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The Tragedy Of Personal Space In The Metropolis

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I’m not sure if we were made to live with others. I say this out of personal experience (ha! what other experience could I have!), but also because I remember attending a workshop on Buddhist Psychology, where the Venerable looked at us with ease, and shared

“the space inside is bigger than the space we occupy”

And so we are in a constant battle with those with whom a space is shared. Roommates, families, our shadows — all of which form part of the composition of comfort. How comfortable can our space be in order to make us feel comfortable?

Where We Live And Why It Matters

Times are tough, and buildings are not. At least not as much. In a conversation, someone brought up the fact that here in Mozambique, it seems as though everyone is building. An eruption of architectural innovation,  or perhaps a need to rejuvenate habitation spaces in Maputo . With an ever growing population, and the need for more housing, there are many new spikes in the sky.

I was born and raised in an apartment block, a reality that is not so different for many Mozambicans living in Maputo. The notion of living in a house, on the ground, with a garden and the occasional dog always seemed, to me, a fantasy. A Christmas Card fantasy.

I must have been younger than I am now, when my childhood made-up games consisted on idealizing scenarios on the staircase of the building where I grew up. We would have to shift to allow people to go up and down, more down than up, but quickly resumed our conversations and games. We would crash into late evening parties where we were promptly gifted with a plate of chicken and chips, then return home to a screaming contest and the much dreaded night shower. But this was the quotidian of the apartment childhood. Wake up, move from bell to bell and play indoors. All of this to say, that from a young age I became fascinated with the way my neighbours had their houses decorated. We would walk into each other’s houses and exclaim, “this is where my room is!“, or, “you have this balcony? We don’t have this balcony at our house!”.

We were aware that we lived in spaces that were, architecturally, the same.

The exact same metric was designed and applied to this building’s 190+ flats, and yet, each time we stepped into a different house, things were different.

So this is us. We walk into a ready-made space and adapt, change — reclaim.

But does this process of adaptation reflect how we position ourselves internally?


Appropriating Public Spaces

Many of us have a certain distaste for pollution. It’s the highest form of disrespect. Not only do you disrespect yourself in the act, but you also disrespect the people around you and, ultimately, if not most importantly — the space.

The public sphere is both friendly and extremely dangerous, because it belongs to everyone and thus renders everyone the authority to use it in whichever way one wants.

Facing this constraint, we tend to inadvertently appropriate the public so that it suits our internal positioning.  Here, even pollution, a seemingly disrespectful act, becomes a genuine attempt at making a public space “ours”. 

How does this translate in the urban landscape of a busy city? With upcoming renovations and inevitable processes of gentrification, is there enough time for citizens to make public spaces personal?

The easiest way to illustrate this conflict is thinking about spatial manifestation of religious beliefs. In Kaohsiung, I recall walking through the countryside and observing that almost every house had an altar for Buddha. This altar appeared improvised but extremely important for the family that resided in the house. Some altars were in garages, often wide open for anyone to worship.

Most Muslim households in Mozambique have a central space, usually in the living room, where a framed passage of the Quran is displayed; a picture of Mary and the Child in a catholic home is an equally frequent sight.

The mediation of personal beliefs and their translation in the public sphere is pivotal in how we act and connect to our environment.

If not to project ourselves, why do we design? Space is, increasingly, seen from an angle not only of convenience, but also of comfort. Internal comfort.

The Japanese concept of “Wabi-Sabi” reiterates the need to keep our spaces as simple and as minimal as possible, because they are compatible with our inner chaotic minds.


The Unresolved Question Of Modern Living

So we are now living on top of each other, in flats that are reproduced by the same metrics, designed for the convenience of the modern human. What does this say about our experiences, our sensations as citizens of the modern world?


We are going taller, and much smaller. We build luxurious huge houses in which the population count is 1; we sleep in cubicles with fake ceilings and multi-purpose rooms. Perhaps we are stepping into a brave new world, or perhaps the only old thing about the new world is the human herself.

Going back to the words of the friendly Venerable, who promptly asked us to look at how much space we were occupying at that moment. We were sitting, small desks, small chairs. And she then asked, “if you are occupying such a small space right now, why do you dream of a big house? a big bed? a big car?”

Of course! The space inside, that’s the real problem. That’s the real, actual space we need to understand — and occupy.

Read more:

  1. A Glimpse Inside Japan’s Ultra Micro ‘Capsule’ Apartments
  2. Why do we now build the smallest new homes in Western Europe?
  3. The Modern Day’s Living Arrangement
  4. The Luxury of Humility


Lover of all things bright and yellow, with an unorthodox taste for neuroscience and politics. She travels in and out of herself, and enjoys getting stuck in transit while doing this thing called 'life'. (Mozambique)

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