March 25, 2004
What Architects Think About Before Planning
By Holger Elfes
With buildings, human beings change the world they encounter in the most visible way. They make that world habitable and create, for all spheres of life, the spaces they find appropriate. More enduringly and impressively than other cultural assets, buildings--with their various esthetics and types of use--demonstrate the social and cultural changes of an epoch, as well as its standard of civilization.
The relationship between the constructed environment and the social behavior of individuals and groups is a decidedly close one. Therefore the analysis and interpretation of architecture, too, is always closely linked with sociological issues.
Thus, in the planning of common rooms, for example, what matters is achieving a harmonious blend of closeness and distance that allows people to mix with one another in those spaces. Sociologists speak of “intimate distance” (0-45 cm), a zone that requires a very close, culture-specific level of communication between the participants. The “personal distance” zone (up to 1.2 m), which roughly equates to an arm’s length, makes intercultural dialogue possible, for example. “Social distance” (up to 3.6 m) creates a space for formal and social encounters. Finally, “public distance” intentionally creates distance between a speaker and his or her audience.
The connections between architecture and human beings, between constructed space and society, are the subject of much theoretical reflection and empirical research by a wide range of scholars from the fields of medicine, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. They look at the interrelationship of architecture and space on several social levels: the individual, the group, and the society.
In practice, the applications of the detailed knowledge thus gained are relevant in many respects, for example, in adapting constructs to user requirements; in correcting negative esthetic effects; and in organizing architectural planning processes at all spatial levels, including these: country, town, neighborhood, housing development, building, apartment, office, and so forth.
The basic question for the present is this: What is architecture, really, and what are its social tasks? It is useful and beautiful at the same time; it symbolizes values and traditions; it expresses political and religious convictions; it is an expression of human society and of social coexistence. And finally, architecture is also a means of human self-assertion in three-dimensional space. “With its help, mankind has found a foothold in space and time,” as the German architectural sociologist Christian Norberg-Schulz puts it. The sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, a French Jew, even goes so far as to say “that every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework.” This memory needs signs and symbols. The Italian writer Umberto Eco popularized the study of semiotics, the science of signs. Eco emphasizes the meaning of so-called codes in the language of architecture. Accordingly, codes are signs that can be understood and interpreted by many people at once. The Star of David on a synagogue and the cross on a church are examples of such signs. Other signs may include, for example, materials such as marble, which symbolizes nobility, or tall façades, which are used to represent power. In principle, every epoch has placed the same demands on its architects and master builders, but has found different solutions. That is why a modern assembly hall looks different from one built during the Baroque period, and why a Jewish prayer room is different from a Christian or Buddhist one.
Architectural sociology investigates the reasons for such differences. This field of study deals with such questions as how, for example, public buildings support, control, or determine human activities; how new technologies and materials influence construction; and how and on what terms the funds needed for construction are obtained. That leads directly to the question of what influence the financiers have on the design of the buildings. While it formerly was taken for granted that dominant religious, economic, or social strata alone made the decisions about the time, place, and esthetics of construction, the democratization of the Western societies has resulted in an increasingly large degree of participation in the planning process by the future users of the buildings. The idea of “democratic architecture” has become a key concept in the twentieth century. In urban planning, as well as in the construction of individual buildings, there are workshops at which all interested or affected parties discuss the projects and later have a voice in deciding what should be built and how.
Rationality and functionality are the essential elements that have molded architectural style, including that of public buildings, in the twentieth century. Social justice and equality are major goals of architects. Their most significant expression is the architecture of the Bauhaus school. This school of design, developed at the Bauhaus Academy in Dessau, in eastern Germany, spread throughout the world at tremendous speed. Today the most important classical Bauhaus city is Tel Aviv--proof that from the very beginning a decidedly large number of Jewish architects also felt the appeal of Bauhaus design.
With more and more new variations, the philosophy of the Bauhaus school--the combination of anthropocentric function and technical/practical production--remains current and relevant to this day. Since the 1950s, Brazil has even been systematically building its new capital, Brasilia, in accordance with Bauhaus concepts, right in the middle of the uninhabited jungle. Admittedly, the present-day reality of Brasilia with its pronounced social tensions--similar to those with which the other, “normal” metropolises of Latin America are familiar as well--is proof that architecture cannot be a panacea for all the problems of a society.