The Privacy Problem
We’ve put too much value on privacy in architecture. The result is loneliness—and unattractive design.
Last month, I wrote about the trends in urban development keeping the average American from buying a home. A significant side-effect of apartment living, which such a push toward renting perpetuates, is urban loneliness, the social isolation so many American renters experience despite being so close to their neighbors.
But there’s another prong to the forked tongue of urban loneliness: the architecture of many modern apartment buildings, which are engineered to maximize privacy. Thus designed, they encourage a lifestyle of independence rather than interdependence, and distance, rather than fellowship. Having idolized the wrong kind of privacy in property (the high fences and tinted windows kind rather than the private ownership kind), our buildings are shaping us in a way that is antithetical to community, and painfully unattractive to boot.
While we could lay the blame at the feet of both the public which idolizes such privacy, and the corporate managerial class which so effectively shapes our likes and dislikes—in which real estate is no small player—the consequential question is what happens when privacy is elevated to such status, and what is surrendered in exchange for it.
Privacy is a virtue in society. Most would agree it’s a good thing to have a garden’s-width of space or so between you and your neighbor, for the same reason you buy a diary rather than opening up Instagram and hitting “share.” It’s prudent to shut the window for an argument—or, in my mother’s eternal wisdom, not to “air your dirty laundry” in the public square—not just to protect yourself from ridicule, but to protect the sanctity of the home from the undiscriminating multitudes, who neither know nor care.
But ours is an era of individualism, which means we have also individualized privacy. The result is a privacy that looks more like an escape button: protecting our fragile individuality, retreating from others who see the world differently. Countless aspects of our modern life cater to or encourage this private escapism, most notably our smartphones (which, ironically, are not really private at all, though they remove us from our immediate community).
Realtors and developers have capitalized on this fixation. The newest apartment high-rises and their marketing firms use key phrases like “soundproof walls,” “quiet community,” and, my personal favorite, “your everyday getaway.” Your individual right to privacy is absolute, and when you live in this (wryly termed) community, you’ll never be obliged to interact with another person, since he could make you uncomfortable.
That’s the marketing. The people living in the apartments, naturally, will vary in how much they buy what they’re being sold. But there’s no question this obsession has resulted in certain design choices that make fellowship more arduous. It’s not just the soundproofing; most complexes are designed much like a hotel or a resort, boasting little more common area than the gym and the hallway outside your door. Balconies typically face outward to a distant street; if they face inward, they are safely separated by enough distance to make conversation across the way practically impossible. When everything about a housing unit is designed to draw you in and away, you have to work a lot harder to engage with the world beyond your four walls.
We have remarked on the ugliness of American architecture often enough: the high-rise eyesore, standing like a giant phalanx of glass windowpanes; cement-block shopping malls that sprawl over acres of land with parking lots as far as the eye can see; suburban neighborhoods of 100 eerily identical dwellings, like rows of Oompa Loompas. It’s a grim verdict for American style, only occasionally mitigated by more nuanced local charm, like New England red brick. Not the least of these tragic structures is the industrial apartment complex, which boasts story after story, hallway after hallway, of greige-and-glass rental boxes that would sterilize even the greatest of souls.
When contrasted with older European apartments, constructed to be beautiful to the eye and therefore appealing to the tenant, with wrought iron balconies so close you could talk to your neighbor at conversational volume, modern American cement blocks of individualism have little to offer (save better air conditioning). These are the bleak and isolating structures that dot our country, whose landscape and ecology are, by contrast, so singularly superb.
We can attribute this appearance to causes beyond mere privacy. The dominant theory seems to be efficiency: It is cheaper and more space-efficient to build a box-shaped apartment than something more ornate. Another theory is the lack of a developed American identity in art, which spills into architecture, too; we borrow from a hodge-podge of civilizations to bolster our own comparatively young cultural consciousness, which results in a variety of bemusing follies, but not a lot of inspired buildings, especially when it comes to our dwellings. Or perhaps, our taste for the new, the fast, and the cheap makes ours decidedly less aesthetic than the European architecture of our heritage.
A variant on those theories is Alexis de Tocqueville’s in Democracy in America, that democracies never produce great art like aristocracies, because they value productivity over beauty. It’s not worth investing in things that aren’t useful—like beauty, or fellowship.
But we need fellowship. The small associations popular in early America were her republican virtue, in Tocqueville’s estimation, and prevented her from falling prey to the ever-present risk of pure democracy—tyranny. In light of this, the suppression of every form of organic gathering in the last 18 months is surely the greatest robbery by our managers, a victory of private infatuation over public virtue. If anything, our lives have become more private, each man more an island than ever before, as we work from home and are eyed with suspicion by our fellow Americans wherever we go.
There is some pushback. Various development firms have built new apartment complexes which include more shared spaces, though they’re rarely more beautiful than their less communal alternatives, and the social-experiment nature of the shared spaces hardly seems inviting. There are intergenerational housing units, too, where property managers intentionally mix older and younger renters under the same roof or in close proximity, intending to foster better community. This might be sweet, if it weren’t an acute reminder of the kind of living situations that once occurred organically, without billion-dollar startups and managers needed to orchestrate it.
There are also front porches, the contemporary cornerstone of republican virtue. As it turns out, 81 percent of homebuyers are seeking a front porch, and for good reason. The front porch offers an in-between place, where the passerby and the resident can cautiously interact, without forcing the homeowner to open his door to everyone and sundry, nor the casual walker to enter into an uncomfortably intimate environment before he’s ready. But while this porch culture can be quite effective for those living in homes, especially in a small town with walkable streets, apartment complexes are a different story.
Privacy continues to win until the consumer demands otherwise. Until fellowship and beauty sells better than your everyday shoebox getaway, there’s little chance developers will take notice of an increasingly desolate renter class.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.