The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Do we inhabit buildings '“ or do buildings inhabit us? An odd question, perhaps, but one worth thinking about.

Sunday, 4th March 2018, 3:00 pm
City of Yorks open-plan West Offices. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The architect Le Corbusier wrote that ‘a house is a machine for living in’, as if the needs of the inhabitants were served, mechanically, by the house – the house as servant to the human.

But, if you think about it, that’s not necessarily true; unless we build our own house, we inevitably have to compromise in some way. ‘The bathroom could be bigger and the garden a little smaller,’ we may say as we look round a house with a view to buying, ‘but it’s near enough – we’ll take it’.

Pugins Modern Poorhouse to a panopticon design.

And so you adapt to the building, following its dictates and quirks. It’s on such compromises that television property programmes thrive.

But often the layout and the architecture of buildings deliberately set out to manipulate the people who use them.

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA store you will have been forced to follow the trail through all the many departments, to tempt you into spotting something that you may not have considered but you’ll buy on impulse.

This idea of a turning and inescapable path through a building is very old – you might trace it back to the Labyrinth of the Minotaur at Knossos, perhaps, but, more obviously, to the rings of walls, gateways, barbicans and passages that forced would-be attackers of medieval castles under the fire and boiling oil of the defenders.

The Sir Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

These are obvious manipulations, but there are others that are more subtle. Churches were once places where the architecture enforced a rigid hierarchy – the clergy occupied the east end, the laity the west, and they were kept apart by a stone screen.

This perhaps traces its origins back to the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon, into which only the High Priest was admitted; the same segregation applies today in Orthodox churches, where the mysteries are celebrated by the priest behind the gilded screen of an iconostasis, with the faithful given only glimpses of the service.

Politics, too, is influenced – certainly in Britain and in many of its former colonies – by ecclesiastical architecture.

The House of Commons formerly met in St Stephen’s Chapel; it was arranged, as many Oxford and Cambridge College chapels are today, with benches facing each other across the width of the building.

Pugins Modern Poorhouse to a panopticon design.

That meant it was inevitable that the facing sides came to be in opposition to each other – as the House of Commons still is.

Despite attempts in the 18th century to rebuild Parliament have a more logical, semi-circular chamber (as is done in many other countries) the Commons layout was retained even when the building burned down in 1834, and after it was bombed in World War 2, when it was rebuilt to designs by Giles Gilbert Scott in what was mockingly known as ‘Neon-Gothic’.

It is unlikely that attempts to change it when Parliament decants for extensive repairs to the building will fare any better, and parliamentarians will continue to be influenced by the Gothic inconveniences of their surroundings when they return.

Augustus Pugin, the architect and designer of much of the Gothic detail of the Houses of Parliament, was a man with a mission; to make England Gothic again.

The Sir Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

He equated Gothic architecture with Christianity, and believed that by building with pointed arches would revive the moral and spiritual wellbeing of the country.

Perhaps he should have designed Gothic prisons to test out his theories. Prisons have always been places in which the architecture is deliberately intended to influence the inmates. Whether it’s the dungeons and oubliettes of medieval castles or the 21st-century prisons that are now being built, the design will be intended to contain the prisoners and prevent their doing more wrong. Any thoughts of rehabilitation are secondary.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham pushed hard to get the government to accept the Panopticon as a design for prisons. A circular building, originally conceived by Bentham’s younger brother Samuel, the Panopticon would have allowed the surveillance of every cell from a single central point.

The government never took up the suggestion, but somewhat later in the century the idea was adapted into a design of several wings of a prison that radiated from a single point. Panopticon prisons of this type rapidly became fashionable – Britain’s first was Pentonville – and spread around the world from Virginia to Tasmania.

And it was not only prisons – workhouses, too, adopted the radiating structure – most often with three or four wings meeting at a central point, though sometimes with more; there were examples at Witney in Oxfordshire, Southwark, Cardiff and Northampton, where the four-winged workhouse was designed by Gilbert Scott, before he became famous as a Gothic architect.

Pugin, as might be expected, hated the panopticon design. One of the most famous illustrations in his book ‘Contrasts’ shows a panopticon workhouse contrasted with a medieval monastery, where the poor are cared for with compassion.

The design of schools, colleges and universities, too, can influence how the students use them. In the 18th and 19th centuries (and before) schooling was often carried out in large, formal rooms with desks arrayed in serried ranks.

Then in the mid-20th centry, informality became the norm – schools threw out desks and imported tables. University seminars became more informal and, in this century, departments became ‘hubs’ with rooms of a central atrium – the Sir Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York is a typical example. Housing, too, manipulates; whether it’s back-to-backs, high-rise towers or agglomerations of barrack-like ‘town houses’, we find ourselves ‘nudged’ into new ways of living.

And so, examples proliferate – offices are now open-plan (the City of York Council’s recent West Offices within an old building are a case in point), hotels have large atriums (though, thank goodness, individual rooms are still provided!). Shops have open changing rooms.

We have gone from formality to informality – and our buildings continue to dictate how we live.