Architecture for the people

Architecture for the people

Buildings are designed for living, working, sleeping and so on. When buildings bring people togeter this requires public spaces. The more people using this public space, the more neutral and efficient the architecture should be. One has only to compare a hotel lobby to a shopping mall to understand how different needs and uses in the various scales of functions and square meters influence the design of public space. 

The rise of the consumer society in the 1960s has forced architects, contractors and developers alike to rethink their role as creators of public space. To design high quality space while at the same time working with the unwritten laws of numbers and money? Since then they have tried to find a balance between these two impulses in every way imaginable. And when people’s needs change, so does architecture for the people. In public spaces people have a tendency to mark off their own territory, such as by putting a photo on their desk at work or putting their coat on the seat next to them in the train. In large public buildings such as transport hubs, people unsure of their route almost always head to the right and head for the lightest areas. In public toilets, the toilet cubicles are almost always arranged at right angles to the door, because people don’t like to look directly at toilets. Extroverted people need less office space than introverted people and generally have more lively decorations in their workspaces. And why do we always buy more than we planned to when we go to IKEA? After having wandered along the arrow-marked path for half an hour, we want to feel like there’s a purpose to the time we’ve spent. All this information about human behaviour is derived from scientific research in the field of environmental psychology.

Maximise moments

For architects, contractors and investors this kind of knowledge is essential. Buildings like shopping centres and libraries have developed into places which also encourage recreation, relaxation, and encounters with others. In this sense they are following the trend of railway stations, airports, and museums. Here, public spaces are designed to maximise moments for sitting and talking, walking and shopping, passing the time and meeting people. And whether the space is the lobby of a block of flats, the atrium of an office building, the reception area of a hospital, or the foyer of a theatre – the more generic the purpose of a building, the more generic its shape language. 


Vennsela Library
©Helen & Hard AS - Photo: Hufton + Crow

What effect does this have on developments and trends in architecture? The power of large numbers and big money is what drives standardisation. Standardisation made post-war social housing and large-scale production processes possible, but it also meant that architects became much more political and economic in their work. Should architects be willing to be so closely connected with the rationalisation of the building process? Or would this distract them from the architect’s ultimate task: to create an autonomous, cultural, and ideological language of shapes? This was the debate in the 70s of the previous century, headed by Manfredo Tafuri who discussed the relationship between architecture and capitalism in his book ‘Architecture and Utopia’ (1973). What he meant exactly only became clear some twenty years later, when economy and subsequently architecture were booming. After all, the flip side of architecture for the masses is the presence of chains such as McDonald’s and IKEA which are the same everywhere in the world. And that results not just in interchangeable buildings, but also in interchangeable cities. The French anthropologist Marc Augé discussed this phenomenon in 1992 in his essay ‘Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity’ (Non Lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité).

The meeting decks and passarelles at Barco's headquarters are like a window onto the activity in the central atrium.


©Jaspers-Eyers Architects - Photo: Philippe Van Genechten

Architecture for the people

Perth Arena: colour schemes and wooden passageways

©ARM+CCN, a joint venture of ARM Architecture and CCN Architects - Photo: Stephen Nicholls

People’s living environments are getting more and more impersonal. Augé calls all of these transport hubs, shopping centres, and blocks of flats ‘non-places’. These are buildings for the masses, buildings with which you have no relationship as an individual: you are born and die in a hospital (instead of in your own bed), you spend your holiday at an all-inclusive resort (instead of in a leaky tent), and you do your shopping in a supermarket (instead of at the local baker). As a result, people spend the majority of their lives in impersonal, anonymous buildings and spaces. So it became clear that to design these impersonal spaces it was vital to make them more personal and meaningful. Research such as described above helps architects in this process. That’s how we know that in blocks of flats, people are less likely to go and hide away in their own apartment if the route to it is  more lively and inviting. So architects now create floor plans with spaces for personal encounters and for shelter. Naturally, this kind of approach won’t work at an airport - where maximum visual perspective and light are necessary, in order to keep people moving. Designers address the need to have a protected territory in this situation by creating demarcations in rooms such as low walls or hedges or by designing spaces between chairs. An interesting example of this is the Australian concert venue and sporting events stadium Perth Arena (see p. 14) where a ‘humanity in scale’ has been found in subdividing the façades into smaller ones, colours schemes and wooden passageways. Yet buildings like this are first and foremost efficient machines still which - even though the public areas were designed with great care - are primarily designed to move people efficiently from one place to another.


But where the rate of new construction is declining, standardisation and large scales are less of an issue. Furthermore people tend to value craftsmanship and uniqueness more. There’s a good reason why market halls are so popular in Europe at the moment, such as the market hall in Ghent by Robbrecht & Daem or the one in Rotterdam by MVRDV. Another good example of this is the Sir Duncan Rice library in Aberdeen by schmidt hammer lassen architects. Here the atrium has not only been created as a spatial spectacle, but as a window onto the activity within the building, through the clever use of a ‘vortex’: the openings in the floors of the various storeys in the atrium are shifted slightly in relation to each other. This creates a double effect in that you can look onto other storeys from above and from below, giving the feeling of looking into a doll’s house or a beehive. You can see books, students, groups of people, life, all at once. Architects, clients, and users are accommodating this need for collectivity and artisanship. ‘Placemaking’, rather than efficiency has become an important theme in contemporary architecture. This coordinates with a shift in what people want to gain from public spaces: a sense of collectivity, an experience, a unique place that offers them memories and stories. The point is no longer that people should be efficiently subsumed by a large space but that they should have the feeling of being part of a greater whole.