‘Living Apart Together’ – a column by Dikkie Scipio

Dikkie Scipio continues her quarterly columns for 'de Architect' magazine. Read the full essay below, focusing on the blurred lines between the public and the private space.

Available in Dutch here.

The 19th-century city was dirty. The housing was wretched and unhygienic. The streets were filthy, heaped with a combination of horse excrement and rubbish. Single dwellings were overcrowded and sanitation was either absent or shared and outdoors. Boundaries between public space and private domains were left undefined. The Dutch Housing Act of 1901 forever changed this. Light, air and space were the answer to the often miserable and unhygienic conditions people lived in. The concept of a healthy mind inhabiting a healthy body was born. And “healthy recreation” in public space made its debut. The new housing law not only ensured that eventually every home would have its own kitchen and sanitary facilities, but that there would be more green spaces for communal use, maintained by the municipality.

As a consequence, notions about public and private spaces changed. Gone was the ambiguity between the two. Inside the home was private and everything outside was public space, shared by all. This meant, quite literally, that public space was a formal domain where one behaved differently to when in private space. The separation was clear and dominated by written and unwritten social rules until the 1960s when behavioural norms started to relax. A new kind of optimistic social conduct emerged which encouraged a more casual interaction and looser demarcation between public and private, so that there would be room for everybody.

An excellent and typical example of this Zeitgeist could be seen in the architecture of the Dijkzigt University Hospital in Rotterdam, built in 1961 by architect Arie Hagoort and his firm OD 205, in collaboration with famous French designer and architect Jean Prouvé. The main floor of the complex transitioned from the higher Westzeedijk to the lower street on the other side and was designed as an open deck over two levels of parking. The deck was intended as public space and gave access to the various parts of the complex. The informal character of the space was further underscored by artist Peter Struyken’s work of concrete shapes with plants, water and benches. Unfortunately, the optimism was misplaced. The public took to the opportunity for access a bit too enthusiastically and since the space was not actually intended for the public at large, the hospital closed down the experiment, removing access to the roof deck and moving the entrances.

After this, the informality of public space nonetheless deeply penetrated social life. However, it did remain a shared public space not used for private purposes. The written and unwritten rules of behaviour applied to every street and park. Distrust of those citizens who were not adhering to the rules of formality translated over time into a design vocabulary that made it absolutely clear what was and what was not acceptable behaviour in public spaces. Hard paving, bollards, benches that made it impossible to lie down in them, greenery bordered by harsh edges – which were uncomfortable to sit on (to put it mildly) and certainly not conducive to congregation – became the norm. The fact that we are now questioning whether this uninviting design vocabulary is the best way to go reveals that we are transitioning in terms of how we perceive public space.

Since the beginning of this decade, something peculiar has been happening due to a combination of factors. High urban densities have made more people turn to parks and to using them differently. Cultural practices from Europe and farther abroad are being adopted, such as getting together in large groups and eating together in the park. More significantly, however, is that public space is no longer solely an outdoor entity. Public space is now digital and it’s impossible to completely shut yourself off from strangers. Your private space is now having to admit people – those you previously kept out – through algorithms, games, and Zoom meetings. As a result, the concept of private space has shifted from one of physical space to the physical body. Whenever possible we now make conscious choices in our outdoor encounters, the process being eased by the sharing economy where ‘sharing’ has gained a new economic definition that entails temporary ownership in turns. The pandemic, with its social distancing bubbles unintentionally formalizing our temporary boundaries, has accelerated how we now use public spaces as private spaces. The party and the BBQ in the park are not meant for the public around you, just as the yoga lesson, the work-out, and the dog training are not. Everyone knows that even though the teacher is standing in public space, you only participate if you have signed up or been invited. The space has shifted from public and formal to public and informal to public that is private.

Very different people with very different customs, behaviours and ideas now move freely among others in public spaces without too many issues. Imperceptibly, we have come to respect the temporary privateness of public spaces. Living Apart Together has thus entered our social realm.

This new development calls for more public spaces, which means not only parks and green squares, but also public spaces within our architecture. It calls for a new definition of the concept so that the typology of built public spaces, which has already slowly been evolving, can mature as an experience of togetherness without the burden of consumerism attached to it.


Prof. Dikkie Scipio

Q3 2021 De Architect