Real Estate Matters | Spatially close, socially apart(ment)

Sam Lee

Sam Lee is a marketing manager and property consultant at JML Property.  JML was established in 1994 and offers Investment Property & Homes. It specializes in managing properties for owners and investors, and providing attractive and comfortable homes for tenants.

Growing up and living in Asia most of my life, I have only ever lived in apartments. When I was growing up in South Korea, I thought that basically everybody on earth lived in buildings that are about 30 floors high, with 4 or more apartments per floor. Just like the one I lived in. Where else would you live?

Although apartment living is the ‘norm’ for a lot of people now, especially in Macau, it’s actually quite a strange concept if you think about it for a moment. Whoever thought to build sky-high structures and divide them into innumerable separate ‘homes’ stacked one on top of another, anyway?

Well, the idea is not very new. During the medieval Arabic-Islamic period, the Egyptian capital of Fustat (Old Cairo) housed many high-rise residential buildings, some seven stories tall that could reportedly accommodate hundreds of people. The ancient Romans also built structures called insulae for the lower and middle classes, which sometimes reached 10 or more stories.

The idea of the modern apartment however, was conceived in New York in the early 1800s. Inspired by Parisian ‘flats’, two New York architects convinced the then richest-man-in-New-York Rutherford Stuyvesant to build the first middle-class apartment building at the scale that we are familiar with today. It was a success. Donald Trump’s great great grandfather would have been jealous.

Apartment living is a method of habitation that was created to provide for modern times, an urban necessity of sorts. But is it ‘natural’?

Similar types of habitats do exist in nature. In fact, apartments are often equated to a ‘human ant-colony’. At first glance, the comparison seems quite apt. They’re both a matrix of interconnected spaces, it just so happens that one is underground and the other is above.

But there is one crucial difference. An ant colony is one giant home. An apartment block is a stack of separate homes. Unlike an ant colony, apartments have doors, and they’re always shut. And they’re getting more shut as time goes by, if that makes any sense. Perhaps the comparison is not so appropriate.

This can create a paradoxical situation of bringing people together but separating them at the same time. Spatially close, socially apart.

No wonder they call it an ‘apart’ment.

At least in my apartment building in Macau, it’s quite usual for neighbours who live on the same floor to quite literally never speak to each other. Even while waiting for the elevator in the mornings, not a word is spoken. Most of my attempts at greetings are either ignored or met with a reluctant grunt.

We live next to each other, we can sometimes hear each other going about doing our chores and even smell each other’s dinners in the evenings. At night, we sleep meters apart from each other, separately only by a wall or two. But we have no idea who each other are. It’s all quite strange, and sometimes can be very lonely.

I have a feeling that it wasn’t always like this.

Is the sense of neighbourly comradery of old something that we are readily willing to abandon as a collective? Or is it something that we can recreate through intentional social engineering?

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