Downsized homes, solo living, rapid urbanization: for various reasons, community centres are experiencing a revival – and offering myriad amenities to boot.

In December 2019, The New York Times published an extraordinary story about the mountain village of Nagoro in southern Japan. Population decline had struck Nagoro so hard that its residents – fewer than 30 adults – began making life-size dolls to make Nagoro feel livelier. Fake school children, construction workers, a teacher in front of a class and a father with his kids could all be found out and about in the village during an annual festival; the article reported the dolls outnumber the town’s living residents by more than ten to one.

This particular story is unique, but the population changes affecting Nagoro are not. In Japan and across the developed world is a whole collage of stories and reports on the emotional impacts of how we live today as a result of varying and interconnected demographic shifts, such as declining populations in certain rural areas and a rise in the number of people living alone in cities. A report by Our World in Data, based at the University of Oxford, highlights Stockholm, where 60 per cent of households consisted of one person in 2012, concluding that globally, ‘the current prevalence of one-person households is unprecedented historically’.

In addition, there has also been a significant focus on loneliness in recent years, most notably with the 2018 launch of a ‘loneliness strategy’ by the UK government, which aimed to treat the phenomenon as a health issue in order to reduce demand on the NHS. The strategy also promised £1.8 million to spend on new community spaces – although, in the face of simultaneous funding cuts of over £250 million to library services in the UK over the past decade, this seems like a paltry offering.

G-Lab, Bruges
A project by Tom Callebaut’s studio TC Plus, G-Lab combines the architect’s family home with communal spaces for the neighbourhood. Design cues let members of the public know when they’re welcome to enter the garden – and even parts of the interior. Designed with varying colour schemes and integrated furniture, rooms can be booked for different uses such as film screenings, meetings or social gatherings – all free of charge.
tc-plus.be


In recent years, new community centres have instead emerged in unlikely places outside of the traditional state provision of social services. G-Lab in Bruges, for example, is a project by Tom Callebaut’s studio TC Plus that combines the architect’s family home with communal spaces for the neighbourhood. Completed as part of his PhD research by design, G-Lab draws on years of experiments in architectural ‘generosity’ (the ‘g’ in G-Lab) and the dismantling of typical designed boundaries: inside/outside, public/private. Thus instead of a front gate, a silvery curtain creates a fluid barrier between the house’s front courtyard and the street. When the curtain is open, members of the public are welcome to enter the garden and even parts of the interior. Designed with varying colour schemes and integrated furniture, rooms can be booked for different uses such as film screenings, meetings or social gatherings – all free of charge. ‘I saw that people have a lot of fear and our houses are built starting from fear: “I don’t trust my neighbours; I’m afraid; I want to disconnect from the world”,’ says Callebaut. ‘I understand that in a way – it’s not a problem to have some disconnection. But I wanted to add another level and say that we can also use our house to connect.’ Since its completion in mid-2018, roughly 1,500 people have visited G-Lab and, according to Callebaut, nothing has been broken nor stolen.

In its blurring of domestic and communal space, G-Lab contributes to a global trend of urban ‘living rooms’: informal spaces that can be adapted for multiple and non-specific uses, and that can provide a place for the communal gatherings lacking in people’s lives. In Chengdu, central China, for example, property developer Vanke commissioned Shanghai-based architects Wutopia Lab to design Blue Heart, a living room with books, seating areas and basic cooking facilities located inside a shopping mall [Frame 131, p. 94]. With an interior characterized by slick white shelves and a blue spiral staircase, the project aims to provide space for local residents whose apartment blocks are not suitable for communal gatherings.

The Granville, London
A renovation of a London church hall by RCKa architects in collaboration with a local business trust, The Granville features workspaces for start-ups and small businesses as well as a community kitchen and facilities used by a children’s charity. As announced by its brightly painted exterior staircase, the living room is open to all.
rcka.co.uk


Back in Japan, we see a similar approach to adapting pre-existing infrastructure to meet new social requirements at the Shin-Fuji train station. Here, an interior by CMYK aims to turn the station into a place to spend time, rather than to just pass through. A staircase incorporating bench seating and reading lamps, for example, makes for a more pleasant waiting environment. Located in the centre of Fuji, the station forms an integral part of the ‘compact city’ development model being explored in Japan to counter the effects of an aging and declining population. Through its refurbishment with natural tones and soft touches, the station aims to act as a community resource that provides more than just transport.

Similarly, The Granville in Kilburn, north London, is a civic centre with a ‘living room’ as its spatial centrepiece. The project – a renovation of a formerly cluttered church hall by RCKa architects in collaboration with a local business trust – features workspaces for start-ups and small businesses as well as a community kitchen and facilities used by a children’s charity. As announced by its brightly painted exterior staircase, the living room is open to all. This was poignantly illustrated in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, when The Granville became a centre for gathering donations and providing free meals for those affected by the blaze.

The Granville in London became a centre for gathering donations and providing free meals for those affected by the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.


As Anthony Staples, associate at RCKa, points out, the role of the architect in these community-oriented projects can often be as much about negotiating between different stakeholders as it is about designing handsome hall refurbishments. ‘It’s really satisfying to be invited in by a community group to help them negotiate a complex system of property ownership and funding, and local and regional government, and then doing a sufficiently successful job so that they’re able to stay there in the long term after we’ve moved on,’ he explains. ‘That’s more gratifying than anything to do with the design.’


URBAN LIVING ROOMS
Market overview

01 Since the 1960s, the proportion of one-person households has more than doubled in many European countries and in Australia, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea and the US. As reported by independent consulting demographer Joseph Chamie for Inter Press Service, such households ‘generally face more difficulties when dealing with . . . social isolation and loneliness’.

02 While different cultures interpret the idea of spaciousness differently, square metres in desirable cities are at an even bigger premium as residents flock to urban centres. In a 2013 article entitled ‘Sustainable Communities? A Comparative Perspective on Urban Housing in the European Union’, Nessa Winston reported that one-third of households were dissatisfied with the amount of space in their home.

03 A rise in urban living means a drop in rural populations. In a 2017 article for Metropolitics, for example, Sophie Buhnik writes that although ‘it is expected that Tokyo’s city region might maintain slight growth until 2030 at least through positive net migration rates – both domestic and international – the rest of Japan is set to shrink, especially peripheral regions, where the number of inhabitants could fall by half’. Perhaps rural areas will adopt their own form of community living rooms in response.

04 According to 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Americans aged 60 and over are alone for more than half of their waking hours. At the time of data collection, the demographic accounted for 22 per cent of the US population, a figure predicted to rise to 26 per cent by 2030.

05 As published on Statista, the number of adults using sharing economy services in the US in 2016 (44.8 million) is expected to almost double by 2021. Urban living rooms are able to tap into this market by offering bookable spaces for activities outside of a resident’s daily routine, such as birthday parties or other social gatherings.

This New Typology article was originally featured in Frame 133. Get your copy here.