In 2006 a tipping point was reached – the point where more American women lived without a husband than with one. Similar milestones are being passed across the developed world as living alone, once the fate of a pitiable few, becomes the norm. In the UK, the number of people living alone has quadrupled in the last 40 years; by 2021 singletons are expected to account for 37 per cent of all households. In Japan the single-person household is now the most common type. And there are growing numbers of single-person households in important emerging markets. In the five years preceding 2006, countries recording over 20 per cent growth in numbers of singleton households included Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand and China, where there are now over a million single people in Shanghai and Beijing. Terms to describe this growing army are proliferating almost as fast as the single population itself: ‘freemales’, ‘parasite singles’, ‘quirkyalones’. Who are they all? They are us. At several points in our lives, almost all of us will live alone, whether temporarily or permanently.
Even allowing for the fact that we are marrying later, if at all, and getting divorced more easily and with less stigma, the pace of change is dizzying. What has caused the explosion in single-person households? For many young people the answer is wealth and personal freedom: they live alone because they can. Until the 1960s, a woman in the UK needed the guarantee of a man on a mortgage application form; today single women account for nearly a quarter of home loans, and the only approval they need is from the bank. But while many live alone by choice, a large number do so reluctantly. An important factor is the size of the babyboom generation, a demographic glitch still working its way through the system. As populations age, the number of senior citizens who have lost partners through divorce
or bereavement grows too. In the USA, more women than men live alone, and 63 per cent of those are over 55. In newly industrialized countries, rapid urbanization plays a major role: as hundreds of millions of young workers leave their families for better opportunities in the city, the number of households multiplies. The implications of this profound demographic shift might be as far-reaching as those of globalization or the network society, but governments and businesses continue to act as though the standard household has not changed in 50 years. There is a challenge for architects, designers and urban planners to reconsider how people living alone might operate differently in cities or in their own homes. The S1NGLETOWN exhibition by Droog and KesselsKramer at the 2008 Venice Biennale introduces visitors to a variety of contemporary singles, people who both confirm and deny the stereotypes. It locates them in an abstract interpretation of a possible future habitation for singles. Here, we find our solitary citizens surrounded by the products and services that help shape their lives. These range from the feasible to the fanciful and ironic: mobile balconies for one, inflatable pets,a pharmacy that doubles as a cafe/ meeting point for singles, a restaurant called Table-For-One. If not these, then which products might improve the lives of people living alone? Other questions must also be asked: what forms of housing might be appropriate for our singles? How will public space be used? And what is the cost of their desire to be alone? Taken together, the town, its citizens and their products hope to stimulate debate about singles and how we should respond to a social revolution .
Welcome to S1NGLETOWN. Enjoy your visit.
In the UK, the majority of people living alone do not think it has an impact upon their relationship with friends and family and a significant minority, nearly a third, think that it has a positive effect on their relationships with their family.
According to a report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3.1 million people will live alone by 2026, up from 1.8 million at the 2001 census. One-person households are predicted to increase faster than any other type. The Bureau describes the increase as ‘phenomenal’.
MEET THE SINGLES.
S1NGLETOWN’S nine citizens are a diverse group, comprising people of many different ages and backgrounds. In this section, we introduce the singles.
100K+ EXECUTIVE. Works hard, 24/7. Her home is an airport business lounge (or, at least, that’s how it feels). She believes in maximum efficiency in all areas of life – even her groceries are delivered according to an automated system. She fits a trend demonstrating greater independence for women. Expat life is now more often about short contracts and flying visits than permanent relocation, so even if the executive did have a family, it’s likely they would be left at home. On the other side of the globalization coin are poor migrant workers who also leave behind families to live alone abroad. Migrant workers make up over 85 per cent of the population of the United Arab Emirates, while Western expats make up just three per cent of its most populous city, Dubai.
AIR-BOUND. Working as a flight attendant means living wherever the air line takes her. She has friends and family on every continent, meaning she fits a trend typical among singles: the non-linear community. This means that the single in question may not know anyone in his or her immediate geographical community, but instead uses technology to create a dislocated community whose members may be many thousands of kilometres apart. Last year, according to the pan-European online dating service Parship, nearly eight million Britons – half of all the singles in the UK – used some form of online dating service to find love, and singles are disproportionately heavy users of social networking sites such as Facebook. As such technologies become ever more intricately embedded in our daily lives, might growing numbers of people opt out of the conventional idea of home entirely? A migratory, peripatetic existence between hotels, ‘hometels’, friends’ homes and other forms of temporary accommodation is made possible when a fixed location is no longer necessary in maintaining relationships.
ALONE, TOGETHER. Works in environmentally friendly product design and lives in a house built expressly for singles. She believes strongly in communal living, not least because it lessens the enormous damage singles cause the environment. Once a week she undertakes an activity more likely to attract singles than couples: volunteering (in this case, teaching art to underprivileged kids). She will have a wider choice of housing than ever before. While housing developers in both the public and private sectors have been slow to recognize the demographic shift that has taken place across developed countries, there are signs that blind adherence to traditional housing models is on the wane. Alternatives range from ultra-compact city centre apartments to new forms of shared housing. Indeed, isolation (and the cost of living) may at last convert significant numbers to the idea of living together but separately.
INDEPENDENT WIDOW. The widow keeps her grey matter flexible, continually learning new skills and absorbing knowledge. Though she lives far away from her kids and grandchildren, she keeps in touch via software, which allows free calls over the internet. She belongs to an important subcategory of singles – the older woman living alone. The reasons for this category’s existence are multiple, but stem largely from the fact that older people – the baby-boom generation – form an ever-larger proportion of the population in developed countries, and women now outlive their male partners by as much as ten years.
GLOBAL OPPORTUNIST. Our global opportunist is an eternal student, piling up degrees and air miles in almost equal measure. He lives wherever his studies take him, moving from school to school and continent to continent. He believes that he’ll settle down one day, but this belief is as changeable as everything else is his life. The global opportunist’s journeys have taken him to Britain, a country of 15 million singles, and to Shanghai, where the booming number of singles has been described as an ‘unmarried crisis’. His rootlessness is extreme, but has something in common with large numbers of others who live alone: among them are an above-average number of renters, as opposed to homeowners, and they move house more frequently than those living in larger households. Will a more transient population challenge community cohesion in cities?
ONCE A MOM. A mother, now single for the first time in twenty years. Divorced, and with children at university. So far, she finds the experience liberating, and takes advantage of the many singles-oriented services springing up around her. She has a boyfriend, but doesn’t live with him, something she has in common with many singles. In the U.K., for example, two million people live alone but are in a relationship. She will have decisions to make about housing in the future. For a while, the children might return occasionally to ‘hotel mama’ – especially if she happens to live in Japan, where ‘parasite singles’ living at home with their parents have become a widely documented phenomenon. But as she gets older, will the single family house adapt to meet her needs, or might she plan a move into a new type of housing designed to foster community and independence for those who, while ageing, are still active and healthy for much longer than their own parents were?
RECENTLY DIVORCED. Works a nine to five and lives alone, after many decades with his family. Like many singles, he loves the freedom being single brings, but struggles with loneliness. Ultimately, he would like another long-term relationship. Men especially can experience loneliness following divorce as old social networks fall away – their maintenance is often the ‘responsibility’ of the wife.
The odds of growing old together with a new partner are not good, however. In the USA, around 40 per cent of first marriages, 60 per cent of second marriages and 70 per cent of third marriages end in divorce. The United States has the highest rate of divorce in the world, at around five per thousand people in any given year. A weighted world average is 1.3 per 1000 people. Russia, the UK and Australia are all at the top end of the table, while poorer, more traditional societies are much lower down.
SEASONED PROFESSIONAL. Our seasoned professional lives, works and plays in the same space. His hard work has paid off: he’s his own boss, freelancing as a graphic designer in order to maintain a flexible lifestyle. He supports the local arts scene and frequently showcases artists’ work in his front window, an area he’s converted into an art gallery. He exercises and watches what he eats, aware that living alone doubles the risk of heart disease. The freedom to live as you choose, keep your own hours and organize your environment in a way that suits is, of course, one of the principal attractions of living alone. But not all the advantages are as obvious. In a survey of Japanese singles, 56 per cent suggested ‘doing my own cleaning and washing’ as one of the good things about living alone.
SOLITUDE SEEKER. Lives and works at home, alone. She loves nature and celebrates it with frequent solitary camping trips. Her preference for keeping herself to herself is echoed by many singles worldwide - a survey by Horizon Research Group in six Chinese cities found that nearly 90 per cent of well-educated females prefer the single life.
By 2015, 40 per cent of German households are expected to contain just one person.
Half the children of British-born mothers are being born outside marriage, according to the British government’s Office of National Statistics.
Unsustainable single-person households are in the firing line Governments around the world exhort their citizens to reduce their energy use in an effort to combat climate change. But any benefits won from reducing the energy consumption of the average household may be wiped out by a large increase in the total number of households. What’s good news for manufacturers of cars, TVs and vacuum cleaners may not be so good for the environment. When one couple becomes two singleperson households, each wants a car, to make separate trips to the supermarket. And although they each buy half as much food as they did as a couple, they bring home more than half as much packaging. Having unwrapped their meals for one, they heat them in the oven, eat them in front of the TV before switching out the light and going to bed, each having used as much energy as they previously did as a couple. These ‘inefficiencies’ are present in almost all aspects of the home and daily life. Research done by the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford shows that per capita energy consumption in a two person household is about sixty per cent of that in a one person household. In a five person household the figure is less than 40 per cent. And just as singleperson households make few savings on energy required to heat and light homes, they are also responsible for disproportionately large amounts of the embodied energy required to produce the furniture and consumer goods with which their homes are filled. The picture is not unremittingly bleak, however. While the number of single-person households in the suburbs is rising, those who live alone still make up a significant proportion of the population in dense urban centres, reducing car use and allowing efficiencies in everything from food distribution to street lighting. Some forms of local generation that are not available for most individually owned single-family houses make sense in large apartment buildings. And single-person households are expected to account for a large part of future
housing need, creating the opportunity to develop much more efficient housing for many. Increasing recognition of the number of single-person housholds on the part of housing developers, product designers and retailers may go some way towards making single-person households more efficient: currently many people living alone are in dwellings that are too big for their needs, using washing machines that are too big for their needs, and buying food in quantities that do not suit them simply because that is what is available. Even if the typical single-person household no longer contains the ‘thrifty widow’, eking out a low-impact lifestyle on a pension, large numbers of singles would be interested in living a more sustainable life especially as the costs of doing otherwise rise. But to make a real difference will require a significant degree of cooperation and a willingness to try new things, ideas and places. Are they up for it? For some, it may not be an issue of choice for much longer. Green taxes on white goods in countries such as the Netherlands already bear more heavily on single-person households, and commentators such as Dr Jo Williams of the Bartlett School of Planning have suggested occupancy taxes on people using too much space. Some combination of good intentions and financial penalty may yet stimulate demand for alternative, more sustainable forms of housing for those living alone.
The supermarket run in Singletown? Many people living alone need for their own the same products - from cars to washing machines - that would be shared in larger households. Photo: Corbis.
SPLENDID GREY SINGLES ISOLATION?
In just the last two years, findings have been published to suggest that those who live alone are at greater risk of ailments, ranging from depression and diabetes to heart failure and dementia. But does living alone in itself make people ill, or is it factors associated with, though not inherent in, the single life? A study of women between the ages of 50 and 64 in southern Sweden, for example, found that while those living alone had a higher incidence of diabetes, this was mainly due to increased levels of smoking and drinking – a ‘single’ lifestyle, rather than living alone per se. Another study in Denmark found that age and living alone were the two strongest predictors of serious heart problems. Again the researchers pointed out that living alone can contribute to lifestyles that lead to heart problems, including smoking, obesity and fewer doctor visits. Again, the conclusion points towards a particular lifestyle, rather than the simple fact of being alone. But other studies have pointed the finger at the single state itself. Research at the University of Chicago found that men and women between 50 and 68 years old who scored highest on measures of loneliness – perhaps a less avoidable risk for singles than smoking or obesity – also had high blood pressure, and other research has shown that losing a loved one carries a risk of heart-attack-like symptoms. From many of the studies it emerges that loneliness does pose a significant risk, especially to mental health. People living on their own are significantly more likely to experience a depressive episode or suffer obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorders, according to Britain’s Office of National Statistics, and twice as many single women take their own lives as married women. Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute have found that not living with a partner can increase the risk of dementia by up to six times, and believe that the mental stimulation of living with someone may be preventative. Dr Krister Hakansson, who led the study, explained that “Living in a couple relationship is normally one of the most intense forms
of social and intellectual stimulation. If social and cognitive challenges can protect against dementia, so should living as a couple.” For many people living alone, loneliness is a significant concern. According to the British charity, Help the Aged, half the older men living alone in the UK say they feel ‘trapped’ in their own homes. It is to loneliness, as more than one survey concludes, that more attention in public policy might be directed. Central to this effort must be urban planning and the design and provision of housing. As private space becomes ever more private, the importance of public space increases. Community facilities such as libraries, for example, can be adapted to increase their social potential. Indeed, in Sweden public libraries are already described as ‘the living room in the city’ or ‘the town salon’, and OMA included a ‘living room’ in its Seattle Public Library. In the UK, libraries increasingly offer cafes, some local authority services such as benefit payments, and areas of soft furnishing allowing them to be used as relaxation spaces even by non-readers. The Idea Store libraries designed by David Adjaye in some of London’s most disadvantaged areas have welcoming reception areas in which visitors can perch on comfortable sofas to watch plasma screen TVs. Libraries, however, are a rare example of a public building type that is changing in step with the new reality and the threat of extinction in the face of new technologies has encouraged them to carve out new roles as outward-looking community hubs, rather than inward-looking repositories of knowledge. But could similar strategies be employed in other public building types too? And as the number of citizens experiencing the classic urban feelings of anonymity and alienation increase, is there a public-health argument against the city as a place of surveillance, gated communities and the growing privatization of public space, and in favour of the urban realm as a meeting place, whose parks, streets and squares foster those casual interactions that the urbanist and writer Jane Jacobs called ‘the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow’?
As the babyboom generation enters old age, the question of housing for seniors comes sharply into focus.
Perhaps more important, their very freedom from the traditional aspirations and obligations when it comes to choosing housing may have wider benefits. They may not contribute to the schools that are one of the traditional hubs of the community, but the fact that they do not need to be located near to good schools gives them the freedom to explore alternative areas in which to live – a fact to which the recent explosion of apartment buildings in downtown San Diego is at least partially attributable. Likewise, people living alone have played a significant part in the regeneration of central Manchester in the UK. In 1990 there were 90 people living in the heart of the city, today there are 25,000, and the city is booming. The regeneration of city centres has clear economic benefits, but economic sustainability is only one of the ‘triple bottom lines’ now used as standard in urban and community accounting. The trick will be to get the other two – social and environmental sustainability – at the same time.
In Germany and Switzerland, people over 50 will account for around half of the population by the middle of the century. And the proportion of elderly people living alone is also increasing: nearly half of Swiss women aged 65-74 are now in singleperson households. In Britain, the number of older men living alone has risen by a fifth in just the last two years – a fact at least partially attributable to the rising divorce rate. Advances in healthcare and life expectancy also mean that more people are able to live independently for longer.
John McCain or Barack Obama: the result, apparently, will be determined by singles. Not only are they numerous but they act together, giving them greater political clout than any of the special-interest lobbies politicians try so hard to cultivate. In the 2004 US election, according to political analysts, it was easier to predict voting patterns based on marital status than on gender. The big electoral issue for singles is healthcare, where many perceive that they are unfairly treated by the US system. But that is just the start of a list of grievances singles around the world might make. If they book a vacation, they pay a singles’ supplement. If they take out insurance they pay a higher premium than a married person for the same car. Food comes packaged as though the nuclear family was still the norm. Pro-singles campaigner Bella DePaulo calls such discrimination ‘singlism’. With such a large market poorly served by existing options, it is not surprising that the corporate giants and their advertising agencies are quickly positioning themselves to take advantage of what China’s Ministry of Commerce calls the ‘single economy’ – a new consumption structure different from the family-oriented one, with a long-term positive effect on the economy at large. International web-based travel agent Lastminute.com reports that singles holidays are the fastest growing part of the market, and an IKEA ad appealing to viewers whose marriages were breaking down to ‘Just pack up, ship out, find a place of your own’ is one of several recent commercials by major brands touching on a subject unmentionable in advertising only a few years ago.
The number of people living alone also creates opportunities for entirely new products and services, from the New Yorkbased website tinyliving.com, supplying products for very small households, to Aviva, which claims to be the world’s first hotel specifically for singles, and opened in Hohenweg, Austria, earlier this year.
These trends in Europe and America have been established for some time. In China, demographic change, as with so much else, is happening at a startling rate. According to the Chinese Research Center on Ageing, 30 per cent of China’s urban senior citizens lived alone in 2004 and the figure is expected to rise to 80 per cent as soon as 2010, a phenomenon the researchers attribute to the increased ability of the young to provide their own accommodation and a growing difficulty in bridging the generation gap. With China’s population both growing and ageing, it is expected to have 400 million citizens over the age of 60 by 2050.
It remains to be seen how singles will cast their vote in the US presidential election. Neither candidate has made a specific point of targeting singles as a group. Perhaps politicians’ reticence will leave the door open for ‘single-issue’ political parties in the future, adding to the advocacy groups, publications and websites that already champion the single lifestyle. In the meantime financial muscle is the singles’ greatest asset in their fight for equal treatment. The commercial landscape is changing. Invest now in companies that make meals for one, compact cars and party clothes. Sell your stock in makers of baby food, people carriers and bridal gowns.
Such changes will have profound effects on the appearance of cities. Demand for single-family houses may decline while demand for urban apartments rises. But it is unlikely that many older people would want to live in the places that would positively attract younger people living alone, close to bars and nightclubs. Instead, transport links allowing visits to family are important, as are facilities such as places of worship, access to learning, exercise and community groups. Loneliness is a major factor for older people living alone, who tend to spend a far higher proportion of their time within their own four walls than their younger, working counterparts. Given the numbers involved, the needs of older people may be a factor in a much greater range of housing in the future. Although there is no single housing type that suits all old-age lifestyles, considerations range from basic planning issues – minimizing level changes, providing ample room to manoeuvre – to the specifics of detail: can a door be unlocked and opened with one hand? Can cupboards be reached by someone whose spine is beginning to curve, or whose arms are not as strong as they once were? Technology is also likely to play a greater role in preserving the independence of older people. At the museum of communication in Lisbon, Portugal, architect Tomas Taveira has set up the ‘home of the future’, a prototype house equipped with innovations ranging from ramps instead of stairs to a self-operating vacuum cleaner and a talking washing machine. Most housing typologies for older people derive from the hotel or the hospital, but as numbers grow and life expectancy rises, new forms may be found. After all, the home is not simply shelter but the place where daily life is played out, the repository of memories, a source of pride and the backdrop to a phase of existence that should still be more about life than death.
From politics to product design, the singles form a constituency that cannot be ignored.
The last US census showed that the average single-person household has a higher income per person than those in twoperson households, and they spend it differently. The global market research agency Euromonitor suggests that singles boost sales of everything from clothes and make-up – they spend more trying to look good – to consumer goods suitable for smaller living spaces, such as slim-line dishwashers.
Where will you live at the end of your life? For many, staying with their children is not an option: their priority is retained independence, and there is an overwhelming preference for remaining in their own homes – as a couple or, increasingly, alone.
With those living alone disproportionately likely to be renters rather than homeowners, and to move house more frequently than those in larger households, some fear that the rise in the number of single-person households may challenge existing community cohesion. Indeed, nearly half of Japanese singles living alone say they would not even recognize their neighbours’ faces. And yet there is also evidence to suggest that singleperson households can be good for the common store of ‘social capital’ in unexpected ways; women who live alone are more likely to do volunteer work than those who are married.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Bulky, endlessly reconfigurable expanded polystyrene street furniture designed by Popelka Poduschka Architekten is a popular summertime attraction in Vienna’s Museumsquartier. The 116 elements are a different colour every year.
A third of unmarried Italian men stay with their parents up to the age of 30. But more are leaving to set up on their own, encouraged by a government that wants young Italians to contribute to a more flexible labour market by becoming independent earlier.
In the last 35 years the proportion of single-person households in the Netherlands has tripled. In 2007 those living alone accounted for 35 per cent of households, and it is predicted that will rise to 42 per cent by 2030. In Amsterdam, the figure is even more astounding: 55 per cent of households comprise just one person.
Will the growing multitude of live-alones need new kinds of home? In Tower Hamlets, east London, the city’s tallest residential tower is taking shape. Designed by the behemoth of corporate architecture, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Pan Peninsula’s 762 apartments have been eagerly snapped up by single people – 80 per cent of residents live alone – for between £300,000 and £7 million. They enjoy access to a 24-hour concierge, private cinema, health club and 50th floor cocktail bar. A short distance away is Drapers City foyer, based in a Victorian school building. Its 21 apartments are occupied by young single men who pay as little as £6.19 a week. They enjoy access to training in literacy and numeracy, and drug and alcohol counselling. Both sets of residents are accounted for in the number of single-person households in the neighbourhood – at about 40 per cent of the total, it’s a little higher than the city average. But as the two extremes suggest, the figure, while startlingly high, does little to convey the variety of needs and expectations among those who live alone. While it is certainly true that there are single mothers whose children have left home, living in rural farmhouses, the image is of young people in urban apartment buildings. And it is
that type of housing that is built in cities across the industrialized world to cater for the growing number of single-person households: three or four rooms and all the conveniences likely to be found in a single-family home. But with pressures on urban density, concerns over sustainability, the availability of new technologies and the high cost of living alone, might alternatives emerge? “It’s very difficult to see these big demographic changes automatically changing into what you can see in the built environment,” says Dolores Hayden, Professor of Architecture, Urbanism and American Studies at Yale University. “People are struggling to deal with all the existing buildings, with banking requirements and mortgage requirements. So it isn’t as though developers are making instant changes to respond to demographic shifts.” And if developers are not in a hurry to explore alternatives, it would also be rash to assume that there will be high demand among those who live alone – people are notoriously conservative about housing in ways that they are not with other choices. Hayden draws a parallel with an earlier demographic trend: “Twenty years ago we thought with the rise of single
Flexible housing allows for the sometimes single parents and with the rise of married women in the paid labour force we’d see a real shift to housing that was better connected to public transportation and job opportunities. And indeed that didn’t happen. What happened in the United States over 20 years was that women doubled their driving. You maintain your existing housing situation but just go farther to get to those places where there might be childcare or employment opportunities. Social change did not drive demand.” Architect and critic Professor Michael Sorkin concurs that both developers and urban planners are “totally stuck in their received paradigms – planning for lifestyles that no longer exist,” but observes that a large influx of single people into New York in the late 19th century did trigger a variety of new housing forms, including tenements and rooming houses. And he perceives a strong desire for alternatives to industrialist and modernist worker housing: “Efficient, cellular, Cartesian, but dreadful,” he scoffs. “Who would want to live there? We’ve awakened and smelled the bacon of difference.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME? Freedom for some singles might mean the open road. A globe-trotting executive shuttling between the airports of the world might conclude that it hardly seems worth maintaining a home she rarely sees. She doesn’t need a street address to receive mail, and her friends can find her more reliably by checking websites such as Dopplr or TripIT than by calling round. She might be better off giving up the lease on the apartment and joining the ranks of people with no fixed abode. The bike and the snowboard can go into a self-storage unit, but where will she sleep when in town? Aparthotels offer serviced apartments with a hotel-style booking system so guests can check in and out whenever they like. The m-hotel, designed by architect Tim Pyne, is due to open in 2008, located near London’s financial district to serve foreign workers on contracts too long for a normal hotel stay and too short to rent a conventional apartment. The prefabricated apartments slot into a steel frame on the site, for which the m-hotel has just an eight-year lease.
For those with money to spend, hometels are an option. Having bought a room – for about the same price as a small apartment in the same area – the investor is entitled to stay there free for a certain number of nights each year and receives rental income from its use the rest of the time. The London chain Guestinvest currently has two new hometels in development after its first two sold out in weeks. Hometels and new forms of hostels are among the housing types the Austrian Institute of Ecology expects to emerge by 2020, based on its analysis of trends in work, technology, society and demographics in consultation with futurists, planners and architects. Another increasingly important type of ‘no home’ will be mobile homes, it suggests. Portable dwellings are a long-standing architectural preoccupation, ranging from Buckminster Fuller’s catalogue houses to Ron Herron’s Walking City. In industrialized societies, at least, few have chosen to live in mobile dwellings in the recent past, not least because the technology lagged behind the concept, and because
social ties root people to a place. For the booming number of singles, the latter may be less of an issue: there are no children to take out of school, or partners whose job needs them to show up at the same place every day. And the technology now allows for a very comfortable existence in transit – witness the hundreds of thousands of ‘full-timers’ who live on America’s open roads in Recreational Vehicles equipped with everything from internet access to wheelchair lifts. The globalizing, market-led world is increasingly mobile, and single people are the most mobile of all, already less likely to be homeowners than couples, more likely to move home frequently, more likely to migrate abroad, more likely to travel. For many, some new form of non-place-specific housing might be the logical outcome of their rootlessness. Carrying your life around with you is no longer the stuff of naively optimistic techno-utopian fantasy but a pragmatic possibility now that the future has arrived.
m-hotel designed by Tim Pyne.
‘The chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence,’ wrote Marjorie Hillis in her 1936 book aimed at single women, ‘Live Alone and Like It’. For many, living alone is a temporary arrangement – between partners, before the arrival of children and again after they have left home, or simply when they can afford not to share with others. Yet most housing developed with singleperson households in mind is highly inflexible, meaning that when people’s domestic status changes, they have to move on. Flexibility allows future residents some choice over how their home is arranged, allows for change during their occupation and in the longer term allows the mix of housing to be adjusted to meet demand. In London there are over a quarter of a million single-parent households with children. When the children leave home, they will most likely become single -person households; meanwhile, some of the million-plus single-person households in the city may well have children and need a different sort of accommodation. They can either join a merry-go-round of swaps each time their circumstances change, or reconfigure their existing dwellings. For many types of family arrangement, single-parent families whose children will one day leave home, for example, being able to partition the home and rent or sell part of it may allow a single occupant to remain in their home. Alternatively, apartments might expand or contract within a block as the composition of a household changes. That was the intention
at Siedlung Hegianwandweg, a development of five apartment buildings for a housing association in Zürich. EM2N Architekten ensured that the only load-bearing elements in each block were a central core and the external walls, allowing the plan to be partitioned according to the needs of the occupant or the housing association. Its design drawings show the plan configured for single-person occupancy as well as inhabitation by couples or families with children. A study of flexible housing throughout the twentieth century by Jeremy Till and Tatjana Schneider divides examples into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ categories – those where some change of use is anticipated by the architect and catered for by plans and technologies capable of reconfiguration, such as moving partitions or even rooms that can switch between apartments, and those where indeterminacy of spaces allows users to assign their own functions. The ‘hard’ strategies, they note, are often used where space is at a premium, while ‘soft’ plans and technologies can require greater space – possibly even some redundancy. So might those ‘sometimes singles’ be tempted to the suburbs, where homes often have a varied collection of rooms and ancillary spaces, which can be connected in a variety of ways? They are already there, says Dolores Hayden, author of ‘A Field Guide To Sprawl’. “In cities like New York there have been single people living alone for a long time – they are maybe a third of the people in the city,” she explains. “ But the big news in the United States is that one third of the population in suburban areas will now consist of single
people. We are no longer on the model of the married couple with two or three children predominating in suburbs.” The significance of the growth in numbers of people living in the suburbs is underlined by the importance of suburbia itself: “The US is a suburban nation,” says Hayden. “More people live in suburbs than in inner cities and rural areas combined.” Western Europe, too, is predominantly suburban: 80 per cent of the population live there. Yet with some notable exceptions, the suburbs are not the site of much architectural innovation; might a changing demographic and a growing demand for variety encourage the development of new suburban typologies? Flexibility is an ideal but in reality it can be difficult to make predictions about what alternative uses might be demanded of dwellings, inconvenient to make substantial alterations to one that is occupied and uneconomical to provide more space that is required in order that it might be used in a greater variety of ways. And for some, choice is not a good thing, says Don Murphy of VMX Architects: when the practice was commissioned to design some 100-square-metre apartments for rent by the University of Amsterdam, it persuaded the client to install shafts for a kitchen and bathroom, but let occupants decide where to sleep and how they would like to use the apartment. “It turned out that a lot of people had difficulty in deciding or understanding where they would actually put a bedroom or a bathroom,” says Murphy, “so the client asked us if we would modify the scheme after it was built, and put bedrooms in half the apartments”. But as Professor Michael Sorkin observes, it is the desire to determine the qualities of one’s own space that lies behind the interest in the New York loft apartment – “the stem cell of architecture.”
Themes of compact city dwelling are explored in the design of three houses on a nine-by-twelve-metre site by Stephen Taylor Architects in East London. Intimate courtyards are animated by the extensive glazed elevations that open onto them. At ground level, folding glazed screens open two sides of the courtyard to the interior of the houses, while on the first floor large bi-folding windows that constitute one side of the bedroom open externally across the void of the courtyard. “Like London townhouses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the configuration anticipates a change of use by the occupants over time,” say the architects. “Rooms are designed to host a range of activities. Inverting the usual order – since there is no ground-level garden – the dining room/kitchen is positioned on the top floor, benefiting from the best light, bedrooms are on the first floor, and the ground floor is available for a variety of uses that may include a small work room.” Photo: David Grandorge. Siedlung Hegianwandweg designed by EM2N Architekten. Photo: Hannes Henz.
Satoshi Abe conceived of a radical form of timeshare in his Megahouse project, which treats the city as one enormous house. Any unused residential or office space can be made accessible for individual use. The ZapDoor system controls access to the empty rooms. Mobile phones and the internet are used to access lists of rooms graded by location, price, equipment and design, which can be rented for a matter of hours or months.
Research into the shopping habits of 25,000 single people in the UK showed that those aged between 15 and 34 spent 30 per cent more on bread than families. Half of young women living alone and 55 per cent of men in the same situation said they ate a lot of bread.
Sweden has Europe’s lowest average household size, with just 1.9 persons per household (Eurostat 2004). A contributory factor is the length of time Swedes wait to marry: at 30 years old for women and 32 for men, they are the oldest brides and grooms in Europe.
Growing old TOGETHER
Intentional Communities offer company and economy. The idea of sharing living space with non-family members has come in and out of architectural fashion since the nineteenth century. Post-revolutionary Soviet Russia was keen on the idea, and explored it in Moiseis Ginzburg’s social condenser Narkomfin, built in 1932, with its apartment block connected by an enclosed bridge to a block of collective facilities, including kitchens, crèches, a library and a gym. Le Corbusier acknowledged his debt to it for the Marseilles Unité, completed twenty years later, which incorporates shops, medical and educational facilities and a hotel - although unlike the Narkomfin it does allow residents their own kitchens. And Peter Behrens and Adolf Loos worked for Otto Wagner on Red Vienna’s gargantuan schemes. Although the last fifty years has seen bursts of enthusiasm for various forms of ‘intentional community’ in the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and elsewhere, the number of realized projects remains low. But the rise of one-person households might create the right conditions to look seriously at the idea again. For those who live alone by choice, it may seem paradoxical to suggest a form of sharing, but in many such communities self-contained households are maintained within a larger structure that allows each access to facilities that are not affordable individually, such as workshops or pools. A bigger driver, however, might be the alienation that many see as an intrinsic part of modern society, and which is exacerbated by living alone. “The alienation effects both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are produced by the inadequacies of the public realm and by the decline in family and other kinds of elective social structures,” says Professor Michael Sorkin, director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design
at the City College of New York. “It is a standard issue trope of modern era dystopias: there people are in these giant buildings, in China and the United States, and wherever those projects are built, reduced to a condition of universal subjectivity. Nobody knows who lives next door, everybody is forced to rely on an extremely limited number of shared services.” The lifestyle of New Yorkers in some ways resembles communitarian models – living in cellular arrangements and going out to eat en masse – but it would be a mistake to think that’s what was happening, Sorkin suggests. While the idea of communal or co-housing is to increase sociability and share the burden of domestic work, in New York it is time pressure and lack of space that cause people to rely on restaurants – a privatized social space in which one is made to feel welcome. “It has its advantages,” says Sorkin. “ You can get cheap food fast, but in terms of leisure-time affinities and the spiritual quality of breaking bread together, we’re losing a lot.” The creation of intentional communities according to shared interests is a long-established model. Religious and political communities have been joined by intentional communities based on sustainable lifestyles, sexuality or belief in a certain model of education. Some have a degree of economic collectivism, but many require no commitment to anything beyond a sense of community. That is the case with co-housing schemes around the world based on Danish architect Jan Gudmand Høyer’s work in the 1960s. Residents maintain separate households and do not share income but pool resources and have access to communal facilities. “It’s a fine model,” says Sorkin, “very nineteenth century in its roots. Lots of people would like to live in that kind of arrangement in the US but we have almost no production of such places.”
Co-housing developments and similar schemes avoid the high degree of coercion on the part of architects, planners or politicians that have caused many attempts at communal living to fail in the past. The number in existence remains low not least because of the difficulty of putting them together, but there is evidence of a demand for shared living spaces. The Kraftwerk1 mixed-use development in Zürich, designed by Stücheli Architekten and completed in 2001, was intended to provide spaces for a group of 15 to 20 people to rent, which could be subdivided to suit their needs and managed by the inhabitants, enabling a variety forms of communal and co-living. But the complex was designed to allow a very large degree of flexibility in its planning and the mix now includes single-person households, as well as family and other groups. Its organizers are in the process of establishing Kraftwerk2, a second development with an emphasis on young people. The current rise in the number of single-person households may increase demand further, whether for models in which a few facilities are shared, or arrangements like Kraftwerk that have a subtle political underpinning. Michael Sorkin observes that there would be nothing new or surprising in a reawakening of interest in these kinds of social structures – they are prefigured by the shared housing typologies and social organizations that arose to support the large numbers of single people who arrived in New York in the nineteenth century. “The number of people living in traditional nuclear family arrangements is declining steadily,” he concludes, “so it is certainly time for us to deepen our repertoire of models of affinity.”
For the senior citizen living alone, what happens when the stairs and the maintenance get too much? A reluctant move to the classic old people’s home to await the inevitable, in the company of strangers already halfway out the door? For many this is an unappealing prospect, and growing numbers are deciding to do something about it. With healthy, active old age lasting longer than ever across the developed world, new models of housing and community organization are being explored, often with an emphasis on communal living, that allow older people freedom and privacy with a degree of supervision and security. A recent study by the Faculty of Architecture at ETH Zürich of older people’s housing in Switzerland and Germany found a variety of types including self-organized communal living – where a group of older people elect to live together and design the housing to their own specifications – communities for the elderly in which people live within entirely self-contained homes, inter-generational housing schemes and various models of ‘assisted’ or ‘serviced’ living, sometimes attached to the classic old people’s home.
care’, and accommodation in the light- and heavy-care sectors. The apartments for sale are separately located, making it possible for their owners to get limited medical support without feeling like residents of a care home. The accommodation is separated into six round towers, with owner-occupied apartments in free-standing towers grouped around an open courtyard. The towers of the care complex are connected by a shared programme on the ground floor, including recreational rooms, offices, examination rooms, a cafe, restaurant and shops. The six towers are tied together by shared spaces and protected areas. “We have put social housing together with long stay homes for the seriously ill,” says architect Don
Murphy, “so that a couple does not have to be separated. One of the partners can live in a normal home very close to the other, so they can have breakfast together, do daily things together, but have completely separate accommodation.” While such living arrangements are available to, and chosen by, a minority; according to the ETH report, less than one per cent of senior citizens in Basel live in self-organized communal housing, although a quarter respond positively to the idea. Their number may rise in line with the demographic shift that sees an ageing population across the developed world.
Azieweg in Haarlem, The Netherlands, designed by VMX Architects and due for completion in 2009.
At Saint-Gall in Switzerland for example, four women over fifty, all living alone, were inspired by a newspaper article about a new Zürich residence for singles to organize their own 17-unit communal housing block, designed by architect Bruno Dürr of Archplan. The name of the project – Wohnfabrik Solinsieme – derives from the Italian for ‘alone’ and ‘together’. Units between 56 and 93 square metres are supplemented by several common rooms, including a bar, guest rooms and studios for wood and metal working. The former embroidery factory is now home to fourteen women and seven men ranging in age from 38 to 67 - including architect Bruno Dürr. Not all the residents of Wohnfabrik Solinsieme will be able to live out their whole lives there – it has no medical facilities. But other developments for older residents allow a transition through degrees of dependence as the need for care increases. The Dutch practice VMX has designed a number of complexes of apartments combined with care facilities for elderly people at Schalkwijk, Haarlem. The programme includes apartments for sale, rental apartments for seniors needing ‘extramural
Viewpoint: Jan Gehl
The marked change in our public space is evidence of singles’ impact on cities. Kraftwerk1 in Zürich, designed by Stücheli Architekten The ‘hyperindividualization’ of Korean society is a central consideration in Seoul Commune 2026, a highly detailed investigation by architect Minsuk Cho into the viability of an alternative community structure in overpopulated cities of the future. Adapting the locally popular model of towers in the park, it places emphasis on the integration of the public (the park) and the private (the towers) to encourage social interaction. Fifteen towers ranging from 16 to 53 floors function like ‘one giant house’. Accommodation is divided between purely private rooms, called ‘cells’, and communally-used spaces. The project also recognizes the way in which technology is changing the relationships between people, allowing new forms of community to organize themselves. In the Seoul Commune, digital technologies would be used to monitor public spaces, and to select and reserve common rooms for particular activities – itself a form of social interaction.
There is a flavour of the sixties in Brendeland & Kristoffersen’s Svartlamoen housing in Trondheim, Norway. The area had been squatted by a group of punks, artists and writers for nearly 30 years by the time the city authorities rezoned it for housing. Having won the right to be involved, the squatters appointed the architects to design two buildings that place more emphasis on public space than private. There are small private bedrooms but large group rooms, including kitchens. One building has five flats, each shared by a collective of five or six people; the other has six one-room flats. Rents are low and density is high by Norwegian standards. Photo: Geir Brendeland.
LEARNING FROM STUDENTS Much of the architectural thought currently going into sharing space is in student residences, which might present a model for a wider constituency of young singles. “Loneliness and lack of social relations are major problems for many students,” says the Danish practice aart of its Bikuben student residence in Copenhagen. “The residence provides the framework for the study years and improves the possibilities of a community spirit emerging in a widespread social network.” Common and private rooms are connected in a double spiral around an atrium, encouraging residents to consider the entire building as their home. Another project by the architects develops the theme. Residents of Berg – Campus of the Future will again be deliberately encouraged to use the whole of the complex by the way it is planned. Each of the five accommodation blocks houses a different communal facility such as the laundry or assembly hall, which gives residents “ample opportunity to use the whole area as their home and creates the possibility for chance social encounters – at the same time allowing students to retreat and concentrate on their studies.” Bikuben student residence designed by aart.
Advertisers, says Jan Gehl, seem not to recognize the demographic shifts that have occurred in recent decades. “Advertisements for cereals always show sunshine coming in through the window, and father, mother and 2.6 kids. But that represents less than a quarter of households,” he says. Anyone studying the city, however, cannot fail to have noticed its effect. “In the area of public realm,” he explains, “we have seen a trend towards public life being leisure-time oriented – more leisure activities take place in there. In the past the public realm was used with more purpose, for what we call A to B activities – hurrying to work, going to school. Now it is used for having a cappuccino, lingering. We take it as a sure sign that in this world, if you want a social life you have to go outside. You cannot just interact via the internet; you have to meet in public space. The simplest way is to go to a corner cafe - you don’t need membership. You can take in a bit of the life of the city then go back to your abode. There’s a distinct increase in this kind of use of cities.” Indeed, Gehl has attempted to quantify the phenomenon, using measures such as the quantity of outdoor seating in cafes. In Copenhagen, where more than half of all households contain just one person, “everyone said it is too cold to linger outside, but the number has gone from zero to over 7000 in 40 years. The picture is the same in all the cities we have studied, from Melbourne to Philadelphia. There is a new way of being in the city which is all to do with the economy, with increased leisure over the course of a lifetime, and demographics. Now you have no ‘purpose’ in being in the city, we have invented a new purpose. We can make one cup of coffee last three hours – that’s the ‘legal
excuse’ for being in town for a long period of time without sitting on a bench looking suspicious.” Is this positive for cities? “Not necessarily positive,” he laughs, “but we shouldn’t be moralistic about it. It is young people who are able to leave home earlier, divorced people in middle age and the elderly singles. Demographics and economic prosperity have also played a significant role in reshaping the city, says Gehl. “In Copenhagen the average 100 years ago was ten square metres of living area per person. Now it is 60 square metres, so there are fewer people living in each building. And in addition regulations about how we should have green spaces, or to protect against fire, place buildings further apart from each other. The census shows that in each district there are just a ninth of the number of people who lived there 100 years ago. We are more loose fit.” Consequently, more single people find themselves living in some form of suburban setting, increasing the importance of places to meet. “Not only are they alone in the dwelling, but they are spread out in the landscape,” Gehl explains. They want to meet for different reasons, however – companionship, romance, community building. Can one form of public realm provide for this? “That has been the case throughout the history of humankind,” says Gehl. “The same places where you hurry to work or school are also the places you go when your doctor tells you to take exercise. Young men can go to sit in a cafe to watch girls, and the elderly can go to the same place and look at the scenery. The basic activities take place side by side in good public spaces.” Although he
points to some successful public spaces designed with a high degree of specialization, such as sports facilities, generally different groups will find their own niches: “In Copenhagen there are certainly places where we have greater numbers of older or younger people. We have 18 squares and there has been some division of use not by design but by culture or habit. Greenlanders from the former Danish colony hang out in a certain square, and Africans hang out in the corner of another square.” The high proportion of people living alone in city centres does result in fewer of the traditional forums in which people meet. “The old fabric of people coming to know each other through kids playing is not there.” Architectural schemes are regularly published that propose interventions in the public realm intended to engineer or foster chance encounters as a way of combating isolation. Gehl is suspicious of such strategies. The key to successful public spaces, he says, is to not to ‘overdo’ the design: “For the public realm itself I would go for simple, high quality solutions which cater for everything. And then next to the public domain can be places, like cafes, that cater for specific groups.”
Jan Gehl is an architect, founding partner of Gehl Architects and professor emeritus of Urban Design at the School of Architecture, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He has consulted on city centres from Adelaide to Zürich and his publications include ‘Life Between Buildings – Using Public Space’ and ‘New City Life’.
According to Euromonitor International, in the world’s forty largest economies, the number of single-person households increased by some 12 per cent to 183 million between 2001 and 2006. Over that period, nine countries recorded 20 per cent and over growth in numbers of singleton households – Vietnam, India, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, China, South Korea and Spain.
Unmarried female homebuyers now comprise 20 per cent of the market in the US, according to the Joint Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
Viewpoint: Paul Monaghan
Gestures large and small add quality to high-density apartment buildings.
Compact homes – small but perfectly formed? Intending to boost downtown densities, Los Angeles City Council has passed zoning changes allowing smaller apartments than ever before – as little as 23 square metres. Opposition to the move came not only from middle-class homeowners fearing an influx of the poor, but from landuse experts questioning whether there was any demand for dwellings that small, and from concerned onlookers who believed they were seeing a return to the overcrowded tenements and Single Room Occupancy hotels that have been largely banished from American cities in recent years. “Do these units include a people-sized exercise wheel?” asked one blogger. “A people-chow pellet hopper? How about a wall-mounted water bottle and drinking tube. These aren’t apartments, they’re people kennels.” Compact housing is provocative in the city that defined sprawl. “It’s like anything new,” says architect Richard Horden, whose own micro-compact home has generated similar disbelief. “Most people pooh-pooh the idea – like the fridge or the car when they first appeared – but it appeals to curious people who are interested in pushing their minds.” Horden’s own work in ‘micro architecture’ began in 1996, when he took up a teaching post at the Technical University of Munich. From that programme emerged a variety of extremely compact dwellings including the micro-compact home, a minimal ‘instrument for living’ with a floor area of less than seven square metres. Horden himself lives in one when in Germany. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “It is a tremendous relief not to have a normal-sized apartment. You don’t have to splash out on posters or light fittings. You have exactly what you need.” The appeal of a solitary life in a small space might be lost on those living in correctional facilities, but it continues to exert
a powerful hold over artists and writers. Yeats dreamed of building a cabin at Inisfree where he might live alone in the bee-loud glade; Thoreau, who actually did take himself off to a 14-square-metre cabin on Walden Pond, was a jubilant advocate of self-denial: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.”
England and Wales are the only countries in Europe without minimum space standards and perhaps consequently they build the smallest dwellings in Europe. Over the last ten years catering to a boom in one- and two-bed apartment building, British architects have become highly proficient in negotiating the regulations that do exist to squeeze the maximum out of compact apartments. London’s development plan calls for 32 per cent of new housing to be one-bedroom apartments, addressing an explosion in the number of people living alone, who are expected to account for over 70 per cent of new households over the next 20 years.
The idea of frugality and seclusion as new luxuries comes across in many compact housing projects. While compact homes are more resource-efficient than many other housing types, the tattered banner of functionalism is rarely raised by miniature dwelling projects. Rather, the attractions are sold as personal fulfilment. Finnish architect Sami Rintala describes his prototype 19-square-metre Boxhome as an ‘urban cave’ – somewhere to escape the intensity of the city. The pleasures of excess are illusory, suggests Rintala; in order to enjoy them we have to forget the cost of our culture of consumption. The compact home is an aid to living with restraint. The reality of compact living is not for everyone, of course: keen party-givers might want to consider another option. And some miniature dwellings are impractical for full-time living. “Not a square centimetre wasted!” exclaimed Le Corbusier of the 16-square-metre Cabanon holiday home, his smallest ‘machine for living in’. “A little cell at human scale where all functions were considered.” He ate at the cafe next door. But for a wide range of people, from busy young urbanites who return home only to sleep to those who find in small spaces a monk-like liberation from the distractions of the world, the minimal dwelling might be more than merely adequate.
The portfolio of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris contains housing projects ranging from subsidized apartments for low-wage public sector workers to private apartments for sale in the most expensive areas of London, but the common denominator in all of them is the pressure on space. In much of the recent one-bedroom apartment buildings in the city, says AHMM’s Paul Monaghan, architectural freedom in planning is restricted – apartments need the usual complement of rooms, with the most efficient arrangement producing a form that is becoming standard across the city: around 40 square metres with the entrance lobby, bathroom and kitchen at the back, and the bedroom and an open-plan living room with a balcony to the front.
Starting with the site rather than the design of the apartments caused a number of compact housing schemes in Manchester to fail before the Abito development was successfully completed last year, according to Gavin Elliott of architects BDP. Instead, the standard 35-square-metre Abito apartment, with a central prefabricated pod containing basic utilities and a fold-away bed, was developed before a site was found. The first development of 264 apartments is now being followed by two more Abito schemes in the north-west of England.
The primary consideration is cost, with an extra five or ten square metres adding up to thirty per cent to the sale price. “And then,” says Monaghan, “single people couldn’t afford to buy them, it would be couples. To make them affordable is everything.” Where there is scope for architectural intervention is in the margins of the plan, and in the form and character of the building overall. The practice recently completed the first phase of Barking Central, a mixeduse development with 240 flats above a library and educational facility, which lays down an urban grain and density in an east London suburb. Its 150 one-bed flats have a standard plan, which is being adapted for a neighbouring block currently under construction: “I’m interested in how to make minute moves on that basic plan,” says Monaghan. “In the one bedroom apartments of the second building we’ve manipulated the accessibility regulations so that you walk into a hall that is open-plan with the kitchen and the living room, rather than a lobby. It needs a special fire alarm system but it makes a big difference, the apartment feels a lot bigger.” The micro-compact home designed by Richard Horden. Photo: Sascha Kletzsch.
If the apartments are small, the private amenity spaces and surrounding public space go some way to compensating for it. At Barking residents have two large communal terraces. “That’s how these projects can work, otherwise it gets a bit too claustrophobic,” says Monaghan. Circulation is another area where there is scope for grand spatial events but this puts pressure on the economy. “By the nature of cellular one-person apartments it’s not very efficient to have five of them around a staircase and a lift - you need more like twenty of them,” says Monaghan. “But we try to do the communal parts with a bit of joy, which might involve getting an artist involved.” At another of the practice’s recent apartment buildings, Adelaide Wharf, double-height entrance gateways are clad in red and yellow vitreous enamel, which is extended to individually coloured mail boxes. The occupants of the Barking building are predominantly young – “excited about the arboretum planted next to the building and the library underneath where they can get DVDs”. The building even has a full-time events co-ordinator. But early experience in design for single people taught Monaghan not to make assumptions about demographics. Ten years ago the practice designed CASPAR - City Apartments for Single People at Affordable Rents – a development of one-bedroom apartments of a type almost unknown at the time. “At first we made the assumption that single people were 21, straight from university,” he says. “But in fact the mix of tenants ranges from widowed retirees to people in their mid-50s who just got divorced to young people. That made us think: ‘There is something in this’. People were so happy to be living there because until then one bedroom flats meant terrible conversions in 100-year old houses.”
Paul Monaghan co-founded the architectural practice Allford Hall Monaghan Morris in 1989 and is a visiting professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Based in London, the practice is involved in housing, education and commercial architecture.
The Single Hauz by Polish practice Front Architects is a specific response to the growing number of people living alone. Perched on a single column, it is a celebration of isolation, a recognition that being alone is to be treasured, not feared. The architects imagine that the 27-square-metre house, inspired by billboards, could be sited almost anywhere.
A recent apartment building designed by Kumiko Inui responds to a specific urban condition, extracting the maximum number of dwellings from a tight 48-square-metre urban site in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. The five units, each 25 square metres, are layered on top of each other, with floor plans alternating between C-shaped and O-shaped, the position of the core shifting by changing the position of the stairs between floors. Photo: Daici Ano. Boxhome, designed by Sami Rintala. Photo: Ivan Brodey.
Adelaide Wharf, designed by AHMM
According to research carried out at University College London, people living in households of four or more each produce 1000 kilogrammes of waste every year, while those living alone are responsible for 1600 kilogrammes.
SPIRAL STEP HOUSE A townhouse in Amsterdam. Several bikes are parked behind ornamental steel gates nearly four metres tall. Upstairs, on the first floor, a couple of people are working at desks in a large studio. At one end, a third person has stepped out onto a small balcony for some air. At the other, two steps lead up to the first of a series of platforms that spiral up through the house forming a sequence of linked, informally defined spaces; some are arranged for reading or studying, others for eating, others have chairs pulled together in cosy little groups. The giant stair winds its way around a slanting spine wall, past another balcony and a large kitchen where lunch for four is on the stove, up into a grand double-height volume on whose cascade of terraces remains the evidence of last night’s party. And tucked away at a desk in the one modestly-sized bedroom is the single person who lives here, alone. Over half of all households in Amsterdam contain just one person, but on completion next year, Spiral Step House will be the first designed specifically for a single lifestyle, rather than simply for one person. And it projects an image at odds with most representations of the single-person household: that those who live alone might be social but have a life that revolves around the home rather than the cafe, and that they might even have someone to stay for the night once in a while – there are two basins in the single bathroom. The caricature of singles as poor sad people, fated never to receive the blessing of children and live lonely lives on the margins of the community is a relic of a more morally authoritarian age, says Gijs Bakker of droog, the prime mover behind the development of Spiral Step House. “Times have changed. Singles have rich lives, have children, have fun, but choose not to live together.” Bakker first started thinking seriously about the lives of single people three years ago, when he asked the students of Droog’s IM Master programme at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and students of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea to look at new products for this burgeoning population that were not merely cut-down versions of existing devices, but new ideas tailored to a new way of living. Some were practical – a keyholder that won’t let you lock the front door if you’ve forgotten your key (who’s going to let you back in?), and some sought new opportunities for fun and pleasure, such as a table mat that doubles as a novel, with a new page to be torn off each day. The idea is fanciful but the intent is serious: mealtimes alone are a different kind of occasion. The question of what a house for a single person might be occurred to Bakker early on, but it took Droog’s collaboration with two other parties – Dutch housing association Ymere and Japanese architects Atelier Bow Wow – to make it a reality. It is rare that architectural projects beginning life in this kind of conjectural way make the leap into reality, and the building will continue to have a dual role as a house and test bed for an idea about housing - what Momoya Kaijima of Atelier Bow Wow describes as a “hypothesis” that will be tested by life and the market. A separate research programme by Ymere, conducted simultaneously with the development of Spiral Step House, polled 600 singles in Amsterdam to assess what forms of housing and locations might suit their needs. It identified four types: the first, which Ymere’s Elly de Boer dubs ‘Harmony’, are people for whom friends and family are of paramount importance, and for whom living around a courtyard with opportunities for neighbourliness and spontaneous meetings might be appropriate. ‘Homebodies’ who love privacy might value the anonymity of tower-block living. The ‘Challenge’ type grabs life with both hands, greedy to experience everything urban life has to offer. They want to live in established districts in the centre of the city, in a building with history. And the ‘Self-willed’ single is typically entrepreneurial, often in a creative occupation, ambitious and culturally voracious. It is this type at whom Spiral Step House is aimed. Developing housing according to lifestyle concepts is a significant move for the housing industry. Assessing need and desire not on the basis of whether people are single or in a couple, young or old but according to cultural preferences, values and
Viewpoint: Don Murphy Singles are changing the shape of the city.
everyday behaviour should provide a variety to match the enormous diversity in household types.
develop a degree of intimacy with unrelated people who share their space a little like families do in single-family houses.
“There are more times in life now where you live alone,” says de Boer, “but the flexibility of people’s living arrangements is not matched by the fixed nature of most market-led housing. Traditionally most housing projects start with a location, but now we start with people and the way they live.” So how is a single lifestyle manifested in built form at Spiral Step House?
Likewise, the spiralling platforms that give the house its spatial and programmatic character are a solution to an ageold Dutch problem: with limited plot sizes – Spiral Step House occupies a relatively generous area five by 12.8 metres – circulation eats significantly into usable space. Here, all circulation is usable. Indeed, architect Momoyo Kaijima prefers not to call the spiralling platforms a stair at all, talking instead about a sequence of distinctive spaces whose distinct qualities are a spur to the imagination of the inhabitant – an interior landscape of possibility.
Some things are the same as any other house, inevitably. The rebuilt nineteenth-century façade is, as Bakker says “rooted in familiar experience – the house in the street.” Others aspects are more unusual – not least the soundproof room that is a hangover from an earlier scheme for a house shared by two singles but which Bakker, an ardent classical music fan, has come to regard as essential in a dense urban environment. As drawn, the house allows one modestly sized bedroom and one bathroom – at this end of the market even a house for a couple might have two – and will be offered at the end of 2009, fully equipped by Droog with furniture and products appropriate to the target occupant. Where most cookie-cutter developments simply subtract bedrooms from an established model to cater for a particular demographic cohort, Spiral Step House questions each aspect of the house based on the initial principles. And it is striking that approaching the question of the house from a different starting point – the lifestyle of a particular type of single person - has generated architectural ideas that may be much more widely applicable (indeed it was for an outsiders’ perspective that Bakker recruited Japanese rather than Dutch architects). The designers envisage that this will be a live/work environment, meaning that there will often be people other than the occupant in the house. There is what Momoya Kaijima describes as a “hierarchy of spaces from top to bottom, from the intimate to a more open condition lower down the house,” but it is notable that the bedroom and bathroom, for example, are on different floors, suggesting that the single might
Single-person households are now the most common type in Japan, following a rise that saw them account for 20 per cent of the total in 1980 to 30 per cent in 2006. It is anticipated that 37 per cent of households will comprise just one person by 2030.
There is a common assumption when housing for single people is discussed that city centre apartments and studios are a universal norm. In fact research among people living alone in the UK, for example, shows that over a third are unwilling even to consider living in an apartment. Despite the evidence of demand, it takes a developer of sufficient scale and with a particular outlook to consider the problem afresh. Ymere is a housing association and real-estate developer with 82,500 properties on its books, formed in 2008 from the merger of two housing associations nearly a century old. Social housing remains the core business, and while Ymere develops real estate on a commercial basis, it retains a social agenda – profits are reinvested in the fabric of the city – and can therefore allow itself the freedom of thought and action required to pursue a project like this one. Concern for the city as a whole is a central motivation, and healthy cities need to attract and retain a wide diversity of people, suggests de Boer; this house is aimed at a member of what Richard Florida calls the wealth-generating ‘creative class’. But Spiral Step House is not, in terms of its precise dimensions, a provision of spaces or projected use, intended to be a model for single-person housing. Rather, it is a lesson in how to think about housing. “Because the house is so big, it will only be suitable for a very small part of the market,” says de Boer. “But for us, it is a trigger to focus on single living. Single people are the future of cities.”
A conundrum – how can a city be shrinking yet growing at the same time? The answer is single-person households, says Amsterdam-based architect Don Murphy. “In the Netherlands we are constantly building housing, and have been doing so for the last 50 years,” he explains. “We try to build 100,000 units a year. At the moment, for example, we are building a huge Amsterdam extension area called IJburg. And the question is often asked: ‘where do all these people come from?’ Now the city itself hasn’t grown in population. In fact it has shrunk.” But more single-person households demands more space, and the inhabitants of those households want even more. “They are not satisfied with 25 square metres which is the normal amount of space you’d have for a person if you are sharing – a family of four might normally have 120 square metres. Single people tend to have a minimum of 75 square metres but they want 100 or 200 square metres. Maybe it will change with the energy crisis but up till now the problem has been how to create bigger and bigger dwellings.” This desire for more living space is making the city far less dense. The social issues that such a change might create are not a significant issue in the Netherlands, says Murphy, but what are the implications for resources? “Of course they want all the facilities that you would normally share with more people, like washing machines, fridges, ovens, bedrooms and workrooms - and nowadays you see the trend that people want to have two ovens and two fridges and two dishwashers.” Coupled with the outward pressure caused by the pressure for more and more space is an ‘inward pressure’ as many single people want to live centrally. In Amsterdam, says Murphy, the solution has been to redefine the centre. “The centre is no longer just circular – it’s linear. And it’s in particular areas. So for instance the city calls IJburg ‘Amsterdam’, although it’s outside the ring and other areas outside the ring are not called Amsterdam. They’re pulling the centre along a line.” Stretching the ‘centre’ gives more people
the opportunity to live ‘centrally’. But, says Murphy, IJburg is essentially suburban. “We designed an apartment building there with a lift so you could park your car on the floor that you live. And that was based on the idea that in suburbia you can park outside your front door. But the city insists that it is ‘Amsterdam’.” Car elevators aside, there is little interest within the Netherlands in trying alternative housing forms that might reduce the pressure on space, Murphy has found. For the most part, even simple sharing arrangements are resisted. “In Switzerland it is common that you have a laundry room with a washer and a dryer that residents of an apartment building would share. In the Netherlands it’s impossible. We keep trying to do that, we say ‘how often do you need to do your laundry?’ But still single person households want their own laundry room, their own washer, their own dryer – everything that a traditional family would have.” It is in the provision of facilities outside those that might ordinarily be found in a single-family home that Murphy has experienced a greater willingness to share – integrated balconies and access galleries allowing more contact between neighbours in the case of an apartment building for older people in Rotterdam, or a shared landscape and communal room privately commissioned by a group of households in Almere. And he points to a growing number of self-initiated communities, such as an apartment building containing twelve elderly gay men and women who choose to live next to each other while maintaining fully-functional, self-contained homes. In terms of housing, says Murphy, the trend might be towards insularity, but offset to some degree by the emergence of communities of choice: “You choose to live in a particular community; the community doesn’t come organically from living in a city.” Don Murphy formed VMX Architects, based in Amsterdam, after winning the Europan 3 competition. A graduate of the Berlage Institute, he has taught there and at the Academie van Bouwkunst Tilburg. His projects include work in housing, education and healthcare.
S1ngletown is a Droog and KesselsKramer project. KesselsKramer is a communications agency based in Amsterdam. Droog is a conceptual design company based in Amsterdam. EDITOR: Chris Foges CONCEPT & ART DIRECTION Droog (Renny Ramakers, Agata Jaworska) KesselsKramer (Christian Bunyan, Jennifer Skupin) S1ngletown exhibition & PRODUCTION Studio bijlbuschmann ( Jeroen Bijl, Roland Buschmann) KesselsKramer (Marla Ulrich) Exhibition photography: Liz Hingley CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org www.s1ngletown.org
The 2006 USA Census shows that America’s 89.6 million singles head over half of America’s households, with some 57 per cent under 45. But China has now overtaken the USA in terms of numbers of single-person households.
In South Korea, 40 per cent of 30-year-olds are single, compared with 14 per cent only 20 years ago.
SAFETY BUTTON. IS a way for elderly singles at home to easily alert
NANNOLO. IS a stylish teddy bear for single grown-ups - hug it and
MESSY. IS a wardrobe designed for people who like to throw their
MADE by manufacturers around the world.
MADE by Fucina – Martina Albasini.
MADE by Borikbasarinci – Ezgi Tuzun & Ozan Tuzan.
www.borikbasarinci.com email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
the emergency services.
never sleep alone.
clothes, instead of tidily folding them.
A JACKET FOR LONELY PEOPLE. IS a jacket made of velcro strips. Lonely singles walk around their city, hoping to bump into someone else with the same jacket. On contact, the two jackets connect, creating an instant social situation. MADE by COMPANY – Aamu Song & Johan Olin. www.com-pa-ny.com email@example.com
SAFETY SHADE. IS a cost-effective device designed to help singles living
alone feel safer. It fools would-be criminals into thinking that there’s more than one resident at home. MADE by mkodama design – Mino Kodama. www.mkodama.com firstname.lastname@example.org
CONTACT TABLES. IS a pair of tables that transmit images to each other via
LED-based, touch-screen-like technology. Use your finger to draw on one of the tables, then hit ‘send’ to wirelessly transmit the message to the other, potentially remote table. The set helps couples living apart feel like they’re together. MADE by Shared Emotions – Marinus van Diggelen & Philippe Soeters. www.sharedemotions.com email@example.com
COZY CHAIR. IS a chair which negates the need to heat an entire room. Instead, heat is only available where warmth is actually used. MADE for droog by SMAQ – Andreas Quednau & Sabine Müller. www.smaq.net firstname.lastname@example.org
SHARED FENCE. IS a divider that doesn’t just divide; it opens up social contact between neighbours.
MADE for droog by NEXT Architects. www.nextarchitects.com email@example.com
CASULO. IS a complete set of room furniture that can be set up in less
than ten minutes. No tools necessary. It is standardized for shipping, allowing global opportunists a maximum level of flexibility. MADE by Casulo – Sebastian Mühlhäuser & Marcel Krings. www.mein-casulo.de firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
WEARE. IS a scarf created by the public. A screen in the window of
the designer’s office displayed images submitted by individuals online. The resulting designs then became the pattern for the scarf. It’s fashion for one, made by the many.
SKY HIGH TABLE. IS a table with an in-built inflatable cushion. Press a button and the pillow appears, allowing you to take a quick powernap. It helps remind the workaholic single to disengage. MADE by Mathias Knigge. www.grauwert.info firstname.lastname@example.org
REINRAUS, INSTANT BALCONY DESIGN.
IS a balcony that can be hung out of a window, giving the single living in compact conditions a sense of freedom.
LOVE & SEX WITH ROBOTS.
IS a book exploring how people and robots could potentially forge romantic, sexual relationships. Perhaps the single of the future need never be lonely... if they’re willing to take a robotic partner. MADE by David Levy.
MARRY ME. IS a means of allowing singles to marry themselves, making
the ultimate commitment to the self before (possibly) finding someone else. MADE by Shen Ying.
MADE by Moving Brands – Ben Wolstenholme.
MADE by realities:united – Jan Edler & Tim Edler.
LIFE DRESS. IS a means of creating instant privacy in crowds. The wearer
ECHO. IS a stylish means of bringing quiet to your world. A necklace
MADE by AnnaMariaCornelia De Gersem.
MADE for Chi ha paura...? by Marko Macura.
LIGHT THAT PAYS ATTENTION. IS a home-lighting concept for the single. It saves energy by
STUHLHOCKERBANK. IS a piece that mixes definitions of different types of
IS a book that’s also a placemat. Aimed at the solitary diner, its pages can be torn away after every meal, leaving a fresh page for the next plate. It helps remove the need to make eating a social experience. MADE by Hans Tan.
activates air cartridges to inflate the skirt, turning it into a human-sized bubble.
of semi-soft silicon earplugs, it establishes an instant barrier of silence wherever you are.
HUGGING HANDS. IS a scarf that makes the wearer feel like they’re being hugged. MADE by Jennifer Skupin. email@example.com
following you around the room, only lighting what’s directly in front of you. MADE by Agata Jaworska. firstname.lastname@example.org
seating; chair, stool and bench. In this design, the three flow organically into one, promoting social moments between strangers.
MADE by FEHLING & PEIZ – Yvonne Fehling & Jennie Peiz. www.kraud.de email@example.com
SIMPLEDOUBLEDEUX. IS a single bed that becomes a double with the absolute
PUMP IT UP. IS a chair that is also a pet. The action of sitting inflates the
TABLE-FOR-ONE. IS a restaurant designed expressly for single people.
COFFEE + PHARMACY. IS a way to promote interaction between singles while they
MADE by Drexler Guinand Jauslin Architects.
MADE by Nacho Carbonell.
Once a week, the restaurant hosts “Random Date Night,” where customers pick a number and are randomly assigned to a table with another single.
MADE by James King.
minimum of fuss.
plastic pets, providing the single with instant company. When you get up, they deflate, ready to come alive for your next visit.
You dine at your own table, alone, lessening the pressure for restaurant dining to be a social experience.
MADE by droog & KesselsKramer.
wait for their prescriptions. The average wait for this service is 20 minutes- the ideal interval to have a latte and a chat.
NO, I’M NOT SINGLE.
YES, I’M SINGLE.
Published on Jan 2, 2011
Droog was invited by curator Aaron Betsky to participate in the Architectural Biennale in Venice, September 2008. Teaming up with Dutch comm...