The Architect’s Prima: Buildings Fit for Parenting Infants
‘Dirty Old Town’
“I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed a girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town/
I’m going to make me a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
Will chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town
Dirty old town”
Sung by the Progues, Written by Ewan Maccoll, Gary Grainger & Rod Stewart
The concept of the Prima opens the way for a great leapt forward in architecture: it can liberate us from the ‘family unit’. For the last one hundred years, residential architecture has been confined to designing ‘little boxes’ (all made of ticky-tacky) – some big, some small, but all designed for two parents plus 2.4 children. The vision of collective living has virtually vanished from modern architecture. The commissioning and construction of entire new monasteries is unheard of, and colleges, universities and hospitals tend to separate out their residential from their ‘working’ buildings.
Not so Prima! Prima is all about collective, community living. Like a college, not for a life-time, but for a number of intensive, formative years. A modern home for the hunter-gatherer band! A return, in the Twenty First Century to our 200,000-year-old way of life. A return, as a species, to our psychic home. Prima represents a profound challenge to our preconceptions about social life. But it also challenges the power of our vision to see beyond the narrow confines of what we currently conceive of as ‘normal’ ways of life.
What appeals to me about Prima is the notion of healing the brutal rupture between residence and function. A rupture brought about by industrialisation. Instead of the organic community (in which function and residence intermingled), in the modern world, social functions were separated out into purpose-designed buildings; schools, factories, offices, …. and residences into rows and rows of houses and blocks and blocks of apartments. Doubtless all this will continue, but now, in their midst, there may come to exist another form of community; a shining beacon proclaiming to all the world what human life could and perhaps should be about!
A combination of maternity ward, creche, kindergarten, primary school and therapeutic community. But also, potentially much more. Prima is a refuge; an enclave of human values within an inhuman society, governed by random and indifferent free-market forces. Of course, it is the natural place to give birth and raise children, but it could also be a sheltered refuge for the elderly and infirm and the mentally and physically disabled. Much scientific evidence indicates that the quality of life of the elderly is greatly enhanced by the proximity of young children; curious, enquiring young minds are a natural prophylactic against senility. And, on the other side of the beneficent equation, the elderly have the time and patience to provide young children with the intensive and long-term attention that nurtures and encourages their full development.
As to the disabled, rather than hiding them away at the cheapest possible cost (essentially a form of human ‘warehousing’) they too could benefit from an enclave, nurturing human values. Quite apart from the humanistic advantages, there are also ‘economies of scale’ to be achieved by accommodating all who required sheltered living in the same collective residence: laundry, catering and the provision of utilities (gas, electricity and water, plus fibre-optic cable) can all be achieved more economically where the more residents are housed in the same complex of buildings. This ‘peripheral’ population of the Prima, can also provide opportunities for ‘internal’ gainful employment. I’ve already mentioned pensioners providing additional child care services. They and, where possible, the disabled could also assist with activities, such as market-gardening, catering, laundering, cleaning and general maintenance – a functional, as well as a residential community!