Living in Stockholm apartments shaped my approach to sociability in architecture, says Linda Thiel


I have lived in apartments most of my life – never out of necessity but because they were, and so many still are, the most wonderful places to live. It’s part of my cultural heritage: in Sweden we have a different perception of apartment living and shared amenities. I’d never lived in a house until well into my adult life, when I built one with my husband, who is also an architect. While I love that house, I found it quite unnerving at first – like living in a box, disconnected from my neighbours, with only one door between me and the street. I missed the sounds of people going about their lives around me.

It was my upbringing in Stockholm that most profoundly shaped the way I think about and relate to architecture. My family lived in courtyard apartment blocks, very typical of the area. There’s a communal attitude, the chance interactions and the sense of being surrounded by your neighbours, who are also your friends. There was a much lower turnover of residents than we tend to see now, people stayed put longer and formed a real community.

The whole building was our home, not just the rooms behind our apartment door”

The whole building was our home, not just the rooms behind our apartment door. We would run up and down the stairs and play games in the halls. Our friends all lived in the same building and everyone knew each other so families kept their doors open. The key to this was that we had relatively few apartments per core, typically three or four units, so you naturally became acquainted with everyone who lived on your floor.

Hearing your neighbours above and below wasn’t perceived as intrusive; it made you feel safe and told you when your friends were home. You get used to the sounds of the city; almost like falling asleep on a train. I’ve always found it comforting.

As an architect, these experiences inform everything I do. I’ve designed all kinds of building types, at different scales and in various contexts, but I always come back to the question of how people meet in my buildings. How do we let people interact and learn to respect one another? The solutions might look very different, but they achieve the same effect.

Well-designed, generously proportioned communal spaces allow people to feel comfortable – it’s an especially sensitive issue in estate regeneration”

Léonie Geisendorf was a critic at KTH Stockholm when I studied there. She was the female architect to follow at the time, a strong role model. She’d worked for Le Corbusier and had such an inspiring presence. She’d arrive at crits and command the attention of the room as she smoked a cigarette and gave her – often quite brutal – critiques. Her residential projects really resonated with me, she was very focussed on caring for how people lived and how we share the city. There was always a fluidity and openness to the communal spaces she designed, whatever the building type, with split levels and wide stairways where people could interact. That was something that had also struck me about the National Theatre, the first time I visited London as a teenager.

I’m currently leading on some large urban residential projects in the UK, which gives me cause to reflect on my experiences of apartment living to a greater extent. In the face of rapid densification, it feels more important than ever to make our shared living areas habitable – to keep the number of units per core low enough to maintain that familiarity with neighbours that gives a sense of comfort and security.

In our designs for the second phase of a major regeneration of the Gascoigne East estate in Barking, east London (pictured above), we have purposefully mixed the tenures within the blocks, with affordable, shared ownership and privately-owned apartments all sharing the same courtyard garden and amenities.

Well-designed, generously proportioned communal spaces allow people to feel comfortable, creating places to hang out and opportunities for interaction. It’s an especially sensitive issue in estate regeneration, where you’re designing a whole new neighbourhood. While residents might live in houses or apartments, I strongly believe that community exists in the places we share.