The Architecture of Community

February 3, 2010

People in the West spend most of their time in buildings, but we don’t often think about how those buildings influence and subtly choose our interactions with other people. If I had any talent with numbers I’d probably have been an architect because I think buildings are incredibly cool. I was probably the only person at Northwestern who actually read the issues of Architectural Record. Living here in Holly 1 has given me a fresh perspective on how architecture shapes our communities, and made me more thankful for the building I was blessed to live in while an undergrad.

Heemstra was a dump of a building; let’s get that out of the way right now. The paint was peeling; the electrical systems didn’t really work all the time; the plumbing was absolute crap; the internet was slower than in other dorms; it smelled like… bad things; the back door would be coated with ice a quarter-inch thick during the winter. But for all of these things, the building was uniquely suited to fostering community. The hall configuration meant that at any time you could poke your head out of your door and see what everyone except the guys living in the “L” were doing. The showers weren’t individual, which meant you had to shower with other guys. (Sounds weird, but you get used to it.) The entrance meant that people naturally congregated in the lounge to relax and hang out. The doors didn’t swing shut on their own, so guys could just leave their doors open at all times. The “L” formed a counterpoint to the main entrance, giving each floor two poles of congregation. All of these things shaped the community that resulted, giving us a welcoming, inclusive place to call home for four years.

Holly 1 is nothing like that. Well, the windows suck and leak heat, but otherwise it’s a nice, modern building. Good in all the ways that Heemstra is not. Our doors lock individually; each wing of the building locks as well. The only common areas are the kitchens on each floor and the tv lounges on the ground floor. Because of this it took us all a while to really get used to each other in the building. After a while, though, I think the dual human needs to eat and connect drove us all to the kitchen. This is, on my floor at least, the congregating point. At any given time you can find another person in the kitchen. Its where we plan our parties; where we watch tv; where we eat together; where we catch up on the day. The building chose and shaped these actions of ours. The building disincentivized us from interacting, and we found a way to do so regardless.

When Northwestern was considering putting the men of Heemstra in suite style living arrangements the guys protested, loudly. People on campus said, “Its not the building that makes the community, its the people. You guys can have just as good a community if go to the suite style buildings.” The easy reply to this is, “Have you been to the apartments? What community?” Of course Heemstra could have found a way to keep the community vibrant in buildings that weren’t suited to it, but why put people in a building that handicaps that when you can construct something that encourages communal living? Of course, it is a moot point now– the school’s adopting a scorched earth policy towards Heemstra– but the point still stands. Of course humans can create a good community in a building that inhibits the growth of such. What we have in Holly 1 is a perfect example of that. The question is “Why on earth would we put people in buildings like that in the first place?”

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One Response to “The Architecture of Community”

  1. Bearss said

    Indeed, and I feel like the final solution is at least something we can live with. Those who want to continue living as a group will be moving to 3West and 3North Coly next year. This gives them a chance to continue to live with each other and continues Heemstra’s opportunity to take over the world, One dorm at a time.

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