Decoding the concrete jungle

Space is the Machine
March 28, 1997

Since Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson published The Social Logic of Space in 1984 on the theory of space syntax - the configurational laws which govern the structure of space in towns and buildings - their ideas have received world wide attention.

Architectural debate has traditionally been centred on aesthetic issues of style or on technology. This perception of buildings as art objects or as technical objects has consumed all discursive energy and squeezed out the most obvious notion, embedded in our deepest experience, of buildings as social objects. All our social relations are articulated by our bodies in space. Since we are not disembodied spirits floating in the ether, we, and everyone else, have be somewhere.

To understand the creation and the experience of space as key social processes awaited a theory. Space syntax provided it. By considering topological properties, the idea of "nextness", it made explicit and hence analysable the spatial structures of buildings and towns. At first these topological graphs, and axes of visibility and movement, looked like interesting abstractions. But gradually their explanatory and even predictive power became evident. When measures were applied to these structures to indicate the degree to which spaces were integrated with or segregated from the systems of which they formed parts, quite startling relationships emerged. Such widely different phenomena as the density of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, types of encounters and communications in organisations, the probability of house burglaries in estates, and the trading success of retail shopping became predictable.

Hillier's new book advances the theory and draws on recent empirical findings. There is now greater emphasis on configuration - patterns described in ways which take all relations into account. A space, whether a room in a building, a street or a housing estate, is always part of larger systems, both local - the adjacent cluster of rooms or streets, or immediate urban area, and global - the entire building or city. Space clusters people and things to enable functional intentions to be fulfilled - space for being in; and makes possible movement through and between functional spaces - space for moving through. Description and analysis of both local and global space structures begin to explain the success of "well-ordered" cities which are intelligible, rich in their natural movement patterns, and with a variety of local "places" as parts of a global structure. Here complex forms "give rise to the sense that everything is working together to create the special kinds of well-being and excitement that we associate with cities at their best".

The methods also explain, in the chapter "Can architecture cause social malaise?" the roots of the alienation, dysfunction and danger of many housing estates of the 1950s and 1960s. This is coupled to a brilliant attack on the paradigm of the machine and the behaviourist theories of architecture which underpinned ideas of social engineering for which Le Corbusier is often, wrongly, blamed. Theories which attempted to show that the material world directly causes behaviour are comprehensively demolished. They assumed a pseudomystical force, a kind of spark which leaps across from form to the mind, and thence to behaviour. The critique of modernist housing by Alice Coleman was based on this fallacy as were the territorial theories of defensible space by Oscar Newman.

For Hillier it is space which mediates between form and behaviour. The configurational properties of towns and buildings powerfully influence, but do not determine, movement, encounter, transactions, communications and the production of knowledge. These, in turn, are formative in shaping behaviour, feelings, perceptions and choices.

The book is divided into four parts: theoretical preliminaries, nondiscursive regularities, the laws of the field and theoretical synthesis. The 11 chapters are stimulating, copiously illustrated (including seven beautiful colour plates) and readable, even at their longest and most closely argued as in "Is architecture an ars combinatoria?", which shows why the combinatorial theories which yield a huge number of possible spatial solutions cannot explain the relatively restricted set which are usable. The analogy is with language: the words in a dictionary combined according to the rules of grammar yield a huge number of sentences most of which are nonsense. Language is not about this, but about the laws which restrict the combinational possibilities to meaningful statements. It is the same with space: the laws which govern configuration do not prescribe what should be designed, but do set out the limits within which possibilities "rich beyond imagination" exist.

Though only one chapter, "Visible colleges", focuses on buildings, the rest being weighted towards urban form, the book nevertheless explicitly address architects. The early chapters argue that just as we do not need to know the rules of grammar and syntax to speak, knowledge of space, good space, is "nondiscursive", tacit, hidden in our social nature, and effortlessly used in vernacular buildings and towns as a reproductive process. The final chapters argue that the new theories can turn space into discursive, explicit design knowledge, which transforms building into architecture and makes possible genuine innovation. This is a doubtful claim, for despite its use by some architects, the vast majority of spatial knowledge remains nondiscursive, nevertheless often resulting in innovative and meaningful space. When they do formalise it into a practice, but lack a sound theoretical base, they create the bizarre "unspeakable" spaces which the book describes. Following the author's analogy one would argue that creative poetry and novels, as distinct from repetitive vernacular story telling or folk verse, can only be written by authors with a knowledge of linguistics. This is not true. But it is unnecessary, perhaps even harmful to the development or use of the theory, to distinguish building from architecture.

Besides architects and planners, all those to whom the interface between society and its space is critical - geographers, sociologists, anthropologists and archaeologists will find this immensely illuminating. Equally, for the intelligent layperson struggling to make sense of the increasingly problematic and spatially "nonsensical" built environment, this is an essential guide.

Thomas A. Markus is professor of building science, University of Strathclyde.



Space is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture

Author - Bill Hillier
ISBN - 0 521 56039 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 463

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