How Architects Design for Social Connectivity
With social isolation on the rise, architects can help by creating spaces that bring us together.
“Architecture and social life have a very strong connection,” said Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger in a recent interview. “Most people take architecture as a sort of formal thing, [but] I am inclined to consider it more like a utensil, a tool, a tool for social life mostly.”
As recent studies and research indicate that social isolation is on the rise in U.S. and Europe, leading architects embrace Hertzberger’s school of thought by designing flexible, open, light-filled spaces and shared environments that naturally invite connection.
The movement to design for connectivity, initially rooted in workplace design, where spaces for informal interactions are equated with creativity and collaboration, is becoming more common in other typologies as well. Below, we profile three projects where architecture plays a central role in supporting a vibrant social sphere.
Helping an Aging Population Come Together
In senior living spaces, where maintaining connectivity has long been an issue among the aging, architects are finding new ways to foster engagement. “We’ve always had social spaces in senior living, because you need to,” says Jane Rohe, principal and founder of JSR Associates, an architecture and interior design firm specializing in senior living. “But instead of the dusty old activity room, it’s the open café. Instead of the woodshop, you’re ending up with makerspaces.”
In Harford County, Maryland, JSR Associates played a leading role in the renovation of Citizens Care & Rehabilitation Center. “It went from an institutional staff-centric model to a bit of a household, if you will,” says Rohe. Her design opened up under-utilized spaces at the perimeter to bring in more light through previously hidden windows. The design also incorporated the unused exterior concrete deck into the interior to create an open living room and activity space, a light-filled dining room, and a sunroom.
Building Tomorrow’s High-Rises
In Chicago, where architecture and urban design firm Studio Gang is led by a desire to create connection, the trend is visible in their high-rise living projects where opportunities for engagement are built “in, on and around tall buildings,” notes principal and founder Jeanne Gang in a 2015 research paper. Gang’s 2009 Aqua Tower is characterized by its undulating terraces, which not only create a striking membrane-like exterior but are designed as a “type of social network,” she writes. “The balconies offer oblique visual connections between neighboring units, allowing for informal ties to form between people.”
Creating Collaborative Workspaces
With a long-standing focus on productivity, the design of workplaces is one area where the trend has particularly taken off. Businesses have realized the benefit of flexible, inviting, even home-like spaces which organically breed a more collaborative culture. Committed to creating connections, leading windows and doors manufacturer Marvin recently renovated their offices in Eagan, Minnesota.
The notion that “windows and doors are opportunities for connection,”—as Christine Marvin, director of corporate strategy and design, put it—is evident. “We designed the space to feel residential and it brings in a lot of feelings of home,” she says. With former walls replaced by windows and doors, the office incorporates flexible workspaces and a communal kitchen. “The kitchen is a gathering spot,” said Marvin. “The largest conference room where all employees gather, we call our family room; not only do we have tables, but also couches for different types of collaboration moments.”
It’s often said that people are hard-wired to be social, and so perhaps, recent reports indicating otherwise are part of a larger, not yet finished story – pointing to some other deeper truth. But for architecture, a practice that’s inherently communal, the charge has long been to bring people together. Whether prompting chance encounters in residential common spaces or conjuring family-style meals in the workplace, built space is ultimately a stage for social interactions to unfold. When architects know how to harness this power by building spaces that connect and inspire, they can do their part in satisfying a hunger for more natural, organic social interactions.
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