In the continued drive to be more energy efficient and walkable, cities are increasingly adopting the condominium as the preferred choice for city living. So it was with interest that I found reference to a specific 'condominium mentality' in a recent article (see here). The phrase is attributed to the literary critic Northrop Frye, who originally developed the concept of a 'garrison mentality' to describe the closely knit Canadian communities with unquestionable social and moral values. As described in this article by Kyle Carsten Wyatt, the 'condominium mentality' has similar characteristics to the garrison in that it forces people to huddle together in a defined space. But, as Wyatt astutely describes, the major difference is that the condominium building only gives the illusion of a social unit and in fact facilities isolation and loneliness. Describing his condominium near Toronto, Wyatt writes:
We take the elevator to the lobby or the underground parking garage, fiddling with our iPhones instead of visiting with the person standing next to us. We post complaints about our neighbours’ barking dog on “community-building” Facebook pages, rather than knocking on their door andhaving an actual conversation. We threaten to call the cops when our neighbours enjoy their balconies, instead of joining them for a beer. We flip our units as soon as we can afford a better one in a better building, or as soon as our view is destroyed by a rival development down the street. We’re all alone with our high-speed Internet and embarrassment of social networks, as concrete walls mute the existence of our real neighbours.Clearly, the 'condominium mentality' is not a positive one. But the first thing that struck me was that it is unfair picking on condos per se. I have no doubt all of the above are issues which are more connected to modern times and are equally applicable to the suburbs or other types of urban form. Robert Putnam did not call his noted work on sociology 'Bowling Alone' without reason; describing the decline in social capital across America since the 1960s - in both downtowns and suburbs alike. To some extent we get the housing that we want. I do believe that architecture can have transformative powers, but the dominant urban forms also strongly reflect the type of people and communities we are and aspire to.
Secondly, Wyatt sees the solution to this North American malaise in the urban patterns of Buenos Aires. Having just returned from Buenos Aires myself, I agree that the city provides a host of lessons for creating walkable neighbourhoods, active and lively public spaces,and a tasteful mix of contemporary and heritage architecture. However, Wyatt suggests that the specific lesson from Buenos Aires is that high-rise condos should be built without retail or commercial space at the street level. This is an interesting perspective because ever since planning school I have had it beaten into me that city builders must promote life at street level by encouraging mixed-use communities with active frontages, i.e. shops beneath residential. Wyatt's reasoning is that the distinct lack of retail units directly below condos will force residents into the larger community. Unfortunately this ignores the major differences between a city like Buenos Aires and Toronto. In Buenos Aires and other South American cities, locals will bring out chairs and sit outside their buildings in the evening and throughout the day. This creates the authentic socializing that eliminates the need for a coffee shop under each condo building. Unfortunately this spontaneous social life is less apparent in the residential areas of NorthAmerican cities and the need for ground floor commercial space is more pressing. If we want to focus on overcoming the 'condominium mentality', I suggest we focus more on the mentality and less on the condo.