Architecture as a Social Science?

Vitruvian triad Utilitas Socialitas Firmitas Venustas - Architecture as a social science too...

The idea of architecture as a social science might seem odd but there’s not much that more powerfully places, joins, separates and patterns people, and relations between people than the built spaces we live, work and learn in. Architecture is unavoidably social. And as for science (rather than as a practice or art which architecture can also be), well, an architectural design is a type of hypothesis about how people might respond to a building and the conditions it creates. Designs are grounded in theories about how people behave and what organizations, families and individuals need spatially. These theories are taught in architectural schools and developed through historical studies of building types and their layouts as well as empirical research into how people use buildings. And architects develop their own theories too, from their experience of the world and how people live it.

Confusion about what architecture is

Trying to define what architecture is - searches for an answer
There seems to be some confusion over what architecture is

People seem to be confused about what architecture is – does it fall into the arts, humanities, the sciences? As David Salomon puts it, architecture has a ‘traditional understanding of itself as existing at the crossroads of multiple disciplines…’ (Salomon, 2012:434). So why can’t it be all of these? At times it might be part art, at others part of the humanities, or engineering or sometimes a social science too. If it was never a social science, designs would be prejudices, hypotheses never tested and never evaluated.

Saying that ‘architecture is a social science’ is far too narrow: exploring what it might be and do as a social science (and how it might do that) is more important and takes us further.

To start then, take the traditional subject matter of the social sciences: social groups and their relations to and separations from other social groups; how groups remain stable and how they change; how groups of people and individuals relate – often in persistant, stable ways – to language, knowledge, power, opportunity, class, race, gender, sexuality, money, culture and so on. These ‘things’ and how they get to be related doesn’t just happen in buildings. Very often they happen through buildings, that is, partly because of the building. One way of thinking about it is to say that buildings are not innocent.

That buildings cannot be innocent means at least two things. Individually it means that their particular design might have some effect on the relations between people, or organise people in certain ways according to wealth, power or the other social characteristics. The second way in which buildings are not innocent is a property of their being members of a collective type. Types of building help to stabilize types of activity, knowledge and social organisation: a bank; a housing block; a school. Types of building also help to stabilise roles: who does what and where. That ‘who’ is not a random allocation. People aren’t normally assigned to particular types of building or to particular spaces in buildings on the basis of chance. And in stabilising those roles, buildings also stabilise the relationships between roles and so often the relationships between people who inhabit those roles.

“But”, someone could say, “How much of this is actually the responsibility of architecture and how much is down to buildings being historically the way they are, or the wider economic system, or gender relations or other structural differences?” This is a difficult issue. Architecture is in dialogue with the past but it’s a past that it has (partly) created in concert with economics, other social forces and through people’s actions so they facilitate each other.

It’s true that some of the issues above are the job of geography, urban studies or planning to explore but on a smaller scale, they’re architecture’s – as understanding and critique but also because designing these divisions are what brings the money in, what makes architecture possible as a profession and what reproduces existing divisions as well what can go some way to changing them.

Take a high school. Architecture plays a very significant role in dividing art from maths from science and practical lab work from theoretical work, males from females (in the toilets often but frequently elsewhere too), younger kids from older ones, teachers from students from admin staff, ‘serious’ learning from play and so on. Architecture is a tool that helps to sustain these divisions and, sometimes, to transform them.

Certainly, it alone cannot determine whether these divisions are lived out. People need to go along with it if it is to do its job. But buildings don’t drop from the sky. They’re designed and people need to go inside them to work, to sleep, to have fun, to buy, to learn. To the extent that these designs encourage certain groups and divisions, roles and activities, there is a certain responsibility.

Buildings also tend to last a long time and so provide discourses and cultural memories that outlive their occupation by any particular persons. Whereas individual families, shoppers, personnel and students are replaced quite rapidly, buildings and their internal spaces are more durable – they help to stabilize what it is people are supposed to do, where and how. In short, for good and bad, architecture often fixes group definitions of insiders and outsiders, roles and the ways in activities happen.

Buildings are big sculptures, often made of lots of expensive materials so it is completely appropriate that they are studied and designed within the disciplines of art and engineering. But they are much, much more than sculptures. Yet it is often the sculpture-liness of buildings for which they are best recognised and sought after. The majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas where work is more likely to be indoors than out and where the non-working hours of our lives also tend to be inside. Yet so often, too often, architecture counts the outside, the sculptural, as what’s important.

Architecture is not a passive background. It doesn’t only trace existing lines of public and private relations, it reasserts those boundaries, makes new ones and helps to define a great deal of their content too.

It is strange then that whilst the social sciences focus on studying social joinings and divisions, their interrelations, their performances, their urban and rural groupings and whilst architecture focuses explicitly on space, what happens inside buildings is dealt with so unsociologically by architecture and so unspatially by the social sciences. And where we spend so much of our time, inside, is where architecture classifies, hierarchizes, gives space, denies space, structures lives and their (dis)connections to other lives, resources, knowledge, opportunities, we tend to forget its workings.

Vitruvian triad Utilitas Socialitas Firmitas Venustas - Architecture as a social science too...
Vetruvius’ triad of architectural virtues ‘Utilitas Firmitas Venustas’ or ‘Usefulness Solidity Beauty’ adapted. What a building does in terms of shaping social relations is still under-considered in both architecture and the social sciences.

It should at least be suggested then that practising architecture and studying architecture are forms of social science. Science in the sense that they are always being explored and require constant research to be effective (by whatever definition you want). Science as ways of knowing that are repeatedly put to the empirical test of one kind or another every time you step into and around a building.*

For Umberto Eco, “all the ingenuity of an architect or designer cannot make a new form functional (and cannot give form to a new function) without the support of existing processes of codification…” (Emphasis in the original, 1997:178). Those processes of codification aren’t just about usability, they’re also of sociological concern – designed space requires and reproduces patterned and remarkably sticky, durable forms of organising people and the relations between people.

So why isn’t architecture treated as a social science?

One reason might be that whilst social theories brought, belatedly, space into their accounts of social life from the late 1970s onwards (Jessop, Brenner and Jones, 2008:390), architecture always, already had space: no ‘spatial turn’ was necessary. In the social sciences, though space, social relations and the mostly implicit or ignored relations between the two came to be explored in ever more interesting ways. In recent times it was geographers who got the ball rolling and then it rolled more widely across and between the humanities and social sciences. A result, perhaps, is that the more social sciencey roles of architecture’s job description were done elsewhere: in politics, economics, urbanism and critical geography or in fields such as organisation studies, development studies and education. These disciplines and research interests took on space and so had both the social and the spatial, crowding out or at least depriving architecture of an incentive to invest in taking social theory seriously. What was architecture to do? Experiment with form and aesthetics – things that no-one could take away from it.

Perhaps the social sciences, even after their spatial turn or turns, left architecture its monopoly anyway. For all of the talk about space now being better integrated into social theory and many versions of sociology, it remains ‘big’ space, an artefact maybe of its sponsor being geography and not architecture and represented in maps not plans. Space in the social sciences is rarely that which lies between four walls nor even the socially produced space of domestic or institutional interiors. Instead it tends to be what counts as ‘big’ relative to buildings and so conceived in scales, territories, communities (only sizeable ones mind), nations, the results of international capital flows, networks, globalised processes and peoples – all the more ironic since the internationalisation of architectural styles and functions has itself helped to achieve at least some of those effects and so deserves attention too.

The above is of course a very broad brush sketch. Architects and being an architect have been argued as always sociological in one way or another – Robert Gutman was a sociologist at the Bartlett in the 1960s and pointed out then that “there has never been an architect who was not, in some sense, a student and critic of society.” (Gutman, 2010:156) Those ideas live on in many forms. Abram de Swaan wrote “I see Hertzberger as a pre-eminently sociological architect.” (2009:21) And the social sciences do sometimes focus on architecture. Paul Jones writes interestingly about the effects of architectural symbols in eliciting social responses (eg 2006). Bourdieu did write a bit eg the Kabyle house (1990) and social and economic disruptions to life effected by the move to modern apartments from the Casbah (1979, particularly 85-91).

In general though, the social sciences are fairly reticent on the subject of architecture itself, its buildings and particularly its interiors in terms of what they (attempt) to do to people (or allow people do to themselves, depending on your take on things) and how people respond to those stipulations/invitations. Similarly, although architecture frequently deals with social questions in the design of public buildings and institutions such as housing, hospitals and schools, the social here is commonly a synonym either for ‘lots of people’ and/or for ‘government-funded’, it nowadays tends to avoid serious issues of internal space, relationality and the issues discussed here.

I wonder why? It’s not a rhetorical question at all, I’d love to hear more suggestions.

* Lina Bo Bardi: “The function of the architect is, above all, to know the way people live in their homes and try to study the technical means to solve the difficulties that upset the lives of thousands of people.” (1994:203) She seems to express a real sense of architecture as serving the needs of people and a role for the architect in doing research (“to know…to study…to solve…”) to help that. I wonder how this sense of doing architecture could translate into schools and other sites for children, learning or not – that keenness to find out, to understand and then to respond. Important to think too about how that work could be supported by a government genuinely interested in providing the financial support for architects to work more pre-emptively and creatively. It has happened before, it is possible.


Bo Bardi, L. (1994) Lina Bo Bardi. Milan: Edizioni Charta.
Bourdieu, P. (1979) Algeria 1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Eco, U. (1997) ‘Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture.’ In Leach, N. (ed.) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. London: Routledge, pp. 173–186.
Gutman, R. (2010) ‘The Questions Architects Ask.’ In Cuff, D. and Wriedt, J. (eds) Architecture From the Outside In: Selected Essays by Robert Gutman. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 152–185.
Jessop, B., Brenner, N. and Jones, M. (2008) ‘Theorizing sociospatial relations.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 26(3) pp. 389–401.
Jones, P. (2006) ‘The Sociology of Architecture and the Politics of Building: The Discursive Construction of Ground Zero.’ Sociology, 40(3) pp. 549–565.
Salomon, D. (2012) ‘Plural Profession, Discrepant Practices.’ In Crysler, C. G., Cairns, S., and Heynen, H. (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory. London: SAGE, pp. 430–443.
de Swaan, A. (2009) ‘The Relational Space / De relationele ruimte.’ In The Schools of Herman Hertzberger / Alle scholen. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, pp. 20–39.

UPDATE 8/12/15: Almost as soon as I wrote this I discovered that there’s a lot out there. Once you learn a new word you start hearing it repeatedly over the next few days (at least I do) and in the same way I started coming across lots of references to sociology and architecture and the sociology of architecture.

I’m going to start a rough-and-ready list here which I may or may not annotate as I read them. Many are not in English which I think is interesting in itself. To be clear, what I’m focussing on mostly are texts that deal not with buildings as objects of sociological study in their style or location nor the study of doing architecture, nor a sociology of urbanism and not environmental psychology. These are all interesting but what I want to do is zoom in on a few features, so regardless of whether or not I get round to adding to this list or annotating it, the following are criteria for inclusion. They’re texts that deal significantly with:

  • the ways in which internal space and people are written about as social groupings, and/or
  • the relative roles of inside buildings and people in and interactions on the relations among those people and/or
  • how those relations are structured towards and contribute to other structures such as language, power, class, gender, race or political concerns of the people themselves.
Boni, F. and Poggi, F. (2011) Sociologia dell’Architettura. Rome: Carocci.
Broady, M. (1966) ‘Social Theory in Architectural Design.’ Arena – the Architectural Association Journal, (January) pp. 149–154.
Chadoin, O. and Claude, V. (2010) ‘Éditorial: Matériaux pour une sociologie de l’architecture.’ Espaces et sociétés, 142(2) p. 7. DOI 10.3917/esp.142.0007
Chiesi, L. (2011) Il doppio spazio dell’architettura. Ricerca sociologica e progettazione. Naples: Liguori.
Gans, H. J. (1977) ‘Toward a Human Architecture: A Sociologist’s View of the Profession.’ Journal of Architectural Education, 31(2) pp. 26–31.
Moore, R. (2013) Why We Build. London: Picador.
Not a sociological text but he follows Lina Bo Bardi closely through a range of issues to do with building in a way that reclaims the role of people in defining what buildings can and can’t do. He cites Bo Bardi: ‘Until man enters the building, climbs steps, and takes possession of the space in a “human adventure” which develops over time, architecture does not exist.’ (p.23) I’ve not yet found the source of this citation so if anyone knows it…
Winner, L. (1980) ‘Do artifacts have politics?’ Daedalus, 109(1) pp. 121–136.
Not about the insides of buildings at all but the heights of overpasses that allowed cars but prevented buses (more likely to be used by poorer people and black people) from accessing Jones Beach park. A classic on how public structures might come to have political consequences for people and some of the ways to think through that: is it the social system/context that accords the political or the nature of the object or…. He uses it to think through the implications of technology but could just as well be applied to internal architecture.

1 Comment

  1. For anyone particularly interested in this, I’ve just come across this book – though only in Italian for the moment:

    “Sociologia dell’ Architettura” by Federico Boni (a sociologist) and Fabio Poggi (architect).

    What’s interesting is their division of a sociology of architecture into 3 types of study ie 1) the profession of being an architect (so chimes with Robert Gutman and Dana Cuff’s work maybe?) 2) the building as an object and site of sociological investigation (so closer to Paul Jones’s work perhaps) and 3) the use of designed space by people (and the sociological implications of that space and its use).

    Number 3 is what interests me most though appreciate separating them out is perhaps more for the benefit of analysis than as these things work in real life.

    If you have any more tips or suggestions, please do comment. Thanks!



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