What Buildings Do and Don’t Do

A tweet in my timeline yesterday made me think about the relationship between buildings and their effects and implications, or in short: what buildings do and don’t do. Here is the original statement:

Now, there is obviously nothing wrong with admiring a building and the article in Wired gives an interesting summary of the features of the building and links to more detailed resources including renderings and drawings by the architects (I actually retweeted it…).

What irritates me at the same time, however, is how carelessly buildings are often described. The media (large publishers, independent internet magazines as well as the everyday bloggers or tweeters) often quote the architects as sources of how the building is supposed to work for its occupants. For instance Wired argues that “the entire structure is, like so many good role-playing games, intentionally labyrinthine. It encourages ‘chance encounters,’ notes Morphosis [the architect].” So essentially, just because the architect says so, the building encourages one particular type of social behaviour. It is almost an automatism: this building fosters this, that space encourages that. We all know these phrases from typical architectural descriptions of buildings and I vividly remember a scene from architecture school where a group of students presented their designs at a crit and I seemed the only one cringing at the description “and here is our communication space”. I hope that the poor people moving into the future workplaces by those architects will know where to talk and where not to. What happens here is conflating building structure with real life usage, or conflating materials with peoples’ behaviours.

Seen simplistically, architecture begins by being just a piece of concrete or any other material, hopefully artfully assembled. Of course this material structure has important implications for space usage patterns and human behaviours. A wall is a wall and limits my movements and lines of sight, therefore my potential sets of behaviour as a building user. Unless the architect has provided an opening, I won’t be able to surmount a wall. This relationship between a spatial structure and its implications for social life lies exactly at the heart of my research interests. Using a method called ‘Space Syntax‘ I analyse complex buildings, their floor plans and layouts and how this can be related to patterns of usage and the social life emerging within them.

Wide corridors (spatial structure) allow for encounter between people (social behaviours) in this workplace

Wide corridors (spatial structure) allow for encounter between people (social behaviours) in this workplace

I would argue that spatial configuration or the floor plan of a building, i.e. its material structure has an influence on the potential of space usage, but not necessarily space usage itself.

Let me give an example: the Tate Britain is composed of an almost grid-like structure of rooms, often with 3 or 4 doors that leaves a visitor the choice to explore an exhibition according to their own taste. In contrast, some of the floors at the Tate Modern are structured more sequentially – rooms there have two doors, one leading into the space, one leading out of it. Therefore the visitor has fewer choices where to go and curatorial intent therefore is stronger, guiding the space user to a higher degree what to do next. Still of course, every individual visitor has a choice. Even in a sequentially structured museum I can choose to retrace my steps for instance. (For those interested: an excellent PhD on museum spaces explaining this relationship in depth has been written at UCL by Kali Tzortzi, and I have presented some of these thoughts on complex buildings in a recent poster presentation for the ‘Workshop on Information in Networks’ WIN 2012). 

The potential of space usage therefore never implies an automatism. Instead it works with probabilities and likelihoods. In a given spatial structure (described and analysed carefully), we can make predictions on how the majority of users will behave. We will never know for sure though, until we go and study this building in usage (and verify or falsify our hypotheses). Research has shown that the emergence of social behaviours within buildings follows certain rules, likelihoods and probabilities, but there can always be an element of surprise. Specifically complex behaviours like organisational cultures, serendipity, creativity or innovation cannot be planned and prescribed, as I have argued in my paper on ‘Spatiality and Transpatiality’, where we come to the conclusion that “most collective behaviours in workplace environments emerge in patterns unique to the organisation“.

This means that a strong organisational culture for instance can result in quite uncommon social behaviours that we might not have been able to predict with our spatial analysis models.

Coming back to the example of the Game Company’s Headquarter designed by Morphosis, the conflation of building structure and real-life usage doubly hurts in this particular case: firstly because the architectural firm claims their building generates random encounters, and random encounters are random for a reason – they can’t be prescribed. Secondly, because the majority of the material on the website of Morphosis regarding the project (images, floorplans, renderings) is devoid of people. The few people shown on pictures look like actors (good-looking, young, fashionable, well-placed in the images) and there are no traces of real usage of space (paper, mess, bags, coats, coffee mugs, flowers, pot plants, etc.). This is very common in architectural photography and I have complained about this in detail in another blog post already.

So where does this leave us?

I am basically advocating a greater level of precision when describing buildings. I am not only asking architects to do so, but everyone who talks about, writes about and thinks about buildings. I appreciate that not every building can be analysed in detail either in its spatial structure – to highlight potentials for space usage – or even more in depth, in its actual real usage by real people doing real things as part of their everyday lives. However, I would love to see at least some honesty and critical thinking reflected in writings about buildings.

So this is what buildings do (in my opinion): as material and spatial structures they create affordances, and some spaces may afford one usage more than another one, however, until we know what is really happening in a building, we shouldn’t pretend we do.

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