Form & spatial legibility

What shape should a building have? Should it have a simple shape? From what should the shape be derived? And should the shape be comprehensible, or have precedent: does a building need to be ‘legible’?

John Summerson, in his 1941 essay ‘The Mischievous Analogy’, writes that 20th century architects have become obsessed with the “relation of architecture to other things” by way of a “world-tour of contemporary life—scientific research, sociology, psychology, engineering, the arts and a great many other things”. In doing so, they have alienated themselves from the architect’s position as being fundamentally that of an artist with some sort of relationship to tradition, even though the relationship may be transformative. This alienation—for Summerson—is unsustainable: the architect cannot let go of artistic style as his or her central concern, and style—a way of handling form—has heritage.

Summerson’s view of the preoccupations of modernism is borne out in a 1960 essay of Reyner Banham titled ‘Stocktaking’. For Banham, the history of modern architecture is evidence of a sluggish gradualism: although some accommodations have been made—by some progressives—to new methods and requirements, architecture remains at risk of sudden overtake by social and technological advance. For example, the Monsanto company might start to sell millions of factory-made houses, meeting a fundamental human need for shelter—environmental protection—by other means altogether. He also talk of a “scientific aesthetic” where design choices will be made based on evidence about the “effect of certain colours, forms, symbols, spaces, lighting levels … on human viewers”. Implicit in this is that there may be no way to tell where the evidence will lead.

Underlying both positions is an anxiety about the role of architects. For Banham, this anxiety takes on a certain joy of obsolescence; for Banham, the architect should welcome the dissolution of architectural activity and its replacement by other activities. Is this anxiety (or excitement) justified? Possibly not: the role of an industrial designer has a lot of overlap with that of an architect, even as traditionally conceived. For any made object (of any era) a designer has to weight trade offs, and there are ethical dimensions to this activity. And obviously there is still a place for aesthetics: the look and feel of an object may be subsumed under ‘commercial appeal’ but this is just a reframing of the commissioning relationship: instead of one patron, on one site; many consumer customers, in many places. So, production and distribution methods may change; it’s likely that there will still be designers of buildings: architects.

However, the difference of view between the two writers is deeper than the issue of how architects should stand in relation to their societies. The difference is to do with how designers of buildings should proceed. What should be their central concern? In his 1957 essay ‘The Case for a Theory of Modern Architecture’, Summerson advocates a switch in fundamental justification for architectural form. Previously, antique forms (classical or medieval) had provided “a bulwark of certainty, of unarguable authority on which [the architect’s] understanding leans while his conception of the building as a whole, as a unity, takes shape”. If this is to be rejected, the modern designer first needs an equivalent justification—or so Summerson argues—and for Summerson an answer can found in programme: the expected occupancy levels and use patterns of a building, with their implied spatial dimensions and relationships. This programme must then be communicated clearly by way of “regular solids and simple ratios”. Hence, notwithstanding the new concern with programme, there remains a continuity from pre-modern architecture. For Banham, this sort of continuity is merely a holdover—an architectural “addiction to formality”—a continuity that simply lacks any foundation. But for Summerson, the continuity is unavoidable. Even where curved geometry is used, no matter how sophisticated, there will still need to be a ‘shadow’ organising form, essentially orthogonal or otherwise simple, and comprehensible for that reason. This claims something about people; that we are reassured by the use of simple geometries in buildings, or at least the perceptible ghosts of simple geometries; such usage helps us to understand and navigate those buildings: “we shall always seek to read through the complex to the simple, to seek the assurance of those simplicities which must be implied even when they are not stated”.

But what evidence supports this claim about people? The American town planner Kevin Lynch, in his 1960 book ‘The Image of the City’, describes the results of interviews with residents of three cities: Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. Lynch asked respondents (thirty for Boston, fifteen each for the other two locations) to answer from memory questions such as ‘where is x located?’ and ‘what are the distinctive parts of the city?’. He also asked the respondents to draw maps of areas they knew. Alongside this primary research, Lynch presents fragments of prior anthropology, for instance: “Sapir gives an interesting example … in the language of the southern Paiute. They have single terms in their vocabulary for such precise topographical features as a ‘spot of level ground in mountains surrounded by ridges’ or ‘canyon wall receiving sunlight’ or ‘rolling country intersected by several small hill ridges’. Such accurate reference to topography is necessary for definite locations in a semi-arid region.” ‘The Image of the City’ is animated by a keen sense of what it is like to be lost:

“… let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word ‘lost’ in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster.”

Lynch uses his research as a base to argue for a reform of spatial planning. For Lynch, successful spatial plans are ‘imageable’; that is, inhabitants of a place or settlement must be able to make reasonably accurate mental maps of that place or settlement. They will be greatly facilitated in doing this if designers include into their designs differentiable features such as landmarks or edges (“boundaries between two kinds of areas”).

One point that can be made here is that Lynch’s research is not behavioural: respondents were not observed but interviewed, and Lynch is interested in the content of their reports. Banham’s contemporaneous call for a “scientific aesthetic” based on “effects … on human viewers”, by contrast, looks naive. Psychology does not look only at behaviour and psychologists give weight to personal accounts.

This, though, is a side point. What stands out more is that the sort of primary research done by Lynch seems to be exactly part of that “world-tour of contemporary life … sociology, psychology” that Summerson says architects have wrongly strayed into. Indeed, the Lynchian approach seems to offer Summerson a way to acquire an evidential base, and the idea of ‘imageability’ looks to be friendly to the use of simple, comprehensible geometries. This might not mean orthogonality. Lynch stresses topology; the maps drawn by interviewees were often distorted but rarely “torn and sewn back together in another order”. However, a terrain with landmarks is key; as one respondent said: “I like to think of a few focal points and how to get from one to another, and the rest I don’t bother to learn”. Lynch also highlights the case of Boston Common, which has “a most peculiar shape, difficult to remember: a five-sided, right-angled figure … two of the bounding paths, Boylston and Tremont Streets, are of city-wide importance … here they cross at right angles, but farther out they seem to be parallel … all this adds up to a critical ambiguity of shape at the city core, a major orientation flaw”. So orthogonality might not be necessary to Lynchian imageability, but the consistency it brings may be helpful.

One objection here might be that Lynch is writing about settlements, whereas Summerson and Banham are focussed on buildings. But does this really matter? Barring cognitive deficits (and Lynch mentions this) it seems unlikely that anyone would get lost at home, given domestic scale and familiarity. However, it doesn’t take a very large increase in scale from the domestic for the effects of legibility—or the lack of it—to be felt. Once you reach the scale of a hospital, or an airport, the possibility of becoming lost is acute, and wayfinding becomes essential to the design brief. Typically, wayfinding focuses on signage and similar, but this is of course can be highly problematic; following coloured lines on the floor is routinely despised, and many people find airport movement—navigating from sign to sign—stressful.

Here I’d like to look at two examples. The first is the British Library building in St Pancras, by Long and St John Wilson, designed between 1982 and 1999 (pictured above). The plan of this large and complex building is not rectangular, and the change in angle across the plan corresponds to a basic split in library subject matter: ‘humanities’ and ‘science’. Within each area of the building, though, the geometry is orthogonal.

In Lynchian terms the building looks to be highly ‘imageable’; it has regularities that allow safe inferences about how things will work—what will be found where—but also has irregularities and contrasts that allow users to mentally turn features into ‘landmarks’. In places, the interior approaches a kind of miniature indoor urbanism: there is a minaret-like lift tower in the north-east corner of the central space, and the George III collection is housed in a ‘building within a building’, and given a unique dark glass cladding. This looks to further help legibility; whether the implicit orientalism—a ‘qaaba’ of books—is culturally appropriate is a separate question.

My second example is the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, by Zaha Hadid Architects,  2007-2012 (pictured above). This is a well-executed building of similar scale to the British Library. The complex geometries in use here are virtuosic and in a sense contemporary; ‘fresher’ than the Long and St John Wilson building. However, the building also looks to be in scope for Summerson when he writes in 1957 of “unfamiliar and complex forms … plans [that] wriggle in the wildest of ‘free’ curves … forms of great precision but visually unreadable complexity”. Nothing in the Heydar Aliyev Centre strictly repeats—although the main auditorium is symmetrical—but there is a high degree of visual uniformity, both formal and material. This satisfies the design urge to make things consistent, to remove geometric conflict; the ‘unresolved’ or difficult intersection. But does it help legibility?

In a 2008 document titled ‘Parametricism as Style: Parametricist Manifesto’, the architect Patrik Schumacher (of Zaha Hadid Architects) writes:

“Modernism was founded on the concept of space. Parametricism differentiates fields. … We might think of liquids in motion, structured by radiating waves, laminar flows, and spiralling eddies… We would like to think of swarms of buildings that drift across the landscape. Or we might think of large continuous interiors like open landscapes or big exhibition halls of the kind used for trade fairs. Such interiors are visually infinitely [sic] deep and contain various swarms of furniture coalescing with the dynamic swarms of human bodies. There are no platonic, discrete figures with sharp outlines. … Imagine there are no more landmarks to hold on, no axis to follow and no more boundaries to cross.”

I think what’s interesting here is the acknowledgement of a Lynchian view of things—“no more landmarks”—along with a clear statement of intent: users of buildings will navigate in a different way than before. There will still be aids to navigation—forms may gesture at organisation and layout—but the use of contrast and sharp delineation is deprecated. You might have been used to all that once, Schumacher says. Here is a better way. But just as with Summerson’s advocacy of platonic forms, we can ask: what supports this? Where is the fieldwork?