Tending the Source: Social Isolation in Pro-Social Architecture

Tending the Source: Social Isolation in pro-social architecture

By Dan Coghlan

Every evening at exactly 7 pm, the people in my neighbourhood step outside their  doors and make noise. It starts as a jumble of mismatched noise makers (everything from pots and wooden spoons to kazoos and drums) but very quickly coalesces into a beat that blends together the diverse nature of these “instruments” into a unified celebration of our frontline workers. Its a perfect metaphor for cohousing, in which a diverse group of people come together under one roof with potentially very little in common other than a shared goal of living in community. In theory it sounds like a mess, but in the right place, with intentionality and a willingness to listen to each others’ “rhythm” the results can feel like music

The irony of social distancing in a place designed to bring people closer together is obvious. Our complexes are laid out to favour pedestrian traffic over vehicles, with lots of shared space meant to be used as frequently as possible to encourage lots of interaction. Architecture that’s designed to bring people together has the potential to increase the risk of viral transmission during a pandemic. However, the communal nature of cohousing is about more than just architecture, and the secret to our successes in difficult times lies in the nature of our ties, not the building that houses them. 

Building a cohousing community is like digging a well. Structurally speaking there is a right way to build it and if the shaft isn’t dug properly or the pump isn’t fitted with adequate skill then the well can’t function. However, it is possible to build the structure exactly right and still end up with a useless well if, in building it, you foul the source of the water. Just like a well-digger must be mindful towards the spring that makes his hole a well, the people who build successful cohousing communities quickly learn that a beautifully designed building is ultimately just another strata complex if we aren’t also mindful of the relationships that make it a community. We are constantly tending those relationships proactively and this is what allows us to pull together in times of crisis.

My neighbours don’t get together for meals in the common house anymore. We don’t have in-person meetings. The atriums used to hum with the sound of children, but fell eerily silent in March and haven’t felt the same since. All the typical signs of a healthy cohousing community have dried up, but in their absence, new signs of caring have sprung up. The presence of children can be seen in crudely cut out hearts taped to windows. A sanitation sign up sheet for common spaces and door handles sits on a table in the atrium next to a bottle of cleaner. Families isolating themselves due to suspected COVID know they can ask for help getting groceries and people will come to their aid.

Every evening at exactly 7 pm, the people in my neighbourhood step outside their front doors and make noise. We celebrate for a few minutes and then wave at each other from our entryways (designed to face inwards towards each other). We smile, we thank each other for coming and we promise to meet again at the same time tomorrow. Some days an individual may not feel up to joining in, other days a child may get excited and decide to dance in the middle of the walkway. Some nights it goes for a few seconds, other nights it stretches out until everyone is tired. The exact nature of the celebration changes from day to day, but it’s always beautiful and it’s always music.