In 1943, after the British Parliament buildings had been destroyed by a bomb, Winston Churchill mandated that they be rebuilt as before. He justified his decision as follows:
We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.
The first sentence conveys a sense of what might be called architectural determinism, the idea that people's behavior is shaped by their built environment.
I was reminded of Churchill's statement when I saw a review of a new book entitled Parliament that analyzes the designs of different parliament buildings and relates them to the political styles of the countries in which they occur. The book breaks down parliamentary architecture into five different prototypes.
For example, the British Parliament is an example of the "opposing benches" type. This sort of design fits with a style of government in which power is held by a ruling party and opposed by the other party in a sort of political binary.
By contrast, the Russian Duma is organized in the "classroom" style, with deputies all facing the front of the room. This design is more favored by autocratic governments in which deputies are arranged more for instruction than for input.
Spatial design and behavior are important in other fields too. For example, a recent survey of office employees in New Zealand backs up other research suggesting that the open-office style of office organization has considerable downsides.
An open office is a work environment in which white-collar workers are placed in a space missing any substantial divisions. The idea is to encourage interactions, which are held to be crucial to the productivity of "knowledge workers." (See "Cubed" by Nikil Saval for more detail.)
Yet, the recent survey suggests that the open office design has significant flaws. Compared to workers in a traditional office space where individuals are given private or semi-private spaces, workers in open office environments appear to be more distracted, less friendly and less collaborative.
The distraction clearly comes from constantly being exposed to the noise and activities of other workers. In workspaces without assigned seating, particularly, social stresses around finding and occupying an agreeable space may contribute to hostility between employees.
Finally, I was reminded of a recent TED talk given by Marwa Al-Sabouni, a Syrian architect (still) living in Homs. In her talk, Al-Sabouni places some of the blame for her country's civil war on the architecture and urban planning practiced there. In her view, the modern tendency to disaggregate people of diverse backgrounds into separate settlements contributed to ethnic antipathy that has fuelled the conflict.
This is not to say that architecture caused the war but that the built environment made conflict more likely.
So, Churchill's comment that "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us" still gives us something important to think about.
How does the structure of your environment affect the behavior of you and its other occupants?