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On foot: Architecture and movement

As soon as we move, our built environment changes and transforms. Yet despite its place at the heart of architectural practice, we rarely stop to think how and why we walk

‘Is it not truly extraordinary to realize that ever since [humans] have walked, no one has ever asked why they walk, how they walk, whether they walk, whether they might walk better, what they achieve by walking, whether they might not have the means to regulate, change, or analyze their walk: questions that bear on all the systems of philosophy, psychology, and politics with which the world is preoccupied?

- Honoré de Balzac1

We normally think of buildings as permanent, stable and immobile, but in fact movement is at the very heart of architecture and practice. Try, for a minute, to imagine architecture without walking. Almost every building, even those designed in the age of the railway or the automobile, has a passage that is intended to be experienced on foot. We walk to and through, in and around, buildings. We experience architecture at this one-two, left-right rhythm. But what does this extraordinary activity of walking upright, this falling and catching and falling again, this forward propulsion, bring to the study of architecture?

As soon as we begin to move, the built environment begins to change and transform. A building’s contours immediately shift, adjust and recompose into new forms as we approach from a distance. When the building is at arm’s length we may be no longer able to perceive its overall shape, but we can acquire new information in recompense: details of surface texture that were invisible before, a range of architectural stimuli registered not just by the eyes, but by the fingertips, ears and nose, or underfoot. Walking ensures a slowness of pace that allows for contemplation of the details of architecture. We regulate our pace in order to look closely.

‘As we move, the single, stable mass that we perceived at a distance fragments into multiple dimensions that are partial and momentary’

As we move closer and enter the building, we also begin a new relationship with it. The single, stable mass that we perceived at a distance fragments into multiple dimensions that are partial and momentary: perceived changes in ambient temperature, the inhalation of a particular scent, the sudden crunch of gravel or the creak of floorboards, the echoing sounds of a tiled corridor or an empty room. Any of these fleeting experiences may in turn trigger, unbidden, a specific memory: perhaps a sound or a smell of a space we once knew. This slowness of pace better enables us to enter what psychologist Christopher Bollas calls the ‘evocative object world’, where buildings engage us on both a somatic and psychological level, framing our present experiences while simultaneously recalling past associations. By walking by and through architecture we begin to comprehend the extent of its labile, constantly changing nature. There is no clear demarcation between movement and knowledge.2

We take walking for granted — and yet the act of walking itself is much more complex than we think.3 Walking can be described as a ‘double pendulum’ process that combines muscular actions: first the heel hits the ground, transferring weight down to the sole of the foot, then the heel lifts, followed by the toes, as the lower limbs move and extend forward. The movements of the legs and feet are in turn coordinated with the rotating and flexing movements of the skeleton as a whole. The complexity of such movements is not easily simulated: robots can do many things, but they are clumsy when moving on two legs. Even when we are standing still our bodies make subtle movements. As Erin Manning observes, stillness demands precise adaptation to the conditions of a shifting equilibrium. Everyone sways. You think you are standing still, but actually you’re drifting, shifting slightly to the left, your weight moving to the ball of your foot, your knee bending slightly as you take a breath. Standing still requires constant correction, a series of micro-movements and adjustments.4

In photographic studies of the 1870s and ’80s, Eadweard Muybridge sought to dissect precisely these kind of micro-movements and adjustments that are made by the animated body, recording them as a series of still photographs which could then be shown sequentially. These photographs still have a power to transfix us even as they record the most mundane activities. Certainly that fascination must be due in part to Muybridge’s isolation of these common acts, the ways in which he made these everyday movements unfamiliar: the nude figure walking in an exaggerated fashion, the animals walking or running against a mathematical rule.


Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies dissected the micro-movements and adjustments made by the animated human - or animal - body. Source: Wikimedia commons

Muybridge’s momentary snapshots also underscore one of the most challenging things about studying walking: its fundamental ephemerality. Like other sensual aspects of architecture (smell, for example), walking disappears once it is done. We are left with the shell of the experience, but not the experience itself. In his photograph A Line Made by Walking, Richard Long records the trace of his repeated walking in a straight line across a field in Wiltshire. This ‘walk’s’ artificiality, its geometrical precision, seemingly without a destination, goes against the reality of most life walking. Mostly we are less rigid in our movement, more ambling, more distracted. Mostly we walk AND … walk and think, walk and talk, walk and look. Walking is sometimes background, the foundation from which other activities take place.

The act of walking structures Patrick Keiller’s films, where London and the suburban landscape are seen through the eyes of the fictitious character Robinson, who moves in a labyrinthine way through the city, pausing to observe the conditions of the city. The camera captures the discordant, uneven, observations. Keiller’s films suggest the ways in which a narrative, a story or just an ongoing commentary, follows the same rhythm of the walk. Walking is linear, temporal and provides a template for the discussion of architecture and its environment.

‘From architecture’s earliest origins, walking and movement have shaped the experience of building’

From architecture’s earliest origins, walking and movement have shaped the experience of building. Pilgrimage is a demanding activity, a kind of walking that requires a certain level of physical and spiritual commitment.5 During a pilgrimage, which may extend for a long period of time and cover great distances, pilgrims are likely to encounter a sequence of urban and rural landscapes, punctuated with sacred sites. Walking binds those experiences together; the individual places are part of a larger pattern of movements. And yet even in the most secular of contexts, a single building is a similar compilation of a series of experiences, unfolding over time and woven into a unified whole, that allows individual moments to be understood as part of an aggregate event.

Walking goes against the idea that architecture is composed of stable, intractable space. In the 1970s Bruno Zevi did much to shift attention to ‘space as the protagonist of architecture’ in his monumental Architecture as Space: How to Look at Architecture (1974). For architects, space remains a key point of departure and one of the most basic problems to address in design. Space in many ways defines a building’s form and function. And yet there are ways in which walking complicates this notion of space. Recognising that we are constantly in motion, even when standing still, offers an alternative to Zevi’s definition of space as a series of static volumes held within building-containers. Any idea of motionless space fails to acknowledge the inherently dynamic nature of architectural experience. By the same token, Zevi’s concept of neutral, undifferentiated space does not account for the complexity and variety of architectural experiences. As Henri Lefebvre argues, space does not just exist; it has been produced from primary matter, nature. It is the result of activity – political products and strategic spaces – that implies economics and technique but goes beyond them. There is not one social space but many.6 The concept of diversity also applies to walking: even when walking has a goal in mind, it is almost always improvisatory, evolving and shifting to accommodate the environment and experience.


Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking records the trace of his repeated walking in a straight line across a field in Wiltshire. Source: Wikimedia commons

Walking not only shapes our experience of architecture, it is also at the heart of architectural design and practice. Walking highlights an uneasy relationship between architecture and nomadism, those patterns of construction that emerge from conditions of constant movement requiring architecture to be easily built and rebuilt. One way to trace the making of architecture is to see it emerging from this wandering; architecture might not therefore be the product of ‘settled peoples’ but rather the first condition of moving. The historian Labelle Prussin writes, ‘for the nomad, “home” cannot be understood except in terms of journey, just as space is defined by movement’.7 Much of our attention in architecture has been on what remains: the permanent monument, the influential exempla, the persistent and resistant patterns of building. Yet walking and movement highlight change, and therefore also, loss. What is passed by, what is abandoned and forgotten, what is no longer needed on the journey?8

Cultural geographer Tim Edensor describes climbing through, over, and around ruinous buildings, inviting further reflection on how we walk through architecture.9 One has to proceed cautiously when walking through a structure that has deteriorated to the point where the walls may give way, or the floor may cave in at any moment. In such a context, each movement must be carefully calculated in anticipation of its possible impact upon the surrounding structure. Clambering through a decaying building can generate a sense of unpredictability and excitement, an architectural experience that comes alive in the form of an adrenaline rush. By the same token, the tenuousness and uncertainty of walking through ruins also highlights how much of the urban space we experience today has been flattened into a form of ‘tactile sterility’, where uniform pavements and cushioned footwear have muffled the pedestrian’s experience of the world.


The higher the chopine, the higher the status of the wearer. Here in Paul-Louis Bouchard’s Apres le Bain, the subject wears very high chopines to prevent her feet and clothing from touching the ground. Unsurprisingly, many felt that chopines created an inelegant and unstable gait.

How exactly do we make contact with the ground – barefoot or balancing on heels? To understand how people walked at another time, how they negotiated the crowds of London or the irregular pavements of Paris, we need to take into account the different kinds of shoes people wore. For instance, the early modern fashion for the thick-soled footwear known as chopines not only affected gait and posture, but created limits to movement that in turn could inform one’s interpretation of the surrounding physical terrain. The fundamental importance of shoes to human perception has been noted by philosopher Umberto Eco: ‘a human race that has learned to move about in shoes has oriented its thought differently from the way it would have done if the race had gone barefoot’.10

The possibility that buildings might move, possibly even walking around the city on their own, found a place in modern consciousness in designs for an increasingly dynamic city. The exo-skeletal frames of the Centre Georges Pompidou (Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, Paris) resemble the exposed infrastructure of a giant machine, set down in the tight quarters of the old streets of Paris and just about to winch itself into motion. It is not only the articulation of the joints and struts of the building that animates it, but also the disparity of the old with the new, evoking the aliens and bionic apes of B-movies who navigate cities oblivious to and unimpeded by existing structures. In Philip Reeve’s recent steampunk novel, Mortal Engines, London is transformed into the principal Traction City, moving across the world and consuming smaller towns to survive. A depiction by Ron Herron, one of the founders of the 1960s British group known as Archigram, shows a self-contained metropolis voyaging across the vast watery surface of the ocean, organic and technological, armoured in the mode of a giant beetle.

‘Inigo Jones created a taxonomy of English buildings, ranking them by the dimensions of their courtyards which he personally measured ‘by paces’’

Architecture makes us move in particular ways.11 Not only is the foot a unit of measurement, a single stride is a readily available way of determining dimensions within architecture. (We’ve all done it, inserting our body into the building through pacing.) In the 17th century, the architect Inigo Jones created a taxonomy of English buildings, ranking them by the dimensions of their courtyards which he personally measured ‘by paces’. In measuring out a building, an individual’s personal walk is regularised in order to use it as measurement. Mathematical walking attempts to make the individual stride a standard, and to regulate our ever-changing gait. This tension between the human and the regulated is part of the history of measurement when human body parts were the gauge for a more universal rule.

Walking is never abstract. To be on foot is always to be in a place, localised, particularised and wedded to the experience of site. Even the foot as a unit of measurement was, before the emergence of standardised dimensions, linked to its locale: the Roman foot, the Venetian foot, and so on.

There are times when walking is imprinted in the very fabric of buildings. The labyrinth prescribes a particular kind of movement, mythic or meditative. The image reappears in Roman paving as a pattern even when the actual walking through the labyrinth was part of an ancient past. The labyrinth or maze could be a ‘life or death matter’ or more simply the opportunity to experience the pleasure of being lost.

From a 21st-century perspective, walking is all the more worthy of study when set against other forms of transport. The effect of the railway and the automobile on cities and rural landscapes alike makes walking seem at times an anomaly, an act of resistance to the speed of modern movement. Even the horse-drawn carriage transformed the way cities were experienced and navigated at the time of their introduction to the early modern landscape. To better grasp how architecture was understood at the pace of a walk might, from our perspective, involve a recovery or even a re-enactment that allows us to experience the unfolding of a landscape through slow movement.


1: Théorie de la démarche (1833); cited in Tim Ingold, ‘Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived through the Feet’, Journal of Material Culture 9/3 (2004), 315.

2: Christopher Bollas, The Evocative Object World (Hoboken, 2009); Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, ‘Introduction’, in Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, eds. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst (Aldershot, 2008), 1-19.

3: Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York, 2000); Karen O’Rourke, Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (Cambridge, 2013).

4: Erin Manning, Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty (Minneapolis, 2007).

5: Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking (London, 2014), 107-20.

6: Cited in O’Rourke (2013), 123.

7: Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington, 1995), 40.

8: Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice (Barcelona, 2002), 36.

9: Tim Edensor, ‘Walking Through Ruins’, in Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, eds Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst (Aldershot, 2008), 123-41.

10: Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-Reality: Essays (San Diego, 1986), 193.

11: O’Rourke (2013), 13.

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