Designing Cages

The design choices a culture makes tend to tell you what that culture actually values. Thus, a look at some new student housing in the US:

But Dennis McFadden, an architect who served as a consultant on the university’s design review committee, did not agree. On Oct. 24, in a scathing letter to the chairwomen of the committee, he announced that he was resigning over the university’s decision to approve a design he likened to “a social and psychological experiment.”

He said he was “disturbed” by a design that would cram the students into a 1.7-million-square-foot, 11-story building and make the vast majority of them live in small rooms without windows, “wholly dependent on artificial light and mechanical ventilation.”

In other words, these are cages with minimal life support systems. It’s not wonder that there’s an epidemic of mental health problems on college campuses in the US. Fresh air, sunlight and socialization are some of the key things a person needs to have a baseline sense of well-being. Those are in an artificially imposed short supply.

It all feels chillingly like a person. Enough to survive, but it’s clearly not a design that leads to most people thriving. I’d say it’s part of the larger institutionalization of society that’s beginning as a university surveillance state.

Compare this with the Dutch student housing right next to where I spent my first month in Amsterdam. Windows that open, spacious and lots of common space. The design choices in both approaches betray a much broader philosophy of life.

A cat in a cage

An analogy that’s perhaps just a bit of a stretch, was moving here with a cat. We spent a month living in a hotel room, with all of the artificiality that entails. Two hoomans and cat.

Moti the cat was constantly scared, stressed and would randomly start screaming. All of his physical needs were being met, but clearly the lack of space, hotel noises and stress from the move weren’t giving him the chance to thrive.

We were nervous that the move to our apartment would be overwhelming. It’s much larger, two floors plus a small garden.

It took him 10 minutes to come out of his shell, run up and down the stairs and explore his bigger territory. He loves going outside and spending time in the garden. In short, I’ve never seen him happier.

We shouldn’t underestimate the role the environments we design play in our well-being.