The Architecture of Isolation

I designed houses, when I was in high school, and rooms that were hidden away within and only accessible through easily-overlooked, obscure corners. I made complex, maze-like houses with long hallways and corridors, rooms staggered and stacked unpredictably. I never wondered about my labyrinthine style but the way I imagined creating houses came deep out of my psyche. I was creating intimate, protected spaces, insulated by walls and hallways. On my computer and in my imagination I could craft new spaces; spaces where one was insulated from the difficulties of going through life with others. I wanted to be able to exist in a protected space where my identity was not infringed upon by the social pressures and skirmishes that inevitably took place in high school.

Naturally, we tend to find ourselves moving away from those who inconvenience us. To carry over the previous metaphor: if we are in open water, we are swimming away from those who impinge on our happiness. We want the waters between us as individuals to protect and separate -to insulate us from their inconveniences and from the cost it takes on us to be a part of their lives. We are trying to become protected islands unto ourselves. If we avoid people who inconvenience us altogether, we are not creating methods of insulation but we are swimming towards isolation.

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There is a subtle difference between insulation and isolation. Insulation keeps things like heat or sound in and cold/sound out. It is a boundary that separates and protects. Among people, individual insulation allows us to be differentiated -and less dominated by others- in order to be more fully ourselves. This is a good thing. In the same way, we’ve found that insulating our houses is a good thing. We don’t talk about our houses being isolated. The two key differences between insulation and isolation are the distance between and what that distance contains; insulation is a relatively small area of space that is filled with something whereas isolation is a larger area of space that is often devoid of anything.

Many people operate out of the assumption that we should not have to deal with the inconveniences of others. What starts out as a way to insulate our lives has evolved into over-insulating, even isolating, our lives. If you look close enough you can see the effects of this accelerating cultural trend to over-insulate as manifest in the way we construct our private worlds (our islands). Namely, how we construct our houses is a microcosm of how we culturally construct our society, our culture and our lives.

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This progression of over-insulation (towards isolation) can be seen, starting with the invention of the automobile. One of the chief, long term unfolding effects of an entire society commuting in automobiles is that they insulate us from the outside world and from others by taking away the opportunity to spontaneously interact with strangers and neighbors on the streets as we go about our daily activities. We no longer needed to walk down the sidewalks out of necessity; if we used sidewalks it was out of recreation (or a side-effect of poverty). 

Mostly, we chose to adopt the technology of automobiles because they saved us time (allowing us to increase our efficiency and productivity) and gave us individual control. With the automobile, we could go where we wanted, when we wanted, and fast. But another, less explicit, reason we chose automobiles is because we appreciated the insulation. We appreciated being insulated from most of the inconveniences people may ask of us.

With the automobile, we needed a place to park them which meant incorporating attached garages to our houses. We then could drive inside one insulated environment that brought us to our insulated home-base. Moving from insulated environment to insulated environment quickly over-insulates.

And this led to other isolating trends. Next, it was the urban sprawl of suburbia. With automobiles, people no longer needed to live in cities or villages to get access to the resources (or the jobs) they needed; they could live outside of the city where there was space between houses. Here, we see the first differentiated characteristic of isolation: a space between, devoid of anything. People wanted a certain amount of space of nothing between houses in order to insulate their own house from unpleasant noises, smells, people, etc. At the same time, the houses we built were being constructed further from the road. Even in cities and suburbs, houses moved further back into the lots, away from the streets.

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As people’s houses grew in distance from each other and distance from the road it was harder to walk anywhere from those houses. The creation of suburbs further denied people the regular opportunity to spontaneously interact with neighbors. As less and less interaction happened among neighbors, people did not know who their neighbors were. In the unknowing, our minds were filled with thoughts that were projected by the news and media (i.e. the more we see/hear about terrible things happening the more prone we are to become suspicious and distrustful of those we don’t know).

As general distrust grew amid the unknowing of our neighbors, we increased our insulation and isolation: we stopped using our front porches and began building back decks. Our front porches were places we used to interact with neighbors and people passing by on the streets/sidewalks. They fostered a sense of knowing -a sense of community. Backyards and decks, on the other hand, became private oasis that allowed us be insulated and isolated from our neighbors and, more importantly, out of sight and further isolated from strangers on the road.

All of these are manifestations of over-insulation as exemplified by the exterior of our homes. But changes have taken place within our houses in regards to the progression towards isolation. Consider the evolution of the word “hall.”

The original meaning of a hall was “a roofed space, located centrally, for the communal use of a tribal chief and his people.” Think about the architecture characterized in the Romantic period: halls were vast -often eloquent- gathering spaces where people came together to celebrate and enjoy each other’s company. Now we must clarify when we are speaking of such a space (by adding an additional word): a banquet hall (or function hall).

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We have added “banquet” to clarify that the space we are talking about is for meeting together with a lot of people because we understand the word “hall” to mean something far different. We currently take the word hall to mean an abbreviation of hallway: a narrow passage that intersects a house and leads to separate rooms. Previously, a “hall” was a large, open, unidirectional space. Then the word “hallway” came about in 1839 to clarify a space that led somewhere. Since then, hallway has come to be abbreviated as (and to replace the original meaning of) the word “hall.”

This is a massive cultural shift from the communal to the individual, exemplified in the evolution of our language over the last 200 years. The word “hall” encapsulates the vast cultural changes that have occurred: we used to be a people who created a space to insulate ourselves from the wilderness outside -a place where we could all exist and celebrate together in a common space. Now we are a people who create buildings that require hallways to guide us to separate, individually protected spaces. Halls have become means to an individual, isolated end. Our houses exemplify that we want insulation within (layers of) insulation; individual rooms inside of individual houses where each individuals can have his or her own protected place. I’m not trying to argue a moral judgement about every individual having an individual room but I am wanting to acknowledge the trajectory of over-insulation and isolation and observe the cultural repercussions of this when implemented on global scale.

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When thinking about this in regards to seeing glimpses of God’s kingdom here (tangibly on this earth) I can’t help but wonder: are we letting our cultural architecture define and shape us in a way that steers us further away from the way Jesus modeled us to live?

The truth is that our identity is not entirely cut free and untethered. In reality, we are all connected. The people we live with shape us greatly just as the act of living alone greatly shapes us. And, looking at the evolution of housing, we can see the very spaces we choose to live in shape us both collectively (as a people) and individually. Can we let our houses become halls (in the original sense) where communities of people gather together to celebrate instead of halls (in the more modern sense) that lead us to isolation?

I have never constructed a literal house according to my adolescent dreams. In truth, part of me would still love to do so, but I have, instead, chosen another way of living. As a Christian,  I believe it is important to live in a different space. Perhaps, for many of us Christians, the task we are called to is to be living in ways that allow us, as believers, to exist “together and [have] everything in common.” That may mean reviving the original definition of “hall” as a roofed space, located centrally, for the communal use of a tribal chief and his people. Many church buildings still function in this very manner. But perhaps we need to begin to draw this model further into our own lives -to let it manifest itself in our daily lives so that others may see the space in which we live as a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Cover photo by Vision Webagency

First photo of hallway by Dan Jewell

Photo of house through fence by Matt Jones 

Photo of house at sunset by Inspiration de

Second photo of hallway by Pat Loika

Photo of banquet hall by Joe DeSousa

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