When We Live Alone CCA

The CCA explores tensions in contemporary urban living in a new film

The short film, When We Live Alone, complements the ongoing Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibition A Section of Now.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s exhibition A Section of Now: Social Norms and Rituals as Sites for Architectural Intervention, which runs through May 1, is as overwhelming as it is thought-provoking. Paired with a screening of the short documentary When We Live Alone, the exhibition tour and screening explore the tensions in contemporary urban living.

The exhibition is divided into seven rooms, all representing a different theme: family, property ownership, agency and activism, labour, technological obsession (somewhat ironically, the most sparse) and life cycles. The rooms are stuffed with photographs, architecture models, looped videos, stacks of books and maps. It should be noted that, although the documentary focuses on Tokyo, the exhibition focused almost exclusively on countries in North America and Europe. The architectural interventions in the Global South are left off the map.

The exhibition addresses the pandemic’s role in exacerbating social rituals and ideologies without overshadowing the preexistence of these issues. Homelessness, income inequality, racial injustice and the prioritization of convenience at the cost of people’s safety demand robust public infrastructures. Yet, temporary solutions do not always produce drastic change. In the ownership room, a map of Los Angeles marks which spots allow people to live and sleep in their car. Decriminalizing a by-product of poverty should not stand in for providing adequate shelter. A Section of Now, then is not for those easily discouraged. There is something hopeful in seeing the number of architectural models: the creativity and problem-solving is exciting. Let us hope they make it past the card stock and foam. 

When We Live Alone CCA
When We Live Alone, CCA

The documentary film takes on an emerging phenomenon in a compelling way. Whether someone is speaking about social media, Gen Z or the pandemic, if you listen long enough you’ll likely hear someone confidently lament that a “loneliness epidemic” is sweeping the West. The rate of solitary living has gone up (in Stockholm, 60% of all households are inhabited by one person), and yet this claim conflates living alone with loneliness.

One can then imagine what a film on the subject of living alone might look like. Directed by Daniel Schwartz and produced by CCA director Giovanna Borasi (who also curated A Section of Now), the short documentary When We Live Alone skirts this alarmist angle for a more complex and intermediated approach. Instead of prying through the blinds looking for loneliness, Schwartz is more interested in pulling back the curtain on the “when” of living alone than the “why.” The “when” refers mostly to how a city responds to the increase in solo living. In a hyper-densely populated city such as Tokyo, where the film was shot, the home cannot offer its dwellers everything required to live. The city responds accordingly.

The documentary details the externalization of the home’s functions through commercialized spaces, such as ramen shops, internet cafés and convenience stores. Anyone who has spent more than an hour in Tokyo (or even on Google Maps) can testify to the inordinate number of convenience stores. They sell enough prepared food to allow customers with tiny or nonexistent kitchens to avoid cooking altogether. The “why” of it isn’t ignored entirely, however — the communications revolution made living alone while being social much easier — yet the documentary is wise to not spend too much time on the scaffolding before moving into the house, so to speak. 

When We Live Alone, CCA
When We Live Alone, CCA

The film begins with an excerpt from renowned sociologist Eric Klinenberg, which grounds the film in an appropriately scientific context. Schwartz, however, does not overwhelm the viewer with graphs and figures. A half dozen interviews interspersed with observational moments amount to a meditative and engaging experience. The architect Takahashi Ippei and the sociologist Yoshikazu Nango, both of whom live alone, provide necessary insight into Japan’s response to this increase in demand for single-home dwellings. If urban population density is a threat to climate change and more people want to live alone, then Ippei urges us to radically redesign the one-bedroom apartment. Do we all need baths in our apartments if we spend less than an hour in them a day? Ippei’s proposed designs encourage social interaction amongst building-mates while allowing for privacy.

One issue the film and the exhibition don’t emphasize as much as they could is the distinction between privately funded ventures and state-sponsored initiatives. Who is funding the future and who is paying the price now? ■

The CCA is holding an event related to A Section of Now, Concerning the Property That Concerns Us, on April 14. For more about the Canadian Centre for Architecture, please visit the CCA website.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.