Personalization

By Stephen Hynes

A natural and perhaps fundamental aspect of human nature is the desire to express our individuality. It is important for us to feel unique and to show this to others, and one of the few places our culture allows us to do this is in our dwellings.

Large housing developments have a repetitive nature. In this respect they tend to erase individuality through architectural continuity. The continuity itself frequently becomes an element of design, embodied in municipal requirements and reflected in user expectations. The "strata" rules in residential buildings almost universally require conformity in window coverings visible from outside and prohibit any kind of personalization. The quasi government management groups that preside over strata buildings generally take a dim view of nonconformity.

This may help to explain the tremendous appeal of single family housing, as such buildings are essentially at the service of the family they contain. They are a vehicle for self expression, and whether this is undertaken with intention or is simply the clutter of daily life, the single family house and its surrounding property represent something over which the family it contains feels it has complete control - a rare and valuable thing in this world.

Of course, the feeling is an illusion: neighborhood expectations and prejudices, rules and laws operate powerfully to contour and limit expression. A pink house in a brown neighborhood provokes derision; an unacceptable foreign flag can draw gun fire. The idea that a house is a unique reflection of the family that dwells within it imposes strict limits to the level of self expression. The very separateness that creates the opportunity for selfdetermination undermines its exercise. In this respect the house becomes a target, and its isolation draws the attention of the cowards and bullies who always line up against anything different or interesting.

There is far more security in selfexpression when it is given a social or architectural imprimatur. The Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser believed that "...a person in a rented apartment must have the freedom to lean out of his window and transform the building's exterior within arm's reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything so that, from far away, everyone can see: There lives a man who distinguishes himself from his neighbors!" Hundertwasser was responding to a faceless high density architecture that became popular while he was growing up. It is interesting that most of his work is not expressed in this way, but as Hundertwasser himself providing unique patterns in accordance with his precept. Perhaps this is explained by the danger of leaning out of high windows with paintbrushes and tiles.

Hundertwasser's idea is powerfully compelling. It drives at something fundamental in human nature, providing a framework to accommodate and encourage selfexpression and the personalization of space. There are many ways of achieving this. My favorite follows from mixed use in live/work projects, where the graphic displays of artists and small business add color and life to spaces that would otherwise be undifferentiated. This can be encouraged through the placement of display windows into hallways and circulation areas, harnessing well established mainstreet traditions in new contexts.

My own discussions and observations suggest that the perceived need for personalization of dwelling space is related to the conformity of the environment. When I talk to people who live in urban settings, it is generally those who live in the most anonymous forms that take the greatest trouble to point out the exact location of their dwelling unit. "It's in that building, beside the taller one...see it? The fourteenth floor, count up from the ground. Now count in three windows from the left, see it? No? OK, look at the roof...are you looking at the right building?" Some become genuinely irritated if they are unable to communicate the location, and I have met two people who carried photographs of their building with their dwelling unit circled - one used this photograph on a business card.

This is a modern problem, created by the industrialization of architectural forms and development. People who live in older towns, particularly older European towns ripe with architectural accretion and social tradition appear not to be affected by this problem. They live with a sense of confidence about their relationships with their neighbors.

I have noticed that people who live in buildings or neighborhoods that provide a focus external to the boundaries of their personal dwelling units are far less likely to point to a specific house or unit when asked where they live. I believe the reason is that their sense of place is not limited to the boundaries of their dwelling unit, which diminish in importance as the village and the sense of community increase in importance.

The future of human habitation is one of increasing density and concentration. I believe that we can provide for the fundamental human needs of self expression, personalization and social engagement far better at higher densities than in any suburban model. Current high density paradigms generally do not achieve these goals. As we come to understand what these needs are and how they are affected by our built forms we will be better able to design solutions. I believe this direction lies in exciting new forms that adapt hundreds of years of European village building experience and combine it with high density mixed use and a variety of other social innovations that will dramatically improve our sense of well being in cities of the future. It is this kind of innovation that is the central focus of our Seylynn Village proposal.