Living space is often planned and built bypassing the user. The sociologist Sarah Untner is the interface between builders and residents, most recently she networked everyone involved in everyday school life in order to completely rethink the construction of the Lehen elementary school.
Sarah Untner has and is a sense of space. With her same company, the studied sociologist is looking for an interface between the people who are supposed to live in a new space and the architects and builders who will make it available. And it is not uncommon for rifts to be found here.
The primary school Lehen 1 and 2, the largest school in the city with 500 children from 27 nations, is to be rebuilt. You have managed a participatory process that has the interests of all the process involved. What was the result? Sarah Untner: With this development of a room and function program, we not only surveyed the needs of the teachers and students, but also invited all people who are in the school building – including caretakers, cleaning staff, advisory teachers, school doctors, parents. It was amazing to see how many people use a classroom and what different demands there are. My job was to ask the right questions so that the architect would get the right spatial answers: what synergies are there, what rooms can we leave out, how can we make life easier for the cleaning staff, and so on. The ultimate goal is to create satisfaction and identification with the place and not least for children who die at home and often live in crowded living spaces, something like a second home.
When you take on housing projects, dying is often well thought out, but sometimes the needs of the future residents are also neglected. Common rooms that end up as bicycle storage rooms because nobody uses them. What are your experiences? Untner: The greatest difficulty is, in fact, that the people who die in the residential complexes and will one day live are not asked what they need in the planning process. Or that the planners do not explore enough of the surroundings in advance, where something is to be built, in order to determine what works and what does not. But my experience is that many residential projects are very well thought out, but – often for cost reasons – few qualities remain because every square meter is measured in money.
Was your experience after such cardinal errors? Untner: I spontaneously come up with balconies with glass cladding, where architects are often offended when the residents put up privacy screens from the hardware store that don’t match the overall picture. But if the balcony is the only free space in which you can drink a glass of wine unobserved in the evening, such an action is understandable. When it comes to common rooms, I keep seeing that they are built because it is compulsory, but nobody cares about the display or the rooms have no kitchen or toilet and are therefore not very functional.
In your experience, are people in large residential buildings interested in communal life at all? Untner: There is no general answer to that. Basically everyone wants to live in a good, peaceful neighborhood where they can feel safe and at home. But let me use the example of the common room: there, in order for it to be used by the community, a usage concept is required, a simple handover of the keys is required, and everything has to be easy. In my experience, it tends to require spaces in which community can first emerge. Sometimes it is better to leave rooms open and see who is moving in and what people want. Do parents live there with children who want space to play, young people who need a retreat, or older people who want to meet? What often works is community gardens. But we should first ask what “the community” actually is.
What would be the optimal definition of community for a good coexistence? Untner: As I said, that changes with the purpose of use. Ideally, a sense of community when living is that I identify with the residential complex, that I help the neighbor when he rings the bell and asks me for something. It doesn’t have to be to sit together in a common room every day, but when the hat is on, dialogue is needed. I look after a residential complex in which I organize, for example, staircase talks. At meetings in a large residential complex, only a few noises are usually uttered, while others also have something to say. I therefore invite all residents of a single house to meet me on the doorstep, so they can come with slaps and talk about things that they work in the neighborhood. I see again and again that residents live in the same house but don’t even know each other! The death of every house community is the underground car park: You drive in there and take the elevator directly to the apartment. Encounters at and in front of the front door no longer take place. During one such conversation in the stairwell, for example, the idea arose to beautify the elevator damaged by vandalism with children’s drawings. No vandal dares to go over it that quickly.
Is there such a thing as a golden rule for living together? Untner: One consequence of individualization is that many people see living as a service and for everything that is connected with it, other people have to be responsible, the property developer, property management, etc., in order to succeed. It is sufficient, for example, to pick up the paper on the floor instead of complaining to the property management about the mess. This creates a dynamic, an identification with the living space, not just within the apartment, but within the entire facility. Or an example is the large amount of advertising material that is often not disposed of and piles up on the mailboxes. You could of course throw that into the paper trash or organize badges so that the advertising material doesn’t end up in the mailbox at all. The property management companies are also called upon to quickly repair damage caused by vandalism or soiling or to ensure that shopping carts, for example, get away straight away. Otherwise it invites imitation.
Was your experience with the cultural mix? Untner: If there are conflicts, it is through individual people, in my experience that has nothing to do with the cultural background. If a residential complex is occupied, however, you can do a lot to ensure that there is a good mix. A residential complex should always be a small image of society.
What advice do you have if the mood in a house community threatens to change? Untner: Talk to each other. If something is in the air, speak up and ask. In my experience, many are not even aware of this. We are increasingly forgetting to address things that are important to us. Every conflict is viewed negatively from a need for harmony. But simply asking questions could avoid conflict and is better than blaming someone or maybe even forging alliances against that person.
They also support communities in future processes and projects to strengthen the local core. How do you go about that? Untner: First of all, I deal with the location, deal with the community and the local people and ask in which direction the development should go. In the Agenda 21 processes, this takes place via low-threshold public participation processes over one or two years, during which things worth preserving are discussed and challenges, investor activities or vacancies that are dying are to be replayed. How this can be done can never be said from the outside; it has to be done in dialogue with the local people.
Doesn’t such an approach amount to opening Pandora’s box? Quasi the citizen survey as the only request concert for everyone? Untner: With any form of public participation, it is important to clearly communicate the scope for design. You shouldn’t invite people to come up with ideas for something that can’t be implemented. This leads to frustration and it is not for nothing that citizen participations often have a bad reputation, because then all that remains is an unattainable request concert. There is also no point in letting people have a say in which apartments are to be built on which green meadow. But you can see with people in which direction they and the place could develop.
How can extinct centers be revived? Untner: Businesses and industries that have moved away usually do not come back to the center of the village, so you have to think of alternative ways to use them. Perhaps you will bring young people into the country who do not build a single-family house on a green meadow, but instead take an apartment in the center of the village? Communities near metropolitan areas often attract creative people, people who want to try something new. This is the case in Gutenstein in Lower Austria, where young people from Vienna are redefining village life. But this impulse has to come from the local people. The greatest danger is dying to believe that impulses can come from outside.