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Selected Reviews

Bill Hillier, 1996. Space is a Machine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reviewed by David Seamon

Architecture, through the design of space, creates a virtual community with a certain structure and a certain density. This is what architecture does and can be seen to do, and it may be all that architecture does. If space is designed wrongly, then natural patterns of social co-presence in space are not achieved. In such circumstances, space is at best empty, at worst abused and a source of fear (p. 188).

In the fields of architectural and environment-behavior research, architectural theorist Bill Hiller’s theory of space syntax continues to be one of the most rewarding efforts to understand the ways in which people and the physical environment are inescapably related (for an earlier report on Hillier’s work, see EAP, spring 1993).

The reasons for the growing importance of space syntax relate to a number of interrelated strengths of the approach:

·        A conclusively established connection between conceptual argument and real-world confirmation;

·        A highly effective connection between theory and practice whereby the ideas can readily be translated into practical application, including the effective evaluation of specific building and urban designs in terms of pathway movements and potential interpersonal encounters;

·        Quantitative procedures that almost certainly arise out of the world of environmental and architectural experience and, unlike so many other quantitative methods and portraits, actually depict real lifeworld structure;

·        A creative translation of these quantitative measures into vivid graphic and cartographic presentations that allow non-specialists to easily and quickly see spatial and environmental patterns and linkages;

·        Perhaps most important, a powerful demonstration that the central way in which the physical environment contributes to human life is through spatial pattern—more specifically, through what Hillier now calls configuration—the way that the parts of a whole relate spatially and help engender one potential field of spatial and environmental behavior and actions rather than some other:

If we wish to consider built environments as organized systems, then their primary nature is configurational, principally because it is through spatial configurations that the social purposes for which the built environment is created are expressed (p. 92).

 In Space Is the Machine, Hillier uses spatial configuration as a hallmark principle to provide a comprehensive theory of architecture and urban design. In part I, he examines the crux of architecture, which he argues is the use of informed understanding to provide a suitable fit between human needs and the non-discursive aspects of the environment—most centrally, its spatial configuration.

 Hillier then devotes part II to a consideration of non-discursive regularities between spatial configuration and human life, by examining, first,  the “deformed grid” of traditional cities; next, post-war housing estates; and, finally, building interiors.

In discussing in part II the way that spatial configuration of traditional urban neighborhoods vs. twentieth-century public housing leads to different ways of moving through, encountering, and feeling safe in these places, Hillier provides a major contribution to understanding how physical and human worlds are mutually sustaining.

In part III, Hillier draws on the regularities discussed in part II to identify broader “local-to-global spatial laws” that describe the relationship between human life and architectural and urban configurations. Finally, in part IV, Hillier attempts a “theoretical synthesis.” He concludes that “the architect as scientist and as theorist seeks to establish the laws of the spatial formal materials with which the architect as artist then composes” (p. 10).

As a phenomenologist, let me emphasize that Hillier is a structuralist using largely positivist methods to demonstrate the ways in which spatial configuration both generates and arises out of social pattern and organization. He explains that the “built environment is not so much a thing as a process of spatio-temporal aggregation subject to continual change and carried out by innumerable agencies over a long period of time” (ibid.).

In this sense, Hillier interprets the physical environment as both the reflection and conveyor of social structure and interactions. Phenomenologically, this manner of expressing a people/environment connection needs rephrasing—not that built environment is social behavior and vice versa but, rather, that person is world, and world is person; that environment is experience, and experience is environment in the sense that particular environmental features (for example, a pathway network’s particular spatial configuration) contribute to and reflect the particular human worlds manifesting in a particular place.

Though he says little directly, Hillier is uncomfortable with the phenomenological vantage point on the people-world relationship. He seems minimally interested in detailing or understanding the everyday lived dynamics and events of particular places as spatial configuration may be their environmental foundation.

For example, he hopes to help urban designers to recreate lively cities and city districts marked by active street life and continuous “co-presence and co-awareness”—what over 40 years ago urban critic Jane Jacobs called the “street ballet.” He is minimally interested, however, in providing a detailed description of the street ballet’s lived everyday structure—what he calls the “urban buzz” and about which he suggests too many urban researchers understand only in a “romantic and mystical” way (p. 169). Rather, he seems to suggest that it is enough to understand the underlying configurational qualities of such vibrant urban places, specifically,

the co-incidence in certain locations of large numbers of different activities involving people going about their business in different ways. Such situations invariably arise through multiplier effects generated from the basic relation between space structure and movement, and ultimately this depends on the structure of the urban grid itself. In other words, how the urban system is put together spatially is the source of everything else (ibid.).

For the most part, Hillier’s understanding of co-presence and encounter in place is grounded in behaviors and aggregate measurements. As already suggested, he provides minimal probing of what these differences in behaviors and measurements actually mean for the particular pace, style, and tenor of everyday environmental and place experience.

Curiously, one exception in Machine is what Hillier calls a “thought experiment” in which he hypothetically reconstructs the typical pedestrian experience for an individual X who lives on an ordinary London working-class street vs. another individual Y who lives in a housing estate on a short upper walkway remote from a public street (see excerpt on next page; not included in web version).

Though rare in space syntax writings, such lived examples, grounded in everyday experience, help one much better understand why spatial configuration matters, though it is curious in this particular example that the contrasting place experiences that Hillier claims appear not to been documented through real-world evidence.

Such existential demonstration, particularly if grounded in real places and real place experiences of real people, would provide a lived concreteness missing from space syntax’s much more frequent aggregate generalizations garnered from quantitative evidence. In this sense, one potential phenomenological contribution to space syntax is detailed experiential descriptions of the contrasting kinds of co-presence, encounter, and lifeworlds that contrasting spatial configurations support or stymie.

For EAP readers, one of the most valuable aspects of Space is the Machine is Hillier’s critique of the place concept, which, he rightly argues, too often emphasizes a localist, one-point perspective that reduces the multidimensional complexity of urban place to the visual coherence of buildings, streets, and spaces comprising the urban environment.

Hillier makes conclusively clear that, ultimately, it is not an urban place’s local qualities but its global pathway properties, manifested through pathway layout and degree of permeability, that are the foundation of that place’s degree of vitality. Most efforts at place making, says Hillier, are unaware of these configurational qualities and the practical result is lifeless, empty districts. He writes:

The current preoccupation with ‘place’ seems no more than the most recent version of the urban designer’s preference for the local and apparently tractable at the expense of the global and intractable in cities. However, both practical experience and research suggest that the preoccupation with local place gets priorities in the wrong order. Places are not local things. They are moments in large-scale things, the large-scale things we call cities. Places do not make cities. It is cities that make places. This distinction is vital. We cannot make places without understanding cities. Once again we find ourselves needing, above all, an understanding of the city as a functioning physical and spatial object (p. 151).

Hillier’s work is so important because it demonstrates that any thinking and practice that does not understand the material and lived hermetic between physical and human worlds will necessarily fail. Space Is the Machine is an important step toward this understanding, though the book is complicated and probably difficult to follow if readers do not already have some knowledge of space syntax ideas. Gaining such knowledge is well worth the effort because place making will not be possible until thinkers and practitioners master Hillier’s ideas and learn ways to apply them, through policy and design, to real places.