Edinburgh, where I live, has just published some remarkable new statistics. (http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/10548/edinburgh_by_numbers_2013_14) This bastion of social propriety actually isn’t very proper at all. Of all households in this city of half a million measured in the survey, just 3% could be described as a conventional family unit, that is two adults with one or more children. That’s right: three percent of the total. Single parent households accounted for 9%. By far the largest proportion (41%) of households consisted of a single adult living alone. The remainder was taken up by adults living together in various combinations.
Edinburgh is an exaggerated case. If ‘normality’ is defined by two adults together with kids, then Manhattan is about 10% more ‘normal’ than the Scottish capital. But Edinburgh’s experience does parallel that of cities in the rest of the industrialised world. They are getting older and greyer, and more people are choosing to live alone.
So what? Well stats like these contrast abruptly with the nature of the built environment itself. Edinburgh is strongly defined by four-floor tenement buildings constructed between roughly 1820 and 1920, and home construction in the city in private and public sectors, continues to take a lead from the tenement form. What’s interesting in this context is that it defines the city in terms of the normative family. In effect, the tenement is the normative family in stone. So there are clearly defined private and public spaces, rooms clearly intended as bedrooms for a married pair, smaller rooms for children, public rooms to be kept for ‘best’ (traditionally for receiving the minister of the local church) and so on. The built image of the city doesn’t any longer represent its lived reality.
Arguably this doesn’t matter. Our housing has been remarkably good at adapting: in Britain’s university towns, middle-class Victorian family homes have proved ideal for groups of cohabiting students. These buildings won’t last forever, however, and neither will the social trends that currently sustain them. Sooner or later, we’ll have to build in our own image again.
In terms of sex, all this is important. Compared to previous generations, we can expect extremely long lives, and increasingly healthy ones. Because they’re long, we can also expect increasing degrees of sexual complexity; only a small part of our overall lives is going to be lived out in what might be termed normative surroundings. And there is increasing recognition that permanent monogamy is unrealistic (we may, most of us, still believe in monogamy, but the statistics suggest we act otherwise). So – shouldn’t we start to imagine different ways of building for life? In Sex and Buildings I describe a series of attempts to make buildings that better represented our sexual lives as lived. They mostly failed, sometimes spectacularly so. That shouldn’t put us off, however. We will have to build again sometime, and better to do so realistically, with our eyes open, than to insist on nostalgic fantasy.
For me, the ideal would be some sort of co-housing, the best-known example being Sættedammen in Denmark, established in 1967 (founding creed: ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. I didn’t write about co-housing in Sex and Buildings, but on reflection it seems to occupy the right space between the wilder forms of intentional community, and market-dominated individualism. It doesn’t explicitly challenge sexual norms. However, by providing shared facilities (childcare, gyms, swimming pools, saunas, party rooms) it provides time and space to play, starting to address the deficits that inhibit our sexual lives (sex ‘loves to waste time’ in the words of the psychologist Esther Perel). The odd thing is that we already strongly value co-housing, albeit in an occasional and time-limited form. University students live like this, and as adults, we do the same thing on holiday; both forms seem to provide a better environment to explore and develop primary relationships including sexual ones. Now if we can accept that some of our lives, why not the rest of the time?