I’m halfway through a pretty fascinating book that I started over the holidays: Why We Build: Power and Desire in ArchitectureIt’s leading me to think a bit more about space and structure, both physical and programmatic.

Why We Build makes an interesting point about how designing buildings involves exerting a certain kind of power over the future users and inhabitants. The architect’s choices can serve to constrain and dictate future uses, even as they attempt to serve those same uses. Of course, human ingenuity and intent can confound the architect’s intent—a plaza or parking lot can become a market or place of worship—though within limits set by the permanence of the structures.

I’m reminded of a few lines from the Tao Te Ching:

Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

The same goes for nonphysical architecture, such as programs or management practices. For example, I’ve often described effective facilitation (whether of a workshop or meeting) as an effort to create space, which you then expect the participants to fill. Like a good architect, this takes a certain amount of trust in the participants and willingness to give up power. And like Lao Tzu said, you get paid for the structures you create, while the real usefulness comes from the space you leave.

How many development programs focus on the structures and objects being built, but neglect the spaces that they are creating?

  1. Hi Dave,

    Enjoyed hearing your thoughts! I’ll be interested to hear your final opinion of the book! Spatial theory and architecture are both strong interests of mine and something I have read quite a bit about.

    When you’re talking about space in a more abstract, I find Doreen Massey to be a good resource. She puts forward the idea that space is social relations stretched out; in other words that space is dynamic and its identity changes with time and participants. So as your talking about creating a safe space or the space created by a program, I think it is a complex question to analyze due to this dynamism.

    In many ways, I interpret your question about the space left from development programs to be about whether implementers think about the unintended changes to social relations.



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