Are residential spaces taking over the role of first, second, and third places?

  • Dwellings can be understood as the most significant and primary form of architecture, as the house is intimately related to the idea of shelter, one of humanity’s basic needs. In the words of architect Mario Botta, “As long as there is a man who needs a house, architecture will still exist.”
  • Yet, in spite of its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, an exact definition of a home is difficult to find.
  • Throughout history, different functions and spaces have been added and subtracted from this unit, reflecting directly the character of the society that produced it.

The list of expectations that a house has to fulfill is long and ever-evolving: to provide intimate and safe spaces where one can recharge their energy, but at the same time to allow for interaction, welcoming friends and family to join in; it is the purveyor of leisure and relaxation, but also the site of most labors of care, while also providing a small incubator for starting entrepreneurs. This tendency to demand a residential unit to fulfill multiple roles was heightened to unprecedented levels during the pandemic. Health concerns led to the closing of most workspaces, the second place where people spent most of their time, and of cafes, restaurants, cinemas, and malls, the “third places.” Suddenly, the home had to become an all-purpose space.

The term “third place” was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s. In his book, “The Great Good Place,” he talks about the public spaces where people can gather and set aside the concerns of home and work, their first and second places, in order to simply enjoy the company of others. These can be coffee houses, gyms, bookstores, bars, bistros, churches, hair salons, and many others. They are spaces where unstructured interaction can happen, with chance encounters and unexpected connections. While easily overlooked, these represent an essential element in the life of any community and its social infrastructure.

Architectural (Dis)Order / Corpo Atelier. Image © Alexander Bogorodskiy

In early 2020, social distancing measures imposed the closing of most of these spaces, forcing almost everybody to retreat to their first place, the home. Deprived of spaces that allow for spontaneous interactions, many people felt lonely and isolated. Some of the socially-engaging activities found a new expression online, a new type of “virtual third place.” Zoom meetings, online conferences, multi-player gaming platforms, and social media replaced physical interactions and serendipitous encounters. While this alleviated some of the shortcomings brought by the restrictions, these platforms can only provide a very structured and predetermined type of communication.

In terms of physical space, though, the home continued to be the repository of all of these activities, blurring the lines between the different chapters of life. Professional life saw a similar shift: work continued during the early stages of the pandemic, but the office building was replaced with living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms. The home became multifunctional, catering to all needs, even if in a limited capacity.

The situation shares some similarities with the complex role of homes before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the factory system. Then, a family shared their dwelling with servants, apprentices, and distant relatives, all sleeping, working, and eating in the same rooms. The industrial factory system imposed for the first time a clear separation between home and work. Hygienist principles of the Victorian era dictated additional separation, dividing the house into family and servant areas. Gradually, the home became understood as the place of the nuclear family, private, restricted, and separated from the outside. While the principle applied mainly to high-income households, popular European and American magazines of the 19th and early 20th century circulated the concept of home as a “place of Peace,” as expressed by Victorian philosopher John Ruskin in 1864.

Throughout history, the size and organization of homes have been slowly adapting to broader social changes and movements. In recent years, the size of newly built residential units has been decreasing in Europe and the United States. The shift can be attributed to the rising cost of living, the decline in homeownership rates, and the global housing crisis. However, the demand for functionality has not followed the same trend, as demonstrated by the growing interest in flexible furnishing systems for tiny homes and small spaces.

Appartement Spectral / BETILLON / DORVAL‐BORY. Image © BETILLON / DORVAL‐BORY

The crisis of the pandemic, however, introduced an abrupt, if temporary, change. With no time to adapt, homes had to multiply the roles they could fulfill. Since then, real estate reports also show an increasing interest in an ‘everything’ room, an easily adaptable space able to shift between roles such as a home office, an art studio, a dining or entertainment space, or almost anything else.

La Borda / Lacol. Image © Lluc Miralles

Although far from the norm, a number of co-living projects demonstrated an alternative to this scenario: instead of relying more on the personal dwelling, to expand to the space of the immediate surrounding. One such example is the La Borda project, a co-living building in Barcelona designed by the Lacol group. The cooperative housing scheme opened less than a year before Spain imposed strict restrictions and lockdowns. The project included several shared spaces, including a kitchen and dining area, a shared laundry space, a multipurpose area, as well as guest rooms and terraces. A report by The Guardian reveals how the tenants adapted to the harsh restrictions in early 2020: once they made sure that none of the occupants had Covid, the shaded spaces opened for use. The facilities provided by the development became a natural replacement for exterior “third places,” encouraging people to interact in an unstructured way, thus minimizing the sense of isolation and loneliness felt by many residents of conventional housing schemes. Now, after all of the restrictions have been lifted, two-thirds of the residents are meeting once a week for a shared dinner in the communal dining room.

Marmalade Lane Cohousing Development / Mole Architects. Image © David Butler

As the world changes in unexpected ways, it is a natural tendency to attempt to strengthen the role of private dwellings, as they often feel like the most secure and intimate locations available. However, a reliance on a community can prove to be equally, if not even more, resilient. ‘Third places’ respond to the human need to find comfort, security, and strength in the relationship with others. Diversifying the types of spaces we attend on a daily basis ensures a diversity of encounters and the exchange of ideas, bringing a sense of community, cohesion, and a more balanced lifestyle for all residents.

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This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.

 

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