The Secret Life of Buildings

Or: The Good, The Bad and The Shiny.

Channel 4’s series on ‘The Secret Life of Buildings‘, broadcast in August 2011 is a fascinating inquiry into the way buildings affect people. Three episodes on our homes, our workplaces and places of leisure looked at examples of good design and bad design.

I can whole-heartedly approve of the general message: architecture should be there for the people who use it. It should make us feel good, help us achieve the things we want to achieve and contribute positively to our lives with beauty, identity, satisfaction and fun. Unfortunately, more often than not it seems, buildings make us miserable, stand in our way or simply do not care about people.

I should correct his: it’s not the buildings that don’t care, it’s the architects who don’t care.

In this sense, the series provides a useful name-and-shame platform: the Chanel Contemporary Art Container by Zaha Hadid, the Casa Da Musica in Porto by Rem Koolhaas, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank Gehry, the so called Gherkin by Norman Foster, the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind – all of them got scolded for creating shallow icons that do not touch us, that cannot be appropriated by the users, that are neither inhabitable, nor enjoyable.

Moreover, some fascinating examples of good architecture were presented that were designed with people in mind, for instance the 8 House in Copenhagen by Bjarke Ingels Group, the Maggies Centre in London by Rogers, Stirk, Harbours and Partner, the Kingsdale Schoolin London by De Rijike, Marsh, Morgan Architects, the BMW factoryin Leipzig by Zaha Hadid, or the offices of Centraal Beheer in Appeldorn by Herman Hertzberger.

An inspiring workplace: the BMW factory in Leipzig

I really liked the scientific touch of the series, for instance blood and urine tests to show the impact of living with lower levels of light in your home, brain tests to monitor distraction in the workplace, or eye tracking to analyse levels of attention in shopping malls. However, the science in the programme was limited to mostly neuroscience and psychology with an almost complete absence of scientific approaches in architecture, like Space Syntax.

For instance in the ‘Home’ episode, presenter Tom Dyckhoff argued that the secret ingredients for good architecture were space, light, material, design and proportion. Throughout the series adaptability of space, flexibility and openness for appropriation and usage were praised in addition. But what was missing from the whole discussion was the aspect of configuration. A home not only wins or fails by its design, but also due to its position to its neighbours, its interface with the street and the urban realm, so in short its connections to the outside world.

The same goes for offices: while people in the office mainly featured as an annoyance for concentration in our vast open-plan offices, their importance for our social life in their roles as colleagues, friends, collaborators, sources of inspiration or support was ignored. Space Syntax in its analysis of patterns of movement and encounter could have shed light on the importance of meeting other people in offices and how space helps us to achieve creativity, knowledge creation and exchange by bumping into the right people at the right time. This is a configurational problem and we know from many studies which types of office layout inhibit or foster the productive get together of people.

Another missed opportunity was the lack of coverage of evidence-based design. At least in the ‘Home’ episode, community-based design was featured, yet there is such a wide field of newly emerging design practices that rely on scientific evidence of how architecture works, for instance in health buildings or offices, and it is a pity that this was not part of the programme.

In summary, the series was a delight to watch and inspiring. It struck the right balance between a critical view of overly egoistic architects and an appraisal of good design. I just wish that architecture as a science and evidence-based design practice would have featured more prominently.

One thought on “The Secret Life of Buildings

  1. Hi Kerstin, thanks for your comment on
    I think you are right to highlight the issue of configuration. Dyckhoff hinted at this when he presented the example of a humble pub whose people make the space. However he could have gone further to talk about the places in which all buildings were situated. Ultimately I agree that you have to talk about space and place in the same conversation. Reputation of an area will prevent many from purchasing or renting a great property in a ‘poor’ area.
    Another criticism I would add to ‘The Secret Life of Buildings’ was that its coverage of the UK was very London centric. So I tried to address this with my blog post by discussing buildings in Glasgow and Leeds.

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