proposal is for a residential unit for either two or four non-related persons forming a non-traditional household. Instead of everyone entering into the “publiuc” or communal part of the unit, each person enters their private space space from which they then access the shared indoor space. The small internal corridors are transitions between communal space and private space, and between private space and shared space.

This is important, because people using the deck can have an awareness of who is at home and, from the kitchen/living room windows residents can have an awareness of who is coming and going – as with a traditional street. For example, when approaching a person’s house, seeing a room with a light on shows that someone is home. A person inside that house might be able to see the front gate and garden path and will therefore know if someone is about to visit them. If it’s someone they know then they might pre-emptively open the front door to greet them. Occurrences such as these are normal for persons living in detached houses because they are permitted by openings in the wall between inside and outside. The arriving person knows someone is home and the receiving person also knows someone is there. This won’t happen if the window isn’t positioned to allow it.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space I

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but a view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Residential unit entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Arrangements such as these have no more or less opportunities for direct contact. Sometimes just knowing that other people are at home is sufficient. This example has kitchens and entrance halls overviewing the three-storey high elevator lobby.

This is a lobby level of a circular apartment tower with two elevators. Each stairwell links to one floor up and down, meaning that these elevator lobbies are voids three stories high and square in plan. That void (and people coming and going) is overlooked by kitchen windows and entrance hall windows. On the lobby level, voids with railings keep people in the lobby at a distance from those windows and foster and awareness of activity in the lobbies above and below. Internally, all apartments have a kitchen, a bathroom, a living area and one bedroom but this bedroom can be taken from or given to the adjacent apartment to convert two one-bedroom apartments into a studio plus a two-bedroom apartment. This is also an example of Horizontally Shared Walls + Vertically Shared Floors.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space II

This proposal from the past year has the shared access as shared outdoor space but it also has the light-well as communal light-well as far as the access corridors are concerned but as open space (for illumination and ventilation) shared across different residential units on different levels. It is dense. All slabs and walls are shared to some degree, as are horizontal access shaft and the vertical ventilation and illumination shafts. This proposal was imagined in concrete but were a shopping mall to actually be converted into residential use, could easily be partitioned in mud brick.

I imagine the entire thing could be reconfigured as a six-storey mud brick habitation but the units would probably change to single-storey units to make better use of the light-well.

Shared Access + Shared Stairwells

This set of proposals began with the Stacked Stairs proposal that used internal stairwells to enlarge an apartment into the floor above, the floor below, or both. These proposals all use internal stairwells in the same way, but now recognize that the landings can be split and the same staircase used to upwardly enlarge the apartment on one side, and to downwardly enlarge the apartment on the other. Shared access is the same stairs being used in the same way by different persons, but shared stairwells is about the same stairwell having divided landings so persons on one side can use the stair to go up a level, while persons on the other use it to go down one. Various apartment configurations are possible according to whether the landing is divided and has two, one or no doors opening into it.

These are two iterations of the same idea. On the left, the stairwell at the bottom can be used so the occupants of the apartment on left can share (or appropriate) the bedroom space of the apartment above, while the occupants of the apartment on the right can use the stair to go down and do the same for the apartment below. The iteration on the right is based on a Yemeni mud-brick house that its functionality improved in the same way. In this case, the stairwell at the bottom of the plan is the shared access while the staircase at the top is the shared one.

Shared Access + Shared Outside Space

This proposal is very tight. It has the entire ground level as a shared access level and vertical light-wells as shared outside space and the only view out from the dwellings. This is only possible by contriving the window positions and shapes for maximum area yet minimum view into windows on adjacent and opposite walls. It’s a clear example of shared communal outdoor space yet individual dwellings have no walls in common.

Shared Access + Shared Stairwells + Shared Outside Space

This proposal is a combination of the two above, with stairs in the internal stairwells capable of being assigned to different apartments or even shared between apartments adjacent either horizontally or vertically, therefore allowing the one layout to be used for households, live-work, or other different types of tenure and occupation. I’ve talked about this before. This goes beyond the sharing of individual building elements or spaces as it proposes the flexible allocation of elements and spaces already shared.


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This idea of an architecture of sharing still needs more explanation. It’s nothing complicated but it is a little strange looking at the same building elements in a different way and seeing what possibilities they have that we didn’t see before.

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