Nomadism as Catalyst

My ideal life is freewheeling and nomadic; my envy boils up most when I see projects like GeekBrief‘s The Big Trip allow for travel, creativity, technology and work to mesh. The Economist suggests we’re moving toward facilitating this in a smaller scale and I’m thrilled at the prospect.

The New Oases: Nomadism changes buildings, cities and traffic” explores the untethering of people from places of work, learning and socializing. Changing technological and social realities free us from stodgy notions of place and leave the how and where of many tasks forever altered. The reshaping of our architecture is one response to this that is especially exciting; environments are expected to be reshaped to do away with obsolescence of holdovers like the desk and serve human connections and productivity.

The fact that people are no longer tied to specific places for functions such as studying or learning, says Mr Mitchell, means that there is “a huge drop in demand for traditional, private, enclosed spaces” such as offices or classrooms, and simultaneously “a huge rise in demand for semi-public spaces that can be informally appropriated to ad-hoc workspaces”. This shift, he thinks, amounts to the biggest change in architecture in this century. In the 20th century architecture was about specialised structures—offices for working, cafeterias for eating, and so forth. This was necessary because workers needed to be near things such as landline phones, fax machines and filing cabinets, and because the economics of building materials favoured repetitive and simple structures, such as grid patterns for cubicles.

The new architecture, says Mr Mitchell, will “make spaces intentionally multifunctional”. This means that 21st-century aesthetics will probably be the exact opposite of the sci-fi chic that 20th-century futurists once imagined. Architects are instead thinking about light, air, trees and gardens, all in the service of human connections. Buildings will have much more varied shapes than before. For instance, people working on laptops find it comforting to have their backs to a wall, so hybrid spaces may become curvier, with more nooks, in order to maximise the surface area of their inner walls, rather as intestines do. This is becoming affordable because computer-aided design and new materials make non-repetitive forms cheaper to build.

Our shared spaces, be they cafés, parks or public transportation, are becoming multi-functional hybrid places where we can be as comfortable meeting a work deadline as we are interacting with our most intimate friends. The emergence of more neutral, flexible places –what sociologist Ray Oldenburg named “third places”– changes how we relate to cities, making our routes alter from tedious in-and-outs to fulfilling meanderings. There are pitfalls ahead in merging spheres of life, but the potential for enriching life is exciting.

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