I think I’m becoming a historicist. It worries me because it is such looked down on position to take in architecture these days. Corb’s* legacy remains; depending on the past is inconceivable. And I’m not necessarily saying we must reject all technology and go live in huts. But it worries me how fast technology is changing our society without us recognizing it.
This current musing is brought on by the article I am supposed to be writing about by James Borchert, about Washington DC’s alley housing. These were incredibly tiny houses built behind the outward facing row houses, and were accessed through an alley. It was mainly inhabited by poor African Americans starting in the 1850s, who formed tight community bonds for both protection from outsiders (the white middle class quickly became very afraid to walk through the alleys) and because their houses were so small that they alley became an extension of the house. Furniture was placed outside, and windows and doors were always left open. The hot summers of DC increased this tendency, as people chose to sleep outside.
Later when the housing was demolished in the 1940s, a few alleys were instead taken over by middle class professionals. They turned inward and rejected the alley as shared community space, aided by air conditioning which made the house more pleasant than the outdoors. They also created barriers to entering the house through porches, hedges and fences, as well as street parking. The piazza-like alley became a street again.
Now while I find this neat, it isn’t really enough for me to write a post about it alone. But I see a parallel between the change in how the two groups used the alley housing and how my family lives in the summer and the winter. In the winter, we live in middle class suburbia, separated by my neighbors by large yards. We are friends with most of them, and wave and have conversations with them. A few of them are even like family. But they still don’t regularly come over to hang out. Work, and school, and after school activities, and TV, and the desire to stay inside where the heat is all gets in the way. But in the summer, at my beach house we spend all day outside. Very few of our tiny cottages have air conditioning, and consequently outside in the shade is much nicer than in the house. Consequently, I know my neighbors at the beach MUCH better than I know my neighbors at home. My aunt’s deck (she has the house across from mine) is the center of our tight knit community. People drop by all day and well into the night. It’s not surprising for people to show up at 10 or 11 and stay til 1. We cook lots of extra food at dinner because between my family’s appetite and the likelihood of hungry visitors it won’t be wasted. Eating dinner without a guest, whether they choose to eat or not, is rare. As kids we used everyone’s backyard, there was no sense of boundaries (despite the fences). Everyone knows everything about everyone. And it’s great. In the winter I miss that sense of community (although not so much since I’ve started college, which has its own strong sense of community).
Although it is pretty simplistic, it is quite easy to see air conditioning (hot and cold) as an isolating element. And much as we often wish for cool air when its 90 or above outside, if the cost is no one coming to the deck, I’d rather be hot. But thinking about it this way, its sort of disturbing to me how quickly as a society we choose to cut community ties in order to stay cool. Technology is wonderful, but the hidden costs are kind of scary since it takes us so long to notice them.
*Corb is Le Corbusier, a famous architect who’s extremely influential book about architecture has spurred generations of architects to celebrate progress and scorn anyone who looked to the past as being backwards. (Gotta love the west’s technology driven arrogance.)
Now pictures for those people who have no idea what my beach is like (this starts out architecture related and sort of devolves):