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Space is the machine, part one: theoretical preliminaries

Hillier, B.; (2007) Space is the machine, part one: theoretical preliminaries. In: Space is the machine: a configurational theory of architecture. (pp. 1-109). Space Syntax: London, UK. Green open access


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‘Theoretical Preliminaries’ deals with the most basic of all questions which architectural theory tries to answer: what is architecture, and what are theories, that they can be needed in architecture? In the first chapter, ‘What architecture adds to building’, the key concepts of the book are set out on the way to a definition of architecture. The argument is that in addition to functioning as bodily protection, buildings operate socially in two ways: they constitute the social organisation of everyday life as the spatial configurations of space in which we live and move, and represent social organisation as physical configurations of forms and elements that we see. Both social dimensions of building are therefore configurational in nature, and it is the habit of the human mind to handle configuration unconsciously and intuitively, in much the same way as we handle the grammatical and semantic structures of a language intuitively. Our minds are very effective in handling configuration in this way, but because we do work this way, we find it very difficult to analyse and talk rationally about the configurational aspects of things. Configuration is in general ‘non-discursive’, meaning that we do not know how to talk about it and do not in general talk about it even when we are most actively using it. In vernacular buildings, the configurational, or non-discursive, aspects of space and form are handled exactly like the grammar of language, that is, as an implication of the manipulation of the surface elements, or words and groups of words in the language case, building elements and geometrical coordinations in building. In the vernacular the act of building reproduces cultural given spatial and formal patterns. This is why it seldom seems ‘wrong’. Architecture, in contrast, is the taking into conscious, reflective thought of these non-discursive and configurational aspects of space and form, leading to the exercise of choice within a wide field of possibility, rather than the reduplication of the patterns specific to a culture. Architecture is, in essence, the application of speculative and abstract thought to the non-discursive aspects of building, and because it is so, it is also its application to the social and cultural contents of building. Chapter 2, ‘The need for an analytic theory of architecture’, then takes this argument into architectural theory. Architectural theories are essentially attempts to subject the non-discursive aspects of space and form to rational analysis, and to establish principles to guide design in the field of choice, principles which are now needed as cultural guidance is no longer automatic as it is in a vernacular tradition. Architectural theories are both analytic in that they always depend on conjectures about what human beings are like, but they are also normative, and say how the world should be rather more strongly than they say how it is. This means that architecture can be innovative and experimental through the agency of theories, but it can also be wrong. Because theories can be wrong, architects need to be able to evaluate how good their theories are in practice, since the repetition of theoretical error - as in much of the modernist housing programme - will inevitably lead to the curtailment of architectural freedom. The consequence of this is the need for a truly analytic theory of architecture, that is, one which permits the investigation of the non-discursive without bias towards one or other specific non-discursive style. Chapter 3, ‘Non-discursive technique’, outlines the prime requirement for permitting architects to begin this theoretical learning: the need for neutral techniques for the description and analysis of the non-discursive aspects of space and form, that is, techniques that are not simply expressions of partisanship for a particular type of configuration, as most architectural theories have been in the past. The chapter notes a critical difference between regularities and theories. Regularities are repeated phenomena, either in the form of apparent typing or apparent consistencies in the time order in which events occur. Regularities are patterns in surface phenomena. Theories are attempts to model the underlying processes that produce regularities. Every science theorises on the basis of its regularities. Social sciences tend to be weak not because they lack theories but because they lack regularities which theories can seek to explain and which therefore offer the prime test of theories. The first task in the quest for an analytic theory of architecture is therefore to seek regularities. The first purpose of ‘non-discursive technique’ is to pursue this task.

Type: Book chapter
Title: Space is the machine, part one: theoretical preliminaries
ISBN-13: 9780955622403
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: http://www.spacesyntax.com/en/downloads/library/bo...
Language: English
Additional information: Space is the machine: a configurational theory of architecture, by Professor Bill Hillier, is one of the foundational texts of the Space Syntax approach to human spatial phenomena. It was originally published hardcover by Cambridge University Press in 1996, and then in paperback in 1998. However, once the original run had been exhausted, the book went out of print: reprinting was not deemed economically feasible due to the number of colour plates in the book, even though the title had been selling well at the time. Space Syntax, with the support of University College London (UCL), is now happy to make this electronic edition available with a new preface and free of charge. We have done this to help meet the demand for access to Professor Hillier’s ideas, a demand that has increased steadily over the past decade.
UCL classification: ?? BG ??
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/3848
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