Space is the machine, part four: theoretical syntheses


Part IV of the book, ‘Theoretical Syntheses’, begins to draw together some of the questions raised in Part I, the regularities shown in Part II and the laws proposed in Part III, to suggest how the two central problems in architectural theory, namely the form-function problem and the form-meaning problem, can be reconceptualised. Chapter 10, ‘Space is the machine’, reviews the form-function theory in architecture and attempts to establish a pathology of its formulation: how it came to be set up in such a way that it could not be solved. It then proposes how the configuration paradigm permits a reformulation, through which we can not only make sense of the relation between form and function in buildings, but also we can make sense of how and why buildings, in a powerful sense are ‘social objects’ and in fact play a powerful role in the realisation and sustaining of human society. Finally, in Chapter 11, ‘The reasoning art’, the notion of configuration is applied to the study of what architects do, that is, design. Previous models of the design process are reviewed, and it is shown that without knowledge of configuration and the concept of the non-discursive, we cannot understand the internalities of the design process. A new knowledge-based model of design is proposed, with configuration at its centre. It is argued from this that because design is a configurational process, and because it is the characteristic of configuration that local changes make global differences, design is necessarily a top down process. This does not mean that it cannot be analysed, or supported by research. It shows however that only configurationally biased knowledge can really support the design Introduction Space is the machine | Bill Hillier Space Syntax Introduction process, and this, essentially, is theoretical knowledge. It follows from this that attempts to support designers by building methods and systems for bottom up construction of designs must eventually fail as explanatory systems. They can serve to create specific architectural identities, but not to advance general architectural understanding. In pursuing an analytic rather than a normative theory of architecture, the book might be thought by some to have pretensions to make the art of architecture into a science. This is not what is intended. One effect of a better scientific understanding of architecture is to show that although architecture as a phenomenon is capable of considerable scientific understanding, this does not mean that as a practice architecture is not an art. On the contrary, it shows quite clearly why it is an art and what the nature and limits of that art are. Architecture is an art because, although in key respects its forms can be analysed and understood by scientific means, its forms can only be prescribed by scientific means in a very restricted sense. Architecture is law governed but it is not determinate. What is governed by the laws is not the form of individual buildings but the field of possibility within which the choice of form is made. This means that the impact of these laws on the passage from problem statement to solution is not direct but indirect. It lies deep in the spatial and physical forms of buildings, in their genotypes, not their phenotypes. Architecture is therefore not part art, and part science, in the sense that it has both technical and aesthetic aspects, but is both art and science in the sense that it requires both the processes of abstraction by which we know science and the processes of concretion by which we know art. The architect as scientist and as theorist seeks to establish the laws of the spatial and formal materials with which the architect as artist then composes. The greater scientific content of architecture over art is simply a function of the far greater complexity of the raw materials of space and form, and their far greater reverberations for other aspects of life, than any materials that an artist uses. It is the fact that the architect designs with the spatial stuff of living that builds the science of architecture into the art of architecture. It may seem curious to argue that the quest for a scientific understanding of architecture does not lead to the conclusion that architecture is a science, but nevertheless it is the case. In the last analysis, architectural theory is a matter of understanding architecture as a system of possibilities, and how these are restricted by laws which link this system of possibilities to the spatial potentialities of human life. At this level, and perhaps only at this level, architecture is analogous to language. Language is often naïvely conceptualised as a set of words and meanings, set out in a dictionary, and syntactic rules by which they may be combined into meaningful sentences, set out in grammars. This is not what language is, and the laws that govern language are not of this kind. This can be seen from the simple fact that if we take the words of the dictionary and combine them in grammatically correct sentences, virtually all are utterly meaningless and do not count as legitimate sentences. The structures of language are the laws which restrict the combinatorial possibilities of words, and through these restrictions construct the sayable and the meaningful. The laws of language do not therefore tell us what to say, but prescribe the structure and limits of the sayable. It is within these limits that we use language as the prime means to our individuality and creativity. In this sense architecture does resemble language. The laws of the field of architecture do not tell designers what to do. By restricting and structuring the field of combinatorial possibility, they prescribe the limits within which architecture is possible. As with language, what is left from this restrictive structuring is rich beyond imagination. Even so, without these laws buildings would not be human products, any more than meaningless but syntactically correct concatenations of words are human sentences. The case for a theoretical understanding of architecture then rests eventually not on aspiration to philosophical or scientific status, but on the nature of architecture itself. The foundational proposition of the book is that architecture is an inherently theoretical subject. The very act of building raises issues about the relations of the form of the material world and the way in which we live in it which (as any archaeologist knows who has tried to puzzle out a culture from material remains) are unavoidably both philosophical and scientific. Architecture is the most everyday, the most enveloping, the largest and the most culturally determined human artefact. The act of building implies the transmission of cultural conventions answering these questions through custom and habit. Architecture is their rendering explicit, and their transmutation into a realm of innovation and, at its best, of art. In a sense, architecture is abstract thought applied to building, even therefore in a sense theory applied to building. This is why, in the end, architecture must have analytic theories

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