Manufacturing Solitude

The revelation of loneliness reframed

By Anastassia Smirnova

Most design efforts are aimed at combating loneliness through the creation of communal and shared spaces, rather than through improvement of quality in the experience of being alone.

— Anastassia Smirnova

Anastassia Smirnova, programme director at the Strelka Institute, co-founder of the SVESMI architecture office and member of the Future Architecture platform Advisory Board, looks at the very personal everyday apocalypse of loneliness and wonders about another human need: that of solitude. She suggests there is much to be learned from taking a different approach to both.

All solitude is selfish. No one now
Believes the hermit with his gown and dish
Talking to God (who’s gone, too); the big wish
Is to have people nice to you, which means
Doing it back somehow.
Virtue is social…

— Philip Larkin

“Giant Evil”

In 2017, the United Kingdom officially acknowledged that loneliness has become a national problem. Rachel Reeves, co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness appointed to research the issue, stated that “in the last few decades, loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic.” Recent surveys have revealed that indeed many Britons from a range of age groups and incomes are feeling lonely both at home and at work, which leads to multiple societal challenges and even damages the economy to the tune of 32 billion gbp per year, according to government figures. In January 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a new Minister for Loneliness. The Jo Cox Commission remains active, showing determination to combat this “giant evil” and encouraging public discussion and recognition of the dire consequences of this crisis.

By comparison, other Western countries seem to be less concerned with the isolation of their citizens or, at least, do not recognise the problem as being of particular importance. However, the idea that the neoliberalist world order in general is disconnecting, disengaging and isolating humans from each other, is one that continues to resurface. Critics of free market capitalism often link the inequality and competition that this political and economic system generates, with the growing numbers of disillusioned and lonely individuals.

Whether neoliberalism is indeed inherently destructive at an individual level or not, there are certain modern tendencies – such as increased mobility and the proliferation of social media – that, despite many positive effects, also weaken traditional social ties and prompt further atomisation of human hives. The prospect of our promised automated future with its proliferation of machines replacing humans is not much brighter. The bliss of singularity may make the world a better-connected place, but it will probably make it a very lonely one too.

Houses for Being Alone

Contemporary designers and architects have their ways of addressing this issue. We usually feel obliged to design socially engaging spaces. For any project today, no matter what the programme of the building is, it is almost obligatory to spell out “openness”, “community feel”, and “shared services”. It is a mantra that seems to guarantee public recognition and buy-in into a developer’s plan. More and more people in all stages of the lifecycle feel lonely, we are told, but most of the design efforts are aimed at combating loneliness through the creation of communal and shared spaces, rather than through improvement of quality in the very experience of being alone.

Is it possible to turn loneliness into productive solitude through spatial organisation and programming? Could architects do anything about this “giant evil” apart from offering projects of optimistic collectivism and communal rhetoric? These questions are not easy to answer. Architects do not often voluntarily design for solitude and isolation – unless they get a commission for a high security facility. It seems too risky, too irresponsible towards society and also too insignificant a task in the greater scheme of things. How many great modern spaces for being alone can one name? Louis Barragan’s own house, which he turned into an eremitic architectural lab; Le Corbusier’s Cabanon; Marcel Breuer’s designs for monastic cells at the St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota…
To be honest, not many examples spring to mind.

Others, for instance Ryue Nishizawa’s seminal Moriyama House – a collection of cube-rooms commissioned by a lonely music connoisseur – are usually accompanied by defensive narratives. The authors, and even their most devoted commentators, feel obliged to rehabilitate such endeavours. Thus, the famous documentary Moriyama‑San by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine (2005) tells the story of Mr. Moriyama’s retreat in the centre of Tokyo in a way that attempts to prove that it is not what it seems: the owner is not a true urban recluse after all (there are tenants in his distributed house) and the house itself is better integrated into the neighbourhood (people know who lives there) than the project images suggest.

The Israeli-French artist and sculptor Absalon is probably the most inquisitive creative mind of the last decades who has vigorously and consistently experimented with spaces for solitude. In 1992, he completed a whole set of measurements corresponding to everyday routines – eating, sleeping, working, washing, etc. – and, in 1993, began building a collection of individual cells for solitary living in Tokyo, New York, Tel Aviv, Paris, Zurich and Frankfurt. With this project he challenged the prevailing discourse of community-oriented urban life. His so-called Cellules are currently on display in various art museums, often described in his own words as “bastions of resistance against a society that prevents me from becoming what I must become”.

“Is it possible to turn loneliness into productive solitude through spatial organisation and programming?”

It is, of course, easy to brand Absalon as a stray rebel and his efforts marginal: he always readily acknowledged that he designed the cells only for himself, no matter how prototypical they were. But what has been explained by museum professionals as a unique artistic experience could perhaps become an important part of every primary school programme – each individual from a very young age probably should search for his or her own formula for a productive space for being alone.

Even an architect who claims to be independent from universal trends and interested only in the very core issues of architectural profession, Peter Zumthor, has taken rather an evasive stance on spaces for solitary existence. His Bruder Klaus Field Chapel (2007) in Germany is a tiny sanctum/monastic cell in the middle of a field that was in fact designed for no dweller at all. It is a privately-commissioned symbolic monument to a fifteenth century hermit, who is also a patron saint of Switzerland and whose real cell and chapel still exist near Lucerne.

A small-scale mecca for architectural students and a handful of catholic nomads, the Field Chapel may be offering solace, but it only prompts you to marvel – for the duration of the visit – at how productive spiritual isolation could have been in the past. It tells almost nothing about what its contemporary equivalent could be and for what purpose it could have been created today. Paradoxically enough, since it is a publicly accessible monument to a historical figure, the very purpose of the place is to attract visitors; therefore, the better it works, the less chance you have to be left alone there.

Public / Private

In countries, such as Russia, that are very slowly recovering from the trauma of forced collectivism and whose citizens are enjoying their very relative privacy after decades of surviving under the eye of Big Brother, living alone – on your own – has always been considered an utmost luxury. Even during the time of feverish construction of mass housing under Khrushchev’s rule, when thousands of families finally got out of barracks and communalkas and into their own homes, apartments for one remained in huge deficit. For socialist planners, people interested in living alone were, by definition, pariahs.

“Each individual from a very young age probably should search for his or her own formula for a productive space for being alone.”

Manufacturing Solitude

Libraries always provided the high-quality solitude in public. Dostoyevsky Library in Moscow at night.
Project by SVESMI.
Image: Frans Parthesius

Apart from much esteemed trips out to “nature”, the only true possibilities for productive solitary moments in urban Soviet Russia were offered by public spaces such as museums and libraries. Despite being mostly pretty crowded, these institutions helped to create a bubble of anonymity around each visitor, allowing for the focused privacy in silence that citizens were deprived of elsewhere. For the generations of students and researchers who grew up under non-democratic regimes, a table for one with a lamp at the public library remained a spatial formula of individual freedom and a strong cultural meme.

“You feel lonely because you were never taught how to be without others.”

In our overly-busy world, the border between public and private spheres (and between public and private space) is being actively redrawn. Today, public space accommodates more and more activities that used to be understood as purely domestic. We tend to dwell publicly, opening up our private realm to all kinds of external intrusions; we constantly share things, images, thoughts, spaces, services, etc. with others. How does all this openness correspond to growing numbers of lonely humans, especially young people? Is there a correlation at all? Can we maybe assume that this merging of public and private domains – albeit voluntary – has some of the effects that collective existence once had on the citizens of Communist countries? You feel lonely, because you are never properly alone. You feel lonely because you were never taught how to be without others – disconnected and isolated – and still be well, be productive, at least, for a period of time. And this seems to be something one needs to learn.

House of Text: A Room with a View

This kind of reasoning seems relevant and actual to the work my office SVESMI has been doing for the last two years in Moscow for the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Like many large-scale museums in big cities, the Pushkin Museum is expanding, acquiring adjacent buildings and adding more and more space to the enfilades of its existing rooms. Our team was commissioned to redesign one of these new additions, a bourgeois apartment block built in 1914 by a family of rich merchants in tune with the trends of Vienna and Berlin at the time. We were tasked with an almost impossible assignment: to transform this historical monument – a collection of former private rooms and corridors – into a contemporary museum, the so-called House of Text. Without being able to move or demolish a single wall or to alter a layout, we still had to create a space for an ever-changing trove of extremely diverse exhibits related to textual materials – books, magazines, manuscripts, scrolls, documents, etc. Although, we already had broad experience in designing public libraries, this “meta-library” presented a unique challenge. We had to turn the building, initially designed as purely private and domestic (with all its infrastructural and spatial limitations), into a public cultural institution. All transformations were to be done only by the means of light and furniture arrangements and through the introduction of new protocols of use and restoration.

Manufacturing Solitude

House of Text is a museum that exploits the original structure of the bourgeois apartment block and remains a collection of private rooms – former bedrooms, living rooms, reading rooms, etc.
Enfilade. Image: SVESMI

In response to this brief, we proposed to see all the apparently negative characteristics of the building as positive, recognising and emphasising the value of a (private) room even within a public realm. In contrast to other museums, which measure their success by the number of visitors per year, the House of Text introduces another logic: it is a slow space for lonely visitors, allowing for time being spent with the exhibits in different ways, by working, reading, meditating or simply looking out of a window. A painting-like image of a person sitting at the table, lit with the natural light – both at home and away from home – became very central to the project. We tried to imagine a democratic public place capable of distilling a very personal, solitary experience and offering the level of concentration, which would be very hard to achieve in a private space so exposed and overly connected today. This museum, which has no permanent collection and is envisaged as a container for many temporary shows, should establish a special connection between a visitor and an exhibit: that of a focused and unrushed exchange.

Manufacturing Solitude

The entrance zone is designed as a place for individual planning of the museum trajectory. No lines and no rush: the museum consultant will help you to find the right room for your solitary experience.
Reception. Image: SVESMI

The House of Text is still in the making; the new museum will not open its rooms to the public until 2021. A huge task ahead is to sequence our concept with multiple curatorial schemes, creating a space with quite a nuanced agenda, which, at the same time, will remain flexible and able to accommodate a variety of narratives. We are also developing a diversity of scenarios for visiting for a wide range of users. So the challenge is: how to make this private/public experience productive for all? How to distribute exhibits across rooms? How to ensure the privacy of the individual without jeopardising the publicness of this cultural institution in the centre of the European metropolis? Almost every one of the six hundred rooms in this museum will have its own particular setting. Depending on its size, position in the building, levels of noise and insolation, the quality of its historical interior, the view from it onto the city and many other characteristics, each room will offer a different degree and quality of solitude. Theoretically at least, there will be a chance for everyone to find his or her perfect space in this house.