Master of Fine Arts
At the turn of the century, Robert Putnam (2000, 27) wrote “...a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current.” Putnam is describing a loss of “social capital” throughout American society. Research suggests that many of our contemporary issues are the result of a decline in “social capital,” or “community.”
This pervasive lack of community is thought to be detrimental to “educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.” (Putnam, 2000, 367). In contrast, a strong sense of community is linked to feelings of safety, increased civic participation and improved wellbeing (Francis, et al, 2012).
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg (1989) posits that there is a “problem of place” in America, suggesting a lack of “informal public gathering places.” Oldenburg argues that regular attendance at certain venues, such as a community coffee shop where people are known to engage with one another, is thought to have great benefits to the individual. Furthermore, the connections that are made in these institutions are thought to be beneficial to society as a whole. Oldenburg notes that the American Revolution grew out of conversations that took place inside of taverns in Colonial Philadelphia (1989, 68).
A definition of “Design”, put forth by Glenn Parsons (2016, 11) states: “Design is the intentional solution of a problem, by the creation of plans for a new sort of thing, where the plans would not be immediately seen, by a reasonable person, as an inadequate solution.” This definition supports and doubles down on the idea that design is a method for solving problems.
Section 1 of this thesis examines what communities are made of, diving into individual and group psychology to understand the abstract qualities and the processes that take place in the transition to membership. Section 2 presents a place for a “design community” in Richmond, VA. This place allows for a hypothetical test of findings from Section 1.
In addition to the building serving as a professional resource center for designers, the program educates and orients new users to design, preparing them to take on the task of designing. Members are invited to participate in design charettes that address various issues in Richmond’s many surrounding communities.
This thesis examines both design and programmatic strategies for building and engaging community. Research topics range from design and architecture to sociology and environmental psychology. As conversation has shown to be a significant consideration, research has gone into designing to promote and encourage social interaction.
Books, academic journals and trade publications make up the bulk of the research. Case studies on design for social interaction are particularly interesting and suggest an experimental approach to increasing and enhancing social interaction within the built environment. Further precedent studies on A/D/O, in Brooklyn, as well as the IDEO headquarters, in Cambridge, MA, provide insight into similarly programmed spaces.
Oldenburg’s research on “Third Places” lends a great deal of information on informal communities and their relationship to space and place. So-called third places have many characteristics in common, but a lively interaction between people within the space is chief among them. Conversation is at the heart of Oldenburg’s “community.”
Research into “Sense of Community” yields some interesting psychological data that describes how people come to see themselves as members of a community. Of particular interest to this thesis are the elements of “membership,” specifically symbols and boundaries. In communities, symbols, such as a dress code or a unique vocabulary, create boundaries that tell non-members what to expect of the community.
While some concrete evidence is offered to support certain design features that are more prone to get people talking to one another, this project raises additional questions. Particularly, is there an opportunity to translate some of the data uncovered in psychological explorations of community? Using this information, can we begin to hypothesize on design features that may help users better understand the community, decide whether or not it is right for them, and - if it is - become a contributing member?
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