In 1929, designer and architect Eileen Gray speculated that ‘one must anticipate that the present need for action, for a hectic life, will come to an end; that it will subside as soon as the effects of the war disappear and will be replaced by the need for inner knowledge and refinement’.1 Writing this, Gray herself had moved to an isolated and rocky stretch of the Mediterranean that overlooked the sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in the south of France, leaving behind considerable achievements as an interior designer in Paris. It was here that she launched herself as an architect, beginning work on a secluded modernist villa, all light reflecting white walls, horizontal hugging flat roof, and compactly minimal frame, which she was to name E. 1027. A progressive designer who found herself, for a time, among Le Corbusier’s inner circle, Gray was unique in her passionate defence of the need for spaces of solitude within buildings. She sensed that modern life and modern design were reducing such possibilities but that this would prove merely a temporary phenomenon.
It is intriguing to wonder, were she alive today, what Gray would make not only of the influence that technology now exerts in diminishing our privacy but also, from a design perspective, how the changing nature of buildings is arguably re-engineering our relationship to solitude. As notions of accessibility, openness and connectivity continue to gain greater traction as drivers of much contemporary design, solitude as an ideal now appears almost antiquated. But in Gray’s eyes, buildings had to offer some measure of privacy if they were to succeed as shelters for the imagination. It was a view echoed by the renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who went against the grain in his 1980 Pritzker Architecture Prize acceptance speech by praising solitude: ‘Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself,’ he said. ‘Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.’2
Yet today we do, in many ways, shun it. How likely are we to encounter it among the communal exercise hub of the gym, the noisy distractions of the shopping centre or the ever increasing number of crowded ‘non-places’ from airports to train stations that proliferate in our daily lives? Solitude in architecture is a magical and intangible quality, difficult to define, but we know it when we find it. These are spaces where, rather than being harried and stimulated to grasp and consume, we instead slow down, surrendering to contemplation or a meditative emptiness. Perhaps solitude is losing its desirability. Or, in a world that is squeezed for space (and pressed for time), it might simply have become unpractical, a luxury reserved for the privileged few who can afford it or dare to demand it.
This apparent redundancy of solitude crosses my mind as I consider the newly revamped Surry Hills Library and Community Centre in Sydney’s inner east. Highly lauded but not uncontroversial, the library is certainly an architecturally elegant building. But as a three-storey glass container with only a series of fin-like timber louvres dressing its otherwise naked facade, a sense of privacy can’t really be counted among its assets. At ground level, a row of chairs and desks are pressed against the building’s glass front, exposing readers to passers-by on the street outside, which leads me to wonder whether it’s possible to experience any real sense of solitude while reading in what is essentially a giant fishbowl. Unfortunately, the Surry Hills Library is not alone in its pursuit of a more spacious, open, transparent and airy design. At Sydney University’s Fisher Library, a new space-creating initiative involves moving books not borrowed within the last five years into storage to make room for collaborative work spaces and more student lounges. It’s likely to result in noisier, less private study spaces, but it’s a move Fisher librarian John Shipp defends in a 2011 Sydney Alumni Magazine article as necessary to make Fisher ‘more flexible, catching up on a global trend’.
Once a principal space of solitude, the library now appears headed in the same direction as the workplace with its embrace of the more economical open- plan environment. Here, the shift away from cellular offices is promoted for such advantages as better social facilitation, collaboration and unconscious knowledge sharing, not to mention the financial gains for the organisation. These are legitimate benefits. However, a research paper on the possible health impacts of open-plan, published in 2008, voiced what many had already long felt: that the loss of privacy, loss of identity and low work productivity were just the beginning of its pitfalls.3 A Sydney Morning Herald article published online a year later about open-plan etiquette sparked some lively venting in the comments section. Particularly vitriolic was one poster, identifying as ‘mac’, who riffed that putting people ‘into tiny cubicles and then enforcing strict rules of behaviour so they don’t upset other people and turning them into grey clones is not productive for the workplace and hell on mental health’.
Remove the cloak of online anonymity and would ‘mac’ be so bold? Open rallying for greater privacy is rare: are we losing our capacity to articulate the value and necessity of solitude? At other points in history it has emerged as a vital concern. Hannah Arendt’s thinking on solitude assumed an unexpected urgency when she attended the 1961 trial in Israel of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann for war crimes, which provoked her to consider its importance in ‘dark times’. Could the growth of the conscience depend upon the self-questioning that takes place in solitude, she wondered, and should we not then elevate its status as a much needed antidote to conformism? Arendt is careful to distinguish solitude, ‘this existential state in which I keep myself company’, from the anguish of loneliness where one feels truly ‘deprived of human company’.4
Montaigne likewise advocated a moral dimension to solitude; Rilke wrote eloquently on its necessity for creativity; and Heidegger, in his effusive praise of the hut, saw solitude as elementally tied to dwelling. Yet of all writers to link solitude to place it is possible none can surpass Bachelard, a kindred spirit of such designers as Gray and Barragán when he writes that ‘every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination’.5
Whether shared with others or lived in alone, the house as a shelter from the world outside that nurtures our memories, daydreams and sense of self endures as a space of solitude. Yet the nature of this solitude appears quite different today compared with a century ago when houses were more segmented in their design. The modernist architects of the first half of the twentieth century pioneered new models of living with their enthusiasm for open, connecting and flexible living spaces (Frank Lloyd Wright boldly banished attics and cellars from his), the liberal use of glass, the maximisation of views and light, and the seamless transitions from inside to outside—all innovations we now gladly take for granted. But these transformations also brought about a significant shift, which was to turn the focus one has in the home outwards rather than inwards. Eileen Gray absorbed many of these avant-garde principles in her design for the modernist house E. 1027, although she approached the open-plan cautiously. Wary of completely abandoning autonomous rooms, Gray argued that ‘everyone, even in a house of restricted dimensions, must be able to remain free and independent. They must have the impression of being alone, and if desired, entirely alone.’6 Her positioning of walls and doors reflected this.
Since the global financial crisis hit in 2008 we’ve witnessed a renewed interest in the house. Yet even with this return to ‘nesting’ it would be rare to hear an architect or designer today advocating as Gray did for spaces of independence. A ‘convivial’ solitude, which stresses multi-functional spaces that can be solitary but easily transfigured for entertaining, now appears more humanistic. But whether a house is conducive to solitude is about more than simply the configuration of rooms and how many people it can accommodate. It is also about its emotive qualities and the sensations it produces. When it comes to fostering a sense of tranquility, stillness and serenity, Japanese architecture excels. For Japanese novelist Junichirō Tanizaki, the contrast between the Western preoccupation with light in the house and the Japanese affection for shadows is striking. ‘The light from the garden steals but dimly through paper-paneled doors,’ he writes, ‘and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room.’7 Locally, Glenn Murcutt achieves a magical silencing clarity in his houses, which seek to ‘touch the earth lightly’. Drawing upon carefully reasoned responses to topography and climate and the artful manipulation of form and materials, Murcutt shapes an architecture of place that is tantalising not only with the possibility of refuge but also with an invitation to reflect and to discover the pleasures of a quiet and restorative isolation.
In its more social goal of enabling being alone together, ‘convivial’ solitude falls short of embracing isolation. Have we outgrown genuine solitude, which implies a retreat from others? Not quite, it seems. For as much as solitude doesn’t fit with the contemporary fetish for ‘connection’, in the context of inaccessibility it arguably does still hold power. Inaccessibility in the vein of Thoreau and his isolated wilderness existence has long been linked to solitude; as technology continues to make us ever more reachable, the fantasy of inaccessibility at least remains a potent one. Such dreams have a remarkable habit of manifesting themselves in certain types of buildings and locations. Whether it’s a log cabin hidden away in the bush, a secluded beachside hut on a sun-drenched Pacific island, a tent pitched in the desert, or a luxurious spa or nature-sanctuary resort, the dream of a solitary escape remains both a marketable commodity and an innate desire that takes on a strong resonance in a hyper-connected world. For the designer, such spaces can offer rich creative opportunities.
Invited in 2007 to design a number of artist studios on the remote Fogo Islands off the east coast of Canada, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders was inspired to create a series of spectacular and starkly modernist hideaways stationed by the sea like lighthouses. Evocatively captured by photographer Bent René Synnevåg, the images of these elongated and minimalistic trapezoidal forms elevated on pillars and teetering over rocks lapped by the Atlantic Ocean have been widely blogged about; their experimental interpretation of a timeless romantic fantasy taps powerfully into the elemental human desire to seek refuge. In many ways the studios epitomise the ideal design for solitude from the inaccessible location to their self-sufficiency, designed to function off the grid by producing their own power and treating waste on site. Built from blackened rough-sawn pine, the textured materials lend the buildings a haptic quality while the unadorned interior embodies clarity and an absence of distraction. Beyond the physical form, which expresses both a sense of expansion and of protection, there is an enthralling mythical quality to these structures. By recalling the local architecture of fishermen’s houses, the studios softly evoque a past era when long stretches of time were spent at sea, alone in the elements, and a slower pace of life was built into the rhythms of daily existence.
Perhaps it was the sublime quality of the open sea that also drew Eileen Gray to build on the rugged coastline of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, where solitude comes not necessarily from isolation but from the feeling of being overwhelmed and enveloped by nature. When Gray began designing E. 1027, or the ‘little refuge’ as it’s also known, it was in close collaboration with fellow architect Jean Badovici, who for a time was her lover, and despite her reputation for solitude, she generously entertained many guests there, including Le Corbusier and the French painter Fernand Léger and their wives. Stenciled on the walls of the house were a series of quotes, including one from Baudelaire, who famously declared that multitude and solitude were interchangeable terms. Just as the design of her house embraced the sensual pleasures and escapism of its seaside location with its streamlined ship-like appearance, generous decks and sleek nautical balustrades, Gray quotes a line from his ‘Invitation to the Voyage’, which urges, ‘it is there we must go to breathe, to dream, and to prolong the hours in an infinity of sensations’.
Solitude can be viewed as a destination, a place we can happily retreat to without staying too long. Yet it should not appear too remote, too far away. We need not only secluded getaways as occasional escapes but also poetic spaces for solitude within the grasp of our everyday lives, in the buildings we live and work in, as a counterbalance to the increasing demand for the total openness and transparency of shared space, which risks becoming oppressive, even authoritarian, as it crowds out our thoughts. As Arendt reminds us, solitude combats the loneliness of the modern world and gives way to an inner dialogue that might just be ‘the most outstanding characteristic of the life of the mind’.8 To design for solitude is not to create spaces for self-indulgence but rather to give ample consideration to what the self might need for the full realisation of our potential as thinking, conscious individuals.
Ella Mudie is a Sydney-based writer interested in the politics of space and its manifestation in art, literature and design.
- Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici, ‘Maison en bord de mer’ (House by the Sea), originally published in L’Architecture Vivante (winter 1929) and republished in Caroline Constant, Eileen Gray, Phaidon, London, 2000, p. 241.
- Luis Barragán, Pritzker Architecture Prize Acceptance Speech, the Hyatt Foundation, [Chicago], 1980.
- Vinesh G. Oommen et al., ‘Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments? A review’, Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, vol. 3, no. 2 (2008).
- Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind. Volume One: Thinking, Secker & Warburg, London, 1978, p. 74.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, Beacon Press, Boston, 1994, p. 136.
- Eileen Gray, ‘House by the Sea,’ p. 241.
- Junichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, Vintage, London, 2001, p. 30.
- Arendt, Life of the Mind, p. 96.