Solitary moments with nature as a response to urban loneliness.
As one might expect, the winners of Bubble Design Competitions’ Eliminate Loneliness challenge mostly offered ways to bring people together. Second prize went to a concept for umbrellas that hook together. A high-angle view shows a cluster of about 20; under this bumpy canopy only people’s bodies are visible, not their heads, but perhaps murmured conversations are starting (or even flirtations). The third prize winner proposed a building game. Giant shapes of recycled plastic would be piled in public places for passersby to assemble into structures, necessarily interacting as they do. (“What happens later inside made objects is up to the people,” its designers note, possibly winking.)
First prize went somewhere else altogether. The brainchild of Gandong Cai, Associate ASLA, and Mingjie Cai, Student ASLA, landscape designers at Sasaki and Stimson respectively, it imagines “spiritual infrastructure” for crowded central Tokyo. It’s not about togetherness, and it won’t get anybody a date. Recognizing the distinction between being lonely and being alone, it suggests repurposing marginal spaces where individuals can go, solo, and be touched by nature. They’re called “urban tree holes.” One would place a seat in an empty storefront’s window so that someone could sit and “start a silent conversation” with an adjacent street tree. The accompanying two ideas use the label “urban tree hole” metaphorically. One would line the gangway between skyscrapers with tilted mirrors reflecting the sky. Another, below grade, would collect runoff into a contemplative water feature.
It is possible that the designers’ penchant for solitude in response to loneliness is a culturally determined sensibility. In East Asia, “We are shy,” says Gandong Cai. Life in cities such as Tokyo is intense, he says, and people have plenty of collective experience. “You want to do something that nobody will know.” Perhaps for people of any origin, as an antidote to loneliness and a strategy for depathologizing it, privacy may be as effective as company. “If we feel lonely, do we really want to talk to somebody? I think that’s kind of stressful. People might think you’re not doing well,” he says. “I don’t want to be a problem; I just want to be with myself for a few minutes. That’s why we tried to shift the idea from helping people to get together to helping people enjoy themselves without feeling guilty.”
Jonathan Lerner writes often on design and environmental issues.