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The Big Rethink Part 4: The Purposes of Architecture

In common with many aspects of modern civilisation, architecture has lost its enriching sense of purpose, leading to toxic anomie

Marshall McLuhan explained our unawareness of how much we are shaped by our communications media by saying ‘Whoever discovered water, it wasn’t the fish.’

Something similar applies to architecture. Our relationships with it are so intimate, so fundamental and all-pervasive as the settings of our lives, that we do not fully register how much they sustain and shape us. Thus architecture is not a regular topic of normal conversation as are the other arts, an omission that is not fully explained by recognising that it is not only an art. Even architects underestimate how important architecture is and fail to grasp some of its fundamental purposes.

The inherent difficulties of knowing the purposes of architecture, arising from its ubiquity, have been compounded by the reductive and unbalanced views of reality, and so also of architecture, characteristic of modernity and postmodernity. In the confusing aftermath of these, any useful vision of a more complete architecture needs to be underpinned by a reassessment of its very purposes − the subject of this essay.

Of course, it is not only architecture that has lost an enriching sense of purpose. So has almost every aspect of modern civilisation. Among the clearest examples of loss or distortion of purpose is the shift from agriculture to agri-business. Just the inclusion of culture in the former word is profoundly telling.

It implies that agriculture is much more than a means to produce wholesome food; it also encompasses a whole way of living on and with the land. Beyond tending the land in a spirit of husbandry and passing it on enhanced to future generations, as in the long temporal frame of culture, it includes such things as rituals of gratitude and reverence in autumnal harvest fairs, Thanksgiving services and so on. In contrast, agri-business is simply about maximising quick, short-term profits for absent owners and shareholders without caring how un-nutritious, and even toxically polluted, the food produced may be, or any regard for the concomitant destruction of soil quality, biodiversity, wildlife and rural communities.

Similarly healthcare is increasingly about dispensing drugs to maximise the profits of pharmaceutical companies and not about what would keep us truly healthy without prohibitive expenditure, such as low cost alternatives without toxic side effects, as well as nutrition, exercise, emotional support and so on.


Simplified AQAL (All Quadrant, All Level) diagram

Almost everything in our late-modern world is more about making money for corporations and their shareholders rather than providing services in anything approaching an efficient, fair and equitable manner that is good for physical, mental, social and planetary health. Focusing on the quantitative and objective to the exclusion of the qualitative and subjective − the realm of meaning, morals and empathic connection − we have utterly lost our way. But let’s return to architecture, which has lost its way for similar reasons, and to expanding our understanding of that.

Last month’s essay introduced Integral theory, in particular the AQAL (All Quadrant All Level) diagram, to explain aspects of modernity and postmodernity. The former over-emphasises objective and quantifiable knowledge (the right quadrants of the AQAL diagram), at the expense of the subjective and qualitative (the left quadrants), including personal experience (Upper Left (UL)) and collective meanings (Lower Left (LL)).

Much modern thought even assumed that things could be understood by reductive analysis that ignored the web of relationships that constitute context. In architecture this led to stand-alone object buildings that could not aggregate into satisfactory urban fabric, and so to energy-profligate fragmented and dispersed cities that are major contributors to modernity’s assault on the biosphere and community life. Systems thinking (or systems holism) puts all this in context and helps us to understand the problem, but in acknowledging only the objective, right quadrants cannot develop really effective solutions.

The fundamental purposes of modern architecture are thus limited to such right quadrant concerns as shelter, security, function and so on − all of them important, but not enough for a truly sustainable architecture because they ignore what sustains us psychologically and culturally.

Plan of Egyptian temple complex shaped around ritual

Plan of Egyptian temple complex shaped around ritual

By contrast, postmodernity overemphasises the subjective, particularly signs and meanings (part of the LL realm of culture). But it tends to be stuck at a superficial level so ignoring the more universal drives and phenomena of the deep subjective, which includes the unconscious, the greater portion of the mind with its supposedly universal archetypes and the collective unconscious.

Because it is not properly grounded in either the right or left quadrants, postmodernism sees all realities as arbitrary, mere social constructs. For postmodernism, architecture might have to deal with such mundane matters as function and shelter but is much more about representation, about conveying messages to be read (semiotics) and illustrating spurious theories (critical architecture). These too
are part of any complete architecture, but only part. And the relativist postmodern mindset is incapable
of undertaking the determined actions now urgently required to progress to sustainability.

As was implicit in last month’s discussion, an effective way to move beyond the limits of modernity and postmodernity is to adopt an Integral ‘four quadrant’ approach. Giving equal attention to the objective, including the collective realm of systems (ecology, economics, technology and society), and the subjective, both of individual experience and collective meanings, it is particularly suited to architecture. Not least because to fulfil any promise of achieving sustainability we must still draw extensively on the accumulating technical expertise of the right quadrants, while delivering the psychic satisfactions that come from attending to the left quadrants. Without the promise of such deep satisfactions as a truly meaningful life lived in accord with one’s most personal values and in connection with others and nature, and of having ample opportunities to fulfil all one’s potential, we will lack the will and commitment to see through the objective, and undeniably demanding, challenges ahead.

We will also lack that sense of inner peace, that harmony with our deepest beliefs and values, which might bring to an end the dissatisfaction and restlessness that come from an unfulfilling life (Thoreau’s ‘lives of quiet desperation’) and fuel our destructive tendencies. And part of the corresponding reassurance of ‘all being right with the world’ will come from knowing that our lives and built environment are shaped in accord with the best knowledge available, and that by embracing this we participate in the great adventure of our time.

Plan of N’debele village surveyed by Peter Rich, organised around social and gender hierarchies

Plan of N’debele village surveyed by Peter Rich, organised around social and gender hierarchies

The psychological necessity for architecture

So how would we redefine the most fundamental purpose of architecture to suit our times? This redefinition should acknowledge the developmental or evolutionary views that are in the ascendant, counterbalancing both the over-emphasis on the right quadrants that has dominated for so long, and the shallowness of postmodernity’s foray into the left quadrants.

It should also recognise that development in one quadrant (an increase in level) is matched by corresponding development in the other quadrants. Moreover, we need to remember that architecture began not only with creating shelter (Upper Right (UR)) but also with ritual − the spatial arrangement of collective acts that forge community and heighten experience and meaning (LL). Such rituals range from those as mundane as telling stories around a campfire to once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages along a set route to a sacred spot, the vestiges of which remain in gathering around the dining table and processing down a church nave.

A conspicuous feature of the architecture of the last several millennia, after the prolonged period of relative stasis we refer to as prehistory, is that it has become ever more complex and differentiated. This is seen in the progression from single room huts to multi-room mansions as well as from simple gatherings of huts to villages arranged so that the huts of the chief and his wives have locations distinct from the others. It continues through towns where temple/church and palace/castle stand out from the surrounding houses, to great cities whose many diverse functions and institutions occupy a range of building types that both accommodate and communicate their contents.

Plan of Red House by Philip Webb: complex compartmentation of Victorian homePlan of Red House by Philip Webb: complex compartmentation of Victorian home

What drives this compulsion to create buildings and cities of increasing complexity? Why have we progressively separated out cooking from dining, dining from living, living from sleeping and so on? Purely rational and functional explanations (right quadrant) can only be part of the story; psychological and cultural drives (left quadrant) must be involved too, probably largely unconscious ones.

We have progressively sliced up and compartmentalised (in distinct rooms, for instance) what would otherwise be the continuities of experience so that we can focus on and intensify each isolated experience (UL) − originally perhaps because then free from distractions and danger. We also deploy those compartmentalised experiences in ordered relationships in space to further intensify and give additional meaning (LL) to these experiences. So secular gathering places (whether living room or piazza) might be placed centrally and an especially sacred function be set at a distance to be reached through processional pilgrimage during which anticipation and the sense of the sacred is intensified.

This compartmentalisation, differentiation and intensification are essential to how we have elaborated our many cultures − and equally to how we have created ourselves as complex acculturated persons. By separating out and dispersing our experiences spatially we also project and map our psyches in space so that we may then explore and progressively elaborate them. Thus one of the very most fundamental purposes of architecture, one underestimated by most architects, is as a means by which we create ourselves. Arguably, only language plays as important a role as architecture in driving the cultural evolution by which we have created ourselves.

Trafalgar Square, London: a secular gathering place

Trafalgar Square, London: a secular gathering place

But it goes much further than this: by projecting our psyches into space in this manner we not only create ourselves but also surroundings to which we sense a strong relationship so we feel at home in a world from which self-consciousness and awareness of death somewhat displaces us. This is taken to an extreme in some sacred precincts or structures that are shaped as a microcosm, a miniaturisation of the cosmos. Its parts are surrogates for celestial bodies equated with psychic drives (as in astrology, for instance) so that, aided by ritual and religious ceremony, the cosmos is internalised in the psyche, which in turn is projected into the cosmos as our home too. In all of this we are supported by the narratives and symbols, as well as rituals, that are essential parts of any culture that helps us be at home in our immediate world and the larger universe as well as the long span of time, both mythic and historical.

This is an area where modernity conspicuously failed. It promised freedom for self-realisation unconstrained by culture, community, place and history. Yet without these we are not at home in the world, hence the pervasive alienation, and the atomisation of communities into lonely individuals, characteristic of modernity. We now understand that self-realisation needs the support of and sense of belonging to this larger context.

Without it we are reduced to consumers eating up the planet as we defend our lonely selves from a meaningless world by walling ourselves off with consumer goods, entertainment and other addictions. Indeed, there are strands in modern architecture that seek an accommodation with nature as an extension of the home, as when the boundaries between house and garden are blurred, or views of the landscape are framed as intrinsic to the architecture. Beautiful as the results often are, however, this is psychologically relatively superficial and often, as is modernity’s habitual mode of wresting a home from the world, backed by brute technological force, at minimum
in profligate energy expenditure.

St Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina, 1529; space compartmented to serve function and intensify experience

St Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina, 1529; space compartmented to serve function and intensify experience

Who do we want to be?

Thus from a developmental or evolutionary perspective, such as characterises much 21st-century thought, architecture is more than a mere reflection and record of who we are. Instead a fundamental purpose, probably the fundamental purpose, of architecture is as a means for creating our cultures and ourselves. As these essays have been arguing, it is now time to redefine and reorient our architecture, to create a much more complete vision of what it is, one adequate and relevant to the challenges of today. In this process, one of the most pressing questions to ask in these historically pivotal times is: who do we truly want to be? Or, in other words: what would be our vision of being fully human?

Each major developmental stage humankind has passed through has answered these questions differently. If the Middle Ages saw piety and obeying God’s will to be the ultimate human virtues, then modernity prized rationality and the tangibly measurable − an inadequate vision that eventually reduced us to irrationally compulsive consumers and brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

Yet this same modernity has also bequeathed us a vast amount of relevant knowledge, even if split between many fields, to draw upon and synthesise in answering the questions of who we want to be, or what it is to be fully human, as well as powerful psychological techniques to help realise this vision.

Aerial photograph of Bern, Switzerland: a medieval city in which a few civic monuments stand out from the organic huddle of houses

Aerial photograph of Bern, Switzerland: a medieval city in which a few civic monuments stand out from the organic huddle of houses

The urgent need to progress towards sustainability makes the redefinition of who we want to be especially pressing. Much of the world − thanks to the power of Hollywood and advertising as well as the economic, political and military dominance of the USA − wants some version of the American dream. But the planet is already struggling to support those enjoying the average American standard of living. Global population is projected to rise from its present seven billion to nine billion by mid-century.

But if the number of Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and so on that will become middle class and aspire to an American standard of living is factored in the impact will be equivalent to today’s population expanding to several tens of billions.1Yet it is not only the profligate consumption of this lifestyle that is problematic; it is also that it brings so little true satisfaction, so fuelling yet more desperate consumption.

Hence the eco-theologian and cultural historian Thomas Berry wrote that progress towards sustainability depends on nothing less than redefining what it is to be human.2 By this he implies that it will also be necessary to rethink all our relationships with each other and the rest of nature, including our patterns of consumption, not only to be more benign in our impacts on the planet but also to bring much greater levels of meaning and satisfaction. In his memorable expression ‘the universe is a communion of subjects and not a collection of objects’, the latter is the archetypal modern worldview, which is exclusively right quadrant, while the former also returns due emphasis to the left quadrants.

‘Architecture is more than a mere record or reflection of who we are. Instead, the fundamental purpose of architecture is as a means for creating our cultures and ourselves’

Determining who we want to be, or what it would now mean to be fully human, could be properly understood as a design problem. And if the planet cannot support all of us living in accord with this vision of who we want to be, then the redefinition is still too superficial. A deeply satisfying life in which we can become fully ourselves, living in accord with our deepest values that are so difficult to honour in contemporary cities and suburbs, could be achieved without overtaxing the earth’s resources in the way our current vision of the good life does. Only when we have some clarity on who we want to be can we think about what kind of culture − what underlying vision of reality, what narratives and social rituals − and what sort of environment will support and facilitate the emergence of such a vision, so that we may then design accordingly. Another great legacy from modernity is the huge battery of techniques − ranging through psychotherapy, energy psychology, coaching, management processes and so on − to transform ourselves and shed our conditionings so as to take some control of our destiny and live in accord with a vision that all this knowledge obliges us to apply in the urgent quest for sustainability.

Redefining who we want to be, as well as regenerating our culture and redesigning our environment to help bring this about, is probably the most urgent, epic and exciting challenge of our times. But this must be a collaborative exercise to which many will add their voices and creative contributions. We will return to some of these themes in later essays, but here it is appropriate to merely raise these issues and move on, leaving them for readers to contemplate and contribute to. The rest of this essay is about further purposes of architecture, but first we are now also in a position to briefly clarify some other important matters.

Redefining design and creativity

So, if a fundamental purpose of architecture, and the larger culture it is part of, is to help us create ourselves in line with an evolving vision of who we want to be, then how would we redefine the purpose of design? Clearly it would be much more than mere problem solving, let alone the branding exercise or lubricant for consumerism it has largely become. Instead design should become humankind’s way of deliberately participating in the constant creative emergence that is evolution − natural, cultural and personal. Note how different this is from modernity’s hubristic drive to control and conquer the world for a humanity that is separate from it. Instead we must seek a purposively designed culture that has emerged from and includes nature.

And what then would human creativity be? Creativity ceases to be about self-expression. Instead it involves understanding (through research, analysis, intuition and so on) and then facilitating these various larger processes of creative emergence that constitute the many levels of evolution. Besides transcending self-expression, creativity then escapes the current frivolous obsessions with form and theory − a symptom of how lost we are and lacking in vision as to the purposes of architecture − to be about expanding the world of human possibility so that we can become more of who we aspire to be in our emerging view of what it is to be fully human.

Quadrant by quadrant

With all this in mind, let’s examine briefly some of the other purposes of architecture, using the quadrants to ensure a degree of balance and comprehensiveness. Only a few of those qualities relating to the right quadrants will be mentioned, and none discussed in detail. This is because after 400 or so years of modernity and 100 years of modern architecture, today’s architects (aided by engineers and other consultants) have considerable expertise in these realms.

Decidedly more purposes will be listed in relation to the left quadrants, where examples will also be cited of how these might be fulfilled. Yet even here the listing of both the purposes and ways of fulfilling them is far from comprehensive. The examples are limited deliberately to be only enough to spark readers into thinking of many more purposes and ways of realising them for themselves. They will thus become active participants in The Big Rethink − and the AR looks forward to letters communicating the insights that arise.

The living room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Coonley House is dominated by the hearth, the symbolic focus of the home

The living room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Coonley House is dominated by the hearth, the symbolic focus of the home

Past experience of engaging students and architects in this exercise has encouraged attempting such a participative approach. Some essays in this series are much abbreviated and simplified versions of lectures and exercises I’ve taught in master classes over the past decade or so. Starting with some movement and imagination exercises (devised using insights from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)) to give an intensely vivid, visceral experience of how we project our psyches and map them in space, and then some to free the imagination, as much as a day is devoted to clarifying the purposes of architecture, quadrant by quadrant, and then listing and sketching ways of fulfilling these.

With the class broken into small groups, each of these will be asked to brainstorm as many as 20 purposes within each quadrant and up to 10 design devices to realise each purpose − the best of them often satisfying more than one purpose. This long exercise has always stirred exceptionally excited participation, climaxing in the creation of a vast chart collating everybody’s input. Even then, in some instances a few have continued the exercise through the night to come into class bleary-eyed the next morning. Generally, participants have reported that it is the single exercise that most expanded their understanding of the purposes and potentials of architecture as well as their personal design repertoires.

While the AQAL diagram can be used in this manner, attending individually to each of the four quadrants so ensuring both comprehensiveness and balance, it should also be remembered that it highlights relationships between quadrants. For instance, a key concern of design today is the highly efficient use of resources, particularly of non-renewable materials and energy, and the recycling of these. The resources themselves and the logistics of obtaining and transporting them, paying for and recycling them, all belong to the LR quadrant of systems and flows. But the aspects of a building designed for efficient resource use best belong to the UR quadrant.

Yet a major reason our use of resources is so profligate is because we no longer revere the physical world of matter and energy. Cooling water splashing in a patio fountain of a house in a hot, arid region, like the warming fire in the hearth, is a semi-sacred communal focus of symbolic potency, all LL. How much more aware of these we are than when simply turning on a tap or the central heating, and even more so if the water is gathered at a distant well and the firewood from the forest in what is again usually a social ritual that strengthens communal bonds and punctuates the day. But this lack of reverence is more than the product of convenience: it is also the direct consequence of modernity’s denial of value beyond the utilitarian to the nonhuman realm. Modernity’s notion that such things as consciousness and spirit are found only in humans diminishes our own consciousness and spirit, as summarised by Richard Tarnas in last month’s essay.

A village well: social focus for drawing water, washing clothes and watering animals

A village well: social focus for drawing water, washing clothes and watering animals

Also, most concerns that may at first glance fit into one or two quadrants, when thought about more deeply have correlates in all. Thus a primary UR quadrant purpose is security. But as well as by robust construction and locks (UR), this is also ensured by social equity and stability as well as overlooking by neighbours (LL), and also by still-intact cultural taboos and customs (LL) that result in psychologically mature individuals (UL). And particularly with architecture, but generally too, it is sometimes difficult to separate the concerns of the upper right (the realm of individual behaviour and form) quadrant from those of the lower right (the realm of systems including social behaviour).

Upper Right quadrant

As already mentioned, purposes that clearly belong to the upper right are shelter, security and accommodating function. Modern architecture emphasised the last of these and at its best was sensitively attentive to function (as well as to ergonomics), which it accommodated in a wide range of ways, from being tightly tailored to (and so also constraining) optimal use, to abstractly gridded ‘universal’ space that provided flexibility by minimally constraining use.

Functional purpose, as is reflected in the best plans of modern buildings (which will be discussed next month) was recognised to go beyond accommodating independent functions but also to relate them to each other and circulation patterns to promote the desired forms of interaction between these activities and prevent unwanted intrusions (hence attention to flow diagrams).

It is further fulfilled by spaces of appropriate size and shape, orientation and aspect, acoustics and levels of light and ventilation. So the modulation of comfort conditions and external microclimates is also a prime purpose, which for energy efficiency is best served by passive means such as operable windows, adjustable shading devices, light shelves and so on. These purposes and the devices to achieve them are all obvious enough. But concentrating on them predominantly, as much modern architecture did, results in an aridly utilitarian architecture to which people do not relate at any depth. Even such obvious purposes as providing some richness of choice, most easily achieved by designing in contrasts − in size, light levels, accessibility, outlook, acoustics and so on − are often overlooked.

Lower Right quadrant

In the lower right quadrant, modern architecture recognises its purpose in serving social needs but tends to do so in a mechanically quantitative manner, still sometimes with monofunctional freestanding building types, and with little thought given to using and getting to and from these. Hence schools of differing size for different age groups might to be deployed within the appropriate maximum walking distance for their age group from the housing they serve, and a range of open spaces from small playgrounds to large playing fields would be similarly distributed. This is mechanistic modern rationality at its most reductive where purpose is reduced to quantitative allocation with minimal thought for anything else. Anybody who thinks this an exaggeration should look at a town-planning textbook from the 1950s. 

The functional flow diagram of a care home from The New Metric Handbook

The functional flow diagram of a care home from The New Metric Handbook

Of the architectural purposes relevant to this quadrant, the most flagrantly neglected by modern architecture are the creation of satisfactory urban fabric and shaping the public realm. It seems almost incomprehensible that modern architecture failed to recognise as a fundamental purpose that buildings should aggregate into good urban fabric, and shape and shelter the public realm of streets, squares and other public space. Another purpose is animating this public realm by the way movement is channelled through it, the activities located adjacent and the articulation given by such things as the entrances and windows of the buildings lining the public realm. Modern architecture’s slippery-sleek glazed facades promise transparency but instead sever relationships with the street, so that they neither arrest the flow of space nor create a sense of place. Besides framing public space, further architectural/urban design purposes are to create variety and hierarchy in the public realm so bringing experiential richness and legibility, and creating within its network locations that are functionally and symbolically appropriate to the different uses and institutions that make up the city (note that although the means are right quadrant many of the benefits are left quadrant).

Other LR systems that shape architecture are economics and ecology. Thus a common architectural purpose is to make money, whether blatantly in speculative developments or less so in treating houses as investments as much as homes. Purposes relevant to ecology would be to regenerate where necessary, and otherwise respect, local ecological and hydrological systems as well as harness ambient renewable energies, modulate microclimates, create wildlife corridors and so on. As with the upper right quadrant, this is all stuff architects are becoming increasingly good at and needs no further discussion here.

Lower Left quadrant

The lower left quadrant is where modernity and modern architecture have been particularly weak by devaluing culture and its shared meanings, often conveyed in myths and symbols that can be slippery with the ambiguities modernity distrusts. Modern architecture deliberately rejected the rhetorical devices and iconography of previous periods as irrelevant − as was entirely consistent with the larger paradigm of modernity.

In the human sciences, the LR is the field of sociology, a relatively objective study of society − although the best sociologists draw also on such UR fields as psychology. The LL is that of anthropology, which, besides recording customs and so on, is concerned with inner worlds of mythic historic narratives, the subjective beliefs these inform, and how all these shape relationships with the community, place and the rest of creation. Culture’s role is to locate us in a much expanded realm of space and time and it is modernity’s undervaluing of culture that allows us to be so destructive towards the planet and our inherited manmade legacy.

‘The shaping of the public realm and the modulation of the transitions between public and private are important in encouraging social interaction’

Thus a prime architectural purpose that needs to be recovered is to be a metaphorical bridge across time and space. Architecture should root us in the past while looking confidently to the future, recognisably evoking tradition while also transforming its legacy and innovating to meet the demands of a very different future, while also cementing visual connections with its setting to draw the world around into relationship with it. This does not imply resurrecting the rhetorical motifs and iconography of the past. But it might imply that we need to evolve new rhetorical forms that resonate with the grand narratives emerging from our many sciences, helping us to find our place in an ever-evolving world and within rich webs of ecological and community relationships.

State Capitol, Sacramento, California displays rhetorical motifs — dome, pediment and sculpture, colonnaded portico — to convey its civic importance

State Capitol, Sacramento, California displays rhetorical motifs — dome, pediment and sculpture, colonnaded portico — to convey its civic importance

Somewhat related as a purpose is to invest buildings and urban fabric with distinct identities intrinsic to the local cultures, against or within which we may shape our personal identities. In less elevated terms, another architectural purpose is to help confer status on the institution it houses. Examples of how this could be easily done without recourse to obvious iconography are through such things as size, particularly the height of the building and ceiling heights within it; enlarged external openings (doors and windows) and pronounced frames around these; raising the main level so that it is approached by broad external stairs; and by location, siting the building on the top of a hill or terminating an axis of some sort. Such devices are not strictly functional, but they are abstract enough to be embraced even by modern architects. But to regenerate a vibrant culture we will need to go further and embrace some form of narrative and symbolism.

If the upper left realm is that of personal experience and individual psychology, the lower left is where much of this subjectivity is shaped, both by culture and in community interactions, and where these come together in such things as religious worship and more secular festivals rooted in local culture. It is within these interactions that character and self-knowledge are forged. So another key purpose of architecture is to set the stage for the slow formation of new communities and the preservation of existing ones.

Here the shaping of the public realm and the modulation of the transitions between public and private are important in encouraging and defining apt forms of social interaction. For instance, the networks of both paved and green open spaces can be elaborated to suit a wide variety of uses and interwoven with each other in such a way as provides opportunities for casual meeting and spontaneous interaction, as well as places for more formalised forms of community engagement. In the past we depended on each other more, and met daily in places such as the street market and at the village well, so community was inevitable. Today we only have the supermarket and Starbucks, but the longing for and recognition of the benefits of community grows, demanding creative design interventions that might help stimulate its formation.

Herman Hertzberger’s Apollo schools in Amsterdam suggest multiple ways in which pupils may interact with and use them

Herman Hertzberger’s Apollo schools in Amsterdam suggest multiple ways in which pupils may interact with and use them

Upper Left quadrant

By creating a placeless world of thin, sleek abstract forms, much modern architecture is alienatingly difficult to relate to and impoverished in terms of the quality of experience it offers. These are major failings within the UL quadrant: the realm of personal experience, individual psychology, intentionality and direct aesthetic experience as unmediated by culture. But for all modernity’s failings in this quadrant, it was always given some attention, if only at the level of trying to please the eye with elegant proportions, harmonious colours and now, in desperate fashion, with sleek curving forms (often clumsily executed) and jazzy syncopated rhythms. Mid-20th-century attempts to ‘humanise’ buildings with ‘warm’, ‘natural’ materials such as brick and wood also evidence UL concerns. Architects’ discovery of phenomenology, starting with the writings of Gaston Bachelard and Martin Heidegger through to the current writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, show an increasing awareness of the importance of this quadrant and of modernity’s failures in relation to it.

Obvious UL architectural purposes are thus to provide aesthetic pleasure and create beauty, and to assert order, coherence and legibility, all of which help us to relate to the built environment. Equally important, if less obvious, purposes are to create a sense of calm, stillness (or repose as it is often referred to) and even silence (and not only acoustic) as well as the sense (rather than physical actuality of) safety and security.

Bachelard reminds us that a purpose of architecture is to provoke reverie, or at least to provide a setting that encourages it, while an architect like Herman Hertzberger sees a purpose of architecture as to provoke exploration by and creative interaction with us, discovering novel ways of using and responding to the building and so also provoking discovery and development of aspects of ourselves.

My discussion earlier in this essay about how architecture helps us to create ourselves, by compartmentalising experiences and setting these in calculated relationship to each other (so intensifying and adding meaning to them), and also to feel at home in the world, are clearly prime purposes belonging to this quadrant. So obvious related purposes are to provide as rich a range of experiences as is relevant, which is most easily achieved by designing many forms of contrast, and to intensify these experiences − for instance by the ways spaces are shaped and lit, located within a choreographed circulation system, choice of materials and colours, and even by the acoustic characteristics.

The arcade and aedicular windows interlock the interior and exterior space, helping to create a sense of place

The arcade and aedicular windows interlock the interior and exterior space, helping to create a sense of place

Further related purposes are to create or intensify a sense of place and an architectural vocabulary that elicits empathic relationships in us. These are subjects that we will discuss in more detail in future essays, so for now let a few examples of how to realise these suffice.

Achieving a sense of place in the public realm is helped by: containing positively shaped spaces, both in plan and in section (hence the importance of the cornice) that do not ‘leak’ unduly (for instance, at the corners of public squares); using building materials of evident weight and palpable texture, so helping to anchor the building in place and slow the flow of space about it; and creating smaller spaces between interior and exterior that interlock the two, such as recessed ground level arcades and aedicular windows as are found on classical buildings.

Buildings can elicit relationships with us in many ways. One that is very familiar to us from historic buildings is the forms that suggest the presence of the erect human body, such as vertical windows, or are even surrogates for it to which we relate empathically, such as columns with visible entasis. Anthropomorphic resonances in plans and other forms can serve similar purposes. In huge buildings today structure may play an important intermediary role between the scale of the vast space and the human body, asserting a legible order that helps orientation, being a companionable presence to which you can relate both because of its size and its structural purpose.

The degree to which modern architecture neglected this quadrant is summarised in a short essay by the great depth psychologist James Hillman. He explains that in the psyche and dreams, the zone above our heads is that of spiritual aspiration, which is why in traditional buildings it is celebrated in domes, vaults and painted ceilings. To instead put pipes and ducts just above our heads and screen them with the tackiest suspended ceiling tiles is thus the ultimate insult to our fundamental humanity, the starkest sign of how far modern civilisation has lost sight of what should be its ennobling purposes. 

Click here to read Part 5.


  1. See chapter 3 in Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.
  2. Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, Bell Tower, 1999
  3. Indian Stepped well, Photograph: Dixie Lawrence,