This month, ARCHIPHONIC’s Adam M considers the ‘tribal’ side of architecture and how it plays into creating a sense of community

Fujian Tulou

The Cambridge dictionary defines a ‘tribe’ as “a group of people, often related families, who live together, sharing the same language, culture, and history, especially those who do not live in towns or cities.” There are few themes stronger in architecture than creating spaces to live within our own ‘tribes’. If we look through the ages, pre-existing the dawn of civilisation, it’s easy to see the way that tribes have evolved. From small settlements of transitory villages, to the creation of stationary centres where residents separate relative to their tasks of hunter and gatherer, and return to come together as one community to feast.

There are many examples of how a similar mentality has been maintained within the ‘developed’ world, an excellent example being the Chuxi Tulou Cluster (pictured). The oldest and largest of these is Jiqing Lou, (circa 1403 and 1424) where a four storey ring sixty-six meters in diameter, consisting of seventy-two staircases splitting it into seventy-two individual buildings. This envelopes another single storey ring and the staircases are of that number to ensure private space for each unit. The cluster was built from cedar wood without using nails, a combination of post-lintel and column-tie construction with an overhanging roof. In the centre is a square-shaped ancestral hall. Here the idea of everyone coming together is still maintained, ensuring a sense of community.

Closer to home, the UK government was looking to Europe and the idealisms of ‘utopia’ in an effort to bring hope to communities post WWI. Liverpool was hit hard, with 11,000 families living in one room each. By 1930, when there was financial incentive to rehouse slum-dwellers, the scheme for St Andrew’s Gardens was born, completed in 1935. Imagined as a community within the city, those in compressed housing could come and create new lives outside of their cramped conditions. Densification of the development allowed recreational space and amenities not possible in cottage suburbs.

Despite its ambition, in reality the building now seems more like a jail and it is difficult to understand how the concept was ever allowed to be built. It is a great example of architectural experimentation in social class and endeavouring to force a way of life. Over time it became seemingly forgotten by the council, largely due to its insular nature. Unlike the Chuxi Tulou, it housed multiple families, brought together through poverty and by lack of options. Its centre remained open and relatively landscaped. By the 1980s, similar developments in Liverpool had been demolished and it wasn’t long until ‘The Bullring’ was converted to student accommodation, which it is much more suited for, with a different ‘tribe’ taking over.

Back in time again, but remaining in the UK, ‘The Circus’ in Bath delivers a similar concept. With a 97m diameter, in reference to Stonehenge (99m), it was completed in 1768 and consists of thirty houses in total. Most importantly though is what happens in the centre. Originally a well that was replaced in 1810, trees now stand tall and create privacy whilst still maintaining a sense of ownership and inherent community. Yes, it happens to be on the other side of the economic scale. Yes, its density is considerably smaller than that of the Liverpool scheme. Yes, it comes from a different time and different desire. Are we saying that we can’t create schemes that live and breathe with the same ambition? I think not.

Words by Adam M
Image Credits by UNESCO, Chuxi Tulou Cluster | We Are Homes for Students, St Andrews Gardens