The Elephant is the Room: Sociology and Architecture

By Adam Wood

Sociological explorations of architecture tend to be incursions – sporadic, occasional papers or contextualising features of ethnographies. There are some recent attempts to counter that trend, often outside of the English language [1]. In general, however, whereas sociology’s spatial domain has been an abstracted space or suffered a ‘long term lack of attention’ or focused on larger scales such as urban/national/global formations and processes, the immediately local, designed spaces within buildings have evaded sustained sociological study. This is odd since if the content of architecture is ultimately the spaces of individuals, their groups and their relationships, then something similar could be said of sociology itself.

It is also odd because the converse is not true: architects cite sociologists and social theory frequently. In a sense, architects are practising sociologists [2]: much of their work is premised on an understanding that buildings provide material and semiotic foundation to the work of dividing, grouping and connecting individuals and their relations to others. As the architect Giancarlo de Carlo put it in an interview, ‘architecture is an organisational activity; it has to do with the ordering of space’.

One way of reading buildings therefore is to see them as attempts to encourage particular forms of sociality into existence, and then facilitate their development for more or less specific ends. To do this, architects’ designs often draw on and bolster normative building typologies. Individuals come and go, but architecture helps to establish continuity, expectations and cohesion between roles even while the actual people fulfilling those roles change. Over time, types of buildings can offer recognisability of and even justification for subsequent organisational logics.

Take the house, for example. Its design facilitates particular ways of doing family-ness and becoming family – ways that are of course subject to reinterpretation when families change, people live with friends or by themselves.

But for a while, the house (particularly the two-up, two-down) tied a model of the family to an idea of household and perhaps even helped to give it legitimacy and recognition. The house, its design and its being embedded into systems of capital through mortgages or located close to factories and other places of work also provided stability, a labour supply, and visible shape to a unit of economic imagination and planning so that in a more fetishized form, the house fed forward and became a tool for thinking. As such, the house as visible sign and place of household has perhaps served to shore up both the foundations of classical economics and to spatialise and naturalise gender roles too.

The school is another example, its internal architecture to some extent justifying the categorising and ordering of activities and time (play from learning), knowledge and skills (Maths from Science from Art; primary from secondary) and people (teachers from students, students by age and often by ability), all of which are stabilising and limiting influences to schooling in its current form but whose architectural encouragement is usually marginal to sociological studies of education.

Does it matter that sociology tends to ignore architecture? For de Carlo, the discipline and practice of building spaces for living and work was one that overflowed architecture itself. ‘Architecture’, he is attributed as saying ‘is too important to leave to the architects’. He wanted people involved with and informed about the designs they would use. This concept of architecture spilling out beyond its own discipline and culture is one that sociology might explore further.

Two examples – both building technologies with social effects – will help to exemplify why architecture is of sociological interest. Both illustrate ‘spatial fetishism’ where space is imagined as a thing abstracted from time and process (or human activity) and assigned causal powers.

The first example is reinforced concrete. Concrete is seemingly dull and outside of sociologists’ general gaze whilst likely to be all around them. However, this remarkable unremarkability belies social effects through concrete’s relationship with architectural modernism. Reinforced concrete has much greater strength relative to previous building materials and this enabled not simply the construction of larger, more open spans of space in new forms but new ways of thinking about space and design.

Frank Lloyd Wright, a leading modernist, took delight in open plan and assigned the room all kinds of ills: ‘I could see little sense in this inhibition, this cellular sequestration that implied ancestors familiar with penal institutions’. Here, the future became associated with openness and freedom, set against the limiting, prison-like past of rooms. Wright and others sought space, now tied discursively and causally to a particular future: open-plan (and the concrete which made it easier and cheaper to achieve) was a way of fast-forwarding society and making life freer. Justified or not, these ideas got built and their descendants are still being built – the open-plan office and school, for example.

The second, more recent, example is more speculative: Building Information Modeling (BIM). Here architects and others use software that integrate data from different sources (e.g. structural properties of particular materials, sizes required, their costs, position in a particular design and so forth) to envision buildings and so space in new ways. These variables are linked, so a change in one registers changes in others: the digitally rendered model becomes so-called 5D (three dimensions of space, one of time, fifth cost). Data that are easier to collect and feed into BIM software or features of a building that can return more objective data are more likely to be collected and computed and in that sense, known. The biases built into the software’s ‘diet’ effectively changes what it can subsequently be asked to do. The messier, human side of living out architecture and the socially-produced space it generates are less, if at all, visible.

Both of these examples illustrate degrees of spatial fetishism. The ex ante space, here, is the thing whether embedded in the assumption that openness leads to freedom or in the use of 5D models capable of knowing everything but what people want to do. Consequently, people’s behaviour becomes an output of design rather than part of a more integrated understanding of what space might be.

Sociology could usefully explore these problematics of designing space for organising people, what the ontology of that space is and how (or if) it structures relationships. Other scenarios present opportunities for sociologists to offer their skills as well as empirical and theoretical resources. For example, speculative, innovative designs are closely tied to capital investment and the need to advertise that investment. This has potential consequences for the social norms that architectural traditions have previously fostered and helped to sustain spatially and semiotically over time. Another example is where space standards for housing may be weakened as land costs increase. In all of these cases, architecture provides an everyday, close-to-hand object (and practice) of sociological investigation often under our noses but out of analytic focus.

Adam Wood is undertaking a 2-year research project funded by The Leverhulme Trust on school building and design in Italy, and is a visiting, postdoctoral researcher at Florence University. He tweets at @woodadam_.

Originally posted 30th June 2017.


[1] This brief essay and note excludes Robert Gutman, one of the few sociologists to have had a sustained interest in architecture. More recent and systematic attempts include: Boni, F. and Poggi, F. (2011) Sociologia dell’Architettura. Rome: Carocci; Chiesi, L. (2011) Il doppio spazio dell’architettura. Ricerca sociologica e progettazione. Naples: Liguori; Jones, P. (2011). The Sociology of Architecture. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

[2] The architect and theorist Herman Hertzberger is a well-known example. His account of ‘articulation’ as the joining and dividing of space, and the ensuing possibilities for freedom and restriction is similar to Simmel’s but more developed and ultimately more social(ogical).

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