Architecture as a Social Space, or A Sociologist Reflects on Architecture

Dalia Čiupailaitė

Frequently, discussions on architecture do not look beyond the visual aspect of architecture – shape of a building, representational symbols, originality and uniqueness. Fotografavo Dalia Ciupailaite  Photo by D. Čiupailaitė.

Visual expression oriented perception of architecture manifests through photographs taken of architecture projects from high above or from further away to fit the entire building in the frame. Visual perception is an important issue of a discussion when it comes to architecture. There has been a case when some commission members during architecture Bachelor’s thesis defence got into a confrontation discussing whether the aesthetics of the project being defended is boring or subtle. The visual character of a building belongs to a domain of symbolic expression. It can mean political power, collective social identities, architectural fashions, architect’s intentions, message being conveyed, or become a commodity in the market of senses (as an iconic architecture, impressive, still lacking sense). The visual dimension of a building reveals aspects, known to architecture connoisseurs: the style, citations from other architectural works and ”sophisticated solutions.“

Walter Benjamin, a literary critic, aesthetics theoretician and urban researcher, singles out optical-visual and tactile experiences when he writes about the link between art work development in the modern era and shift in our perception and experience. According to Benjamin, architecture is among those forms of art which are experienced not only or not first of all visually, contemplating (as travellers look at the outstanding structures, frequently through the lenses of the camera), but in a tactile way, through every day practices, and, as Benjamin puts it, being distracted. It is not enough to look at buildings just visually, one should pay attention to the use, experience dimension and perception of relationships between people and activities and social relations in the building as a whole, i. e., perception of the building as space or more particularly, a social space.

Even in 1974, Henri Lefebvre in his famous „The Production of Space“ noted that space is not an empty container. Space is a social formation, shaped by social relations, expressing them and respectively structuring. Social relations and space are produced and reproduced one through the other. One can reflect on a social space on the level of states or on the level of cities, narrow the notion to a particular building, public space or apartment interior. Space materializes social relations; it is created according to visions, characteristic of historical periods, power hierarchies and images of a good society. Still, it is extremely important that the relationship between space and its users is not unambiguous. The properties of physical space (authors’ intentions and effects of buildings), spatial experience (covering both physical experience and the sense, aesthetic experience and staging of social relations), varying sense of space and its role in the social-historical context (in terms of both symbols and materials) are interconnected through this relationship. A conceived space is structuring relations, still, not always in the ways that have been expected. At the same time, space can be changed, recreated, appropriated and given a sense by its users. Thus, the building becomes not an objective assumed fact, but the entirety, which is moving, expressing, acting and changing. Architecture researchers apply many instruments in order to understand how architecture is „functioning“, or, according to Daniel Koch (2004), how it „creates the sense“ (1). In short, researchers are looking into the following issue: what relationship is between the spatial structure conceived and dimensions of its experience (physical experience, in terms of social relations and sense). One can understand such a complex relationship between the users and space applying the three-part dialectics of space (trialectics of space), introduced by Henri Lefebvre: space conceived or representations of space, space perceived or spatial practices and space lived or spaces of representations (space as it might be).

Let’s take a look at architecture through the prism of conceived space. We will deal with maps, models, architectural styles, urban plans, nets of flats in blocks of flats, auditoriums and classrooms in education institutions and library interiors. Such a conceived (created) space expresses visions of its creators; visions that might be categorized as follows: pursued interactions, pursued separations, definition of order (always to be constructed socially), definition of aesthetics (also to be constructed socially). A conceived space represents, provides possibilities, shapes particular relationships and ways of acting, moving and behaving. It can represent some specific aspects, for example, movement flows, i. e. how pupils are moving at school, and be connected to the ideology of the historical period, expressed through space, telling what society should be like, how is rest taken in this space, work is performed, creation takes place, diseases are coped with etc. A conceived space of a small scale – a building, a room – reveals desired (purposefully shaped, but not always properly, and not always properly functioning) relationships between people, people and objects, humans and some institution established in the building. The way in which the space is shaped represents what society should be like, alongside with social roles and power.

Representations of space or a conceived space can be analysed using several attributes, e. g., a representation, a plan or spatial aesthetics. Representation belongs to visual cognition domain (e. g., the glass dome of the Parliament in Berlin is meant to convey idea of transparency of authority activities). Representation can express an idea (e. g., democratic governance, transparency) on a symbolic level, still, in terms of relationship dissemination in space, the plan of space plays the main role. The plan expresses the morphological dimension of space, i. e., space is perceived as a system of configuration by proportioning. The plan determines relationships through allocation of spaces, allocation through space and allocation in spaces. Allocation of space means relationship between spaces (their control, privacy, relationship depth, which of spaces will be more public and which more private). Allocation in space indicates how people and objects will be localized in space, and relationship between them shaped accordingly. Spatial relationship expresses and orients assumptions of social relations as well (isolation, encounter, passing by and control). This way, space materialises, expresses social relations in space (through allocation of people according to gender, status and roles). Allocation through space orients movement flows. Such an allocation determines, where in the building people will move most, where a possibility for contact will emerge and where such a possibility will be limited, which places will be the most peaceful, and which of them will require control of the highest level. For example, a pervious structure, a lot of possibilities of movement from one space to another, lots of connections between spaces, many paths to reach the same space, will dissipate control. In a linear structure, where one must cross many spaces in order to get to a certain one, a high degree control will be characteristic of. High depth will be characteristic of the farthest space and it will be controlled most or it will be a centre for power. A lounge, from which only auditoriums or reading rooms in the library can be reached, will have high degree control. A tree-shaped or a fan-shaped control scheme concentrates control in the central space, from which other spaces are reached (2). The plan creates boundaries. A boundary, according to Georg Simmel, a precursor of urban sociology and a classical sociologist, is a social fact, embodied in space. Later the subject of boundary has been developed in the theory of space syntax – the boundary shapes relationship, juxtaposition and mutual (non)perception of such a juxtaposition, which makes assumptions for complicated configurations of social interactions in different spaces. Analysis of the plan assists in explaining, why some spaces create particular impacts, still we cannot not identify closed spaces with control, and open ones with liberty unambiguously. The plan is not linked with the impact and sense created by architecture unambiguously. An open space can mark and symbolize liberty, still such a practice may not occur. It may not serve user interests, because the plan, a morphological or configurative dimension of space interacts with cultural forms of activities being performed in this space. For instance, towards what are plan and interior of a school oriented? Who benefits from it? Schoolchildren, teachers, school administration or parents? What relationship is between comfort, cosiness and control, what learning model the school implies: individual, creation in groups or showing obedience? It is not sufficient to have just formal properties of space. The properties of space: openness, linkage, control, linearity and others are related to cultural provisions regarding social activity meanings, human behaviour models and preferences in respect of spatial configurations, e. g. in the libraries one kind of work is performed while the cafes are practiced in other way. Work can be performed in the cafe and in the library still human expectations in respect of noise and quiet or people closeness will be different. (A discourse concerning relationship between architecture and sound would require a separate text. When stressing a visual attention paid to architecture, sometimes some discussion’s participants forget that architecture users fill the white space of building (especially that of particular buildings) not only with colours and movement, but the emanating sound as well! When spatial relations in the building are an object of concern, it is always worth thinking about them in respect of sound emanation). Thus, functionality of the building should be approached more broadly and with more nuances than the definition of the main purpose. The principles of urban functionalism determined in the 20th century have divided human life into work, sleep, rest time periods, linked them to tansport arteries and have organized human life respectively. Still, human needs should not be understood just as a list of human activities or such a list only. For example, to read or study in the library, work, sleep, eat or put clothes into the wardrobe. Human needs in their interaction with space are arranged in the continuum of ambitions, complementing each other and contradicting each other. Among them there are need for safety and adventure, assurance, prediction and surprise, similarity and difference, direct experience and durability, loneliness and communication, need to accumulate energy and waste it, need for isolation and encounter (e. g. in the library – to work quetly, be concentrated, encounter an acquitance and have a small talk, meet a stranger and have a chat, get familiarized, work in a group – all this requires appropriate spaces; while appropriate spaces create interaction ways, e. g., a rest room in the library, where a common table is, at which people eat food they have brought to, encourages talk, familiarization, friendships, cooperation, joint projects, science development and marriages). Those needs are not only needs of different people, but the needs of the same person changing in time, e. g., when working in the library to distract oneself, reflect on something, have a walk, change environment, talk to someone and again concentrate oneself in the quiet.


Thus, the morphological structure of space, expressing the sense of space, interacts with specific cultures of use of buildings and broader characteristics of social groups. Aside from the plan and its relation to variety in social activities and actors, it is important to take into consideration the aesthetics of the building as well. Aesthetics in architecture (together with urban design) acts through several dimensions. First of all, according to Walter Benjamin and Jacques Rancière, it would be the method of allocation in space itself, which has been discussed above, – the plan. Still, aesthetics is significant as well if one takes into account another several dimensions. First, as a standard of taste, it demonstrates stylistic preferences of a society layer it is oriented to. “Good taste“ is not an objective given. It shows preferences of taste of a particular society layer, and correspondingly may repel those, to whom such an aesthetics is not acceptable. Setha Low describes everything’s nice aesthetics, intended for pushing out unwanted society members. For example, Bernardine Gardens in Vilnius repels some previous visitors. As one of the park visitors puts it, it is “a small park of fairs with gnomes“, in which “there is no place“ for him (3); still, this park attracts visitors that adhere to other type conception of social order. Aesthetics may be abstract (or maybe it is possible to seek to create an abstract aesthetics), still, usually it refers to a social status, gender, life style etc. This way it becomes linked (although its creator not necessarily is expecting this) to the expectations in the space: for whom is intended this space?

Another aspect – experience dimensions that constitute assumptions for phenomenological experience of space. How the building is presented to the user as a program of sensual experience (4). This means impact of the structure itself and that of its materiality: depressing, inspiring, reminding, creating feelings through its tactiliness, odour and colour. Spatial rythmics is an important aspect of experience: people experience closed and open spaces, small or large ones. Different spaces are experienced differently and differently they organize interactions and behaviour. Aesthetic dimensions are related not only by means of style-based options of objects, but also through the scope of a look: possibility to look over the window, to see the whole space there. According to David Seamon, an author who is among those who extremely thoroughly investigates architecture in terms of phenomenology, a building, in terms of phenomenolgy, is the whole of experiences, actions, situation and events. These experiences and situations are created by individuals and groups that use the building for living, working, having a rest in there etc.

Space created and planned by architects and filled with objects has impact on people‘s usual “taken for granted“ methods of acitvity, movement, interaction, determined by space plan and objects existing in space. Space is acting implying certain ways of its use, indicating specific pathways for movement; relationships between users; relations with objects: expectations in respect of behaviour in the space, and expectations in respect of use of the objects (if these chairs are arranged in an open space, this means that I can take away one of them wherever I want). Methods of space use that are taken for granted and follow the proposals dictated by the plan, by Henri Lefebvre are called spatial practices. Spatial practices almost always are involuntary. Definitions of spatial practices and lived space allow revealing the complicated relationship between obeyance and transformation, which is characteristic of relationship between users and space. On the one hand, we behave in space habitually (as usual), and accept space as a background “taken for granted“, on the other hand, relation with the space is not just passive and obedient.
We may look at a building as to a narration. Its sense is proposed by the spatial system: what story, what movement, what social order it implies. The work itself, like any other work of art, obtains new senses when it is interpreted. Architecture author’s intentions and perception of the work, expressed through the use, are linked by interpretation process. This can be explained comparing architecture to narration and novel. Differently from the spoken tradition, where narrator and listeners participate directly and are linked by common senses, in the written culture, a novel is written and read when being alone. A work, the narration of which is created by the author is and may be reread after “the author has retreated“, providing it with senses, which are discerned by the reader. In 2013, there was a discussion on topic of architecture press at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. One female participant, who was observing the discussion, provided comments that architects should tell how users of buildings should perceive them and how they should feel in those buildings. Still, this cannot be done, as experience belongs to the user of the building, still at the same time the architect “tells“ the user how to feel through the kind of space he/she has conceived. Still, both symbolic and experience coding and decoding are not processes directly corresponding to each other; in a radical case, if most attention is paid to the visual and symbolic dimensions of architecture, full misunderstanding between the author and the reader may occur. In this respect, analysis of relationship between readers and the author, proposed by Michel de Certeau, is meaningful. According to de Certeau, users and readers are not passive. Such an approach provides producers-authors with privileges, users are simplified to the level of passive public that does not have historical role. “To write means to produce a text; to read – to obtain it from somebody, not leaving any mark of yourself, not recreating it“. This way, the recipients should just reproduce everything that has been “written“ for them. De Certeau argues such a perception of a passive reader. Users are creative entities. They create, using things that are “at hand“ and the system: “to read means to wander/travel throughout the system provided“ The same is in respect of architecture: architecture “readers“ leave marks and may recreate it. The readers do not take over author‘s position, still they create something different in the text from aspects that have been envisaged by the author.

De Certeau proposes to analyse, what reading process is, what its modalities and typology are. This is done by male or female sociologists of space/architecture. He or she are analysing, as one of their assignments, what existing methods of building “reading“ are, what is the process, types and interpretations of different groups. Although I have equated architecture with a novel, the meaning of which is sought by the reader without author‘s participation, this reading takes place not like a reading of a text, a visual object, requiring concentration, but reading while being distracted, mostly (most frequently!) unconsciously, i. e., experiencing the buildings in a tactile way as a medium (not background) enabling our everyday existence. Thus, some gap occurs here: the building is created like a novel, and as a novel it means a separate creative work, perceived beyond the author, still it is perceived not as a novel but being in the state of dispersed tactile perception. The vision of architects, spatial system, conceived by them, will have impact on the users of building, but how the building will be sensed, perceived and lived will be caused by relationship between the spatial system and activities performed in it, and by the need of users and their experience.
Also, space itself is changing at least by several dimensions. It is being transformed and transforming itself and changing in time. The space is created at its historical time, and expresses and corresponds to certain social conditions, and is transformed when those conditions are changing, or becomes restricting, rise questions, like sleeping districts in post-socialistic cities do. Through taking space into possession by people, it is transformed, leaving footmarks, and sometimes it is remade radically (like Le Corbusier’s housing development in Pessac). Space appropriation is a meaningful (maybe even most important?) dimension of relationship between users and space. In order to have space homey, people transform it. Lived space or space of representation is a broader notion, indicating towards space, obtained personally significant and collectively symbolic sense. This is home, which is filled with objects personally important to people. This is churches in the city that create sense of history and sense of a meaningful place. If people are not able to appropriate space, even temporarily, it remains a neutral, allied space. The anthropologist Marc Auge discerns development of such places in the modern society, and he calls them not places, but “non-places“. It is a marginal example of space without identity marks, reminding of airports. Personal attachment and experience provide spaces with colours, fills them with stories and make them historically meaningful. According to Michel de Certeau, only places haunted with ghosts are suitable for people to live in (this way a modernistic block of flats obtains unequivocal trajectory of development: a) desired as a modern space, in which good life conditions are assured (heating, hot water); b) criticized as space of alienation, place of losing close relationships characteristic of cities; c) cherished as a nostalgic space of childhood and home.)

To summarize, space features a certain objectivity. It should not be treated only relatively, relating it with the different tastes or different ways of use. The plan diverts flows, enables and restricts activities. If an irregular grid is characteristic of a city plan, different spatial layers intertwine, and this promotes movement throughout the entire space, potential juxtaposition, potential encounter, and communication caused by it. If the plan has a shape of a tree, it promotes separation of movement paths of different groups of people and statics. If space is monotonous, the same in terms of aesthetics, “taking a walk” in there will differ from that diverse in terms of aesthetics and time. Still, space cannot be interpreted just as acting objectively either, because it is transformed, experienced differently, merges into the whole of social, political, economic, personal, romantic and other type relations. Relationship between the fact that space is physically created due to the plan, in terms of aesthetics and volume, and the fact that the space is created by an experiencing subject and experiencing subjects, is of multiple dimensions. Michel de Certeau links such a shaping of space and use of space to the strategy (producer‘s perspective) and tactics (users‘ adaptations) when he writes about viewer (Voyer) and wanderer (Wandermaenner) perspectives. Voyers look at space and shapes it from above. This is architect’s look at a building as a model, a plan, a map, in which first of all things are mapped. Wandering people, users of space, experience space at the level of street, of eyes and act in conceived space applying methods known for them.

Creation of architecture means enabling and domineering. Space is created for action, relations, socializing, still, also methods are created, by means of which the power is allocated. Buildings that correspond to existing models of culture are able to consolidate the existing forms of social interactions and forms of power respectively; on the other hand, when looking for new forms, the users are forced to interact using new spatial assumptions, which do not match cultural expectations. This way, new forms of interaction are developed, or users transform the building so that it will be adapted to cultural expectations. A question arises: what a female architect should do. Comply with existing forms of interaction or create new ones? What space will be considered good? This question will always remain open and situational-experimental. It depends not only on scientific knowledge, including sociology as well, about human activity and interaction, but also on the goal related to spaces we want to create and for whom. One could perform experiments on spaces, creating possibilities for various interactions, still it is worth doing it sensitively, understanding specific cultural assumptions. It is important to keep balance between spatial determinism and provision that space entirely affects people and relativism, not noticing space importance at all. To keep balance between thinking that it is possible through the structure of space to create a wanted behaviour, and provision that people adapt themselves to any space, thus refusing any search for ways of creating a “good space“. It is worth searching for an intermediate position, taking into consideration the fact that space encourages spatial practices indeed – among them there may be movement, staying in a place, encountering, limiting, possibilities for team action and individualizing; still, these methods interact with cultural conventions respectively. People are not just small figures in space: they bring group interaction models, identities, statuses, which are linked to different social institutions when studying, providing health care, practising culture of bars etc. On the other hand, people adapt themselves to spaces indeed, which may be not comfortable, even hostile, and transform them as well. Henri Lefebvre (1996:151) proposes to conduct experiments while conceiving spaces. “They can take you by surprise. What places are successful and what could be successful? How one could find them? Based on what criteria search for them could be? What time of day and what rhythms are written and prescribed in those “successful” spaces favourable to happiness. That is interesting.“

(1) In relation to experience dimension analysis, phenomenological and hermeneutical approaches can be distinguished, as David Seamon distinguishes experience and sense dimensions respectively. One may focus on plan analysis, as it is proposed by authors acting in space syntax perspective. In visual aspect, it is purposeful to analyse symbols of visual expression of a building.
(2) Daniel Koch (2004) investigated such distribution of the three libraries, examining  how through the space formation is expressed the nature of knowledge creation. In the three-dimensional structure, which distributes the movements, separates or integrates visitors formed social-spacial relationship between the visitors and their relationship with objects.
(3) Interview by Edwin Valikonis in 2014. The Comparative Study of Parks.
(4) For example, Julie Brand Zook (2012) examines the social directing through the space syntax and sensory experience- phenomenological dimension of the relationship at the Central Public Library of Seattle.

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Benjamin, W. 2005. Nušvitimai. Vilnius: Vaga, p. 214–244.
De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Koch, D. 2004. Spatial Systems as Producers of Meaning – the idea of knowledge in three public libraries. KTH School of Architecture.
Lefebre, H. 1996. Writings on Cities. Henri Lefebvre, Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (eds.). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Lefebre, H. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford, Cambridge: Blackwell.
Low, S. 2006. „How Private Interests Take Over Public Space: Zoning, Taxes, and incorporation of Gated Communities“, in Setha Low and Neil Smith (eds.) The Politics of Public Space. New York, London: Routledge: 81 – 105.
Seamon, D. (forthcoming, 2016). “Architecture, Phenomenology, and Hermeneutics–A Phenomenological and Hermeneutic Reading of Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library: Buildings as Lifeworlds and Architectural Texts”, pre-publication draft of a chapter for an edited volume on interdisciplinary research perspectives in architecture, edited by Ruth Dalton and Christoph Hölscher.
Simmel, G. 2007. The Social Boundary, Theory, Culture & Society 24(7–8): 53–56 [1908].