Gemma John, Senior Researcher at Foster + Partners
Social anthropologists are familiar with participant observation as a method that enables them to become fully immersed in the worlds of their ‘subjects’.
It is a little more taxing to conduct participant observation as a researcher in an architectural practice. There is simply not enough time to delve into the lives of others despite needing to know more about them for the purpose of architectural design. But, time is not the only constraint, since it is often impossible to gain access to the end-users of a building. So, in what is she participating? Perhaps she is a participant observer of the life of an architect, for whom architectural tours are a matter of routine.
Touring an existing building enables architects to gain insight into how people might behave in a new building. Architects are interested in how people navigate (the layout of services in a building), how they communicate (the circulation routes needed in a building), how they interact (the floor-space required for a specific activity), and how they experience (the indoor environmental quality). They hope to gain a good understanding of these four criteria – navigation, communication, interaction, and experience – from an existing building to come up with a (better) spatial strategy for a new building. They will also look out for areas where there is a ‘misfit’ between the building and its occupants in as much creativity lies is coming up with a design that is a better ‘fit’. In this sense, architects find out about the people in a space by studying the design of the space itself. As one space is the model for the next one, one group of people become the model for the next group.
The tour guides (anyone from facilities managers to company directors) consciously draw parallels between the building and the people that use it. As two, intimately connected entities, they are regarded as shaping one another. Indeed, Blier notes: ‘As in the study of humans, it is necessary in the analysis of architecture to look at each building as an active living organism’ (1987: 2). People and buildings are not only regarded as intimately connected then, they are both organisms thus take the active approach to living.
The tour guides will take an architect around the building, through the front of house public areas such as the reception, and the canteen, and back of house private areas such as the staff offices, meeting rooms, and stationary cupboards. They will explain the life of the building – or organism - in relation to its occupants (also organisms), explaining how their patterns of behaviour are shaped by the building itself - the height of the ceiling, depth of the floorplate, and layout of the furniture.
Architectural tours can be elaborate, lasting several hours. They require considerable social investment. Once someone has been on a tour of another person’s building, they are expected to offer a tour of their own building. There is the expectation of reciprocity; one tour leads to another, and another, and before long, architects, facilities managers, company directors are enmeshed in network of relations, displaying their own value through their ability to talk about each other’s building. Tours are a form of exchange, a means of engaging in relations through which the participants can themselves grow.
The building itself is an aesthetic display of these relations. It emerges out of all the other buildings that an architect has visited, and out of his or her relations that have been either been exhibited or reinforced through the gift of a tour. As Strathern (2010) notes, as an aesthetic, it has to ‘make aesthetic sense, it has to be acknowledged by everyone that it is appropriate – and not just a matter of number, or the size, or the colour’. It has to be appropriate according to the amount of social investment (relations) that has gone into it. The building itself has to take a particular aesthetic form. Otherwise, people will not recognize it. Otherwise, it will fail to impress people.
Otherwise, people will not want to tour it.
Gemma John is a social anthropologist. She was a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) between 2010 and 2013. She is currently a Senior Researcher at Foster + Partners, a well-known architectural practice.