When talking about “typology” it is unavoidable thinking about the form-function relationship in architecture. While visiting the British Library, the following question arose: “what does differentiate a library from any other building typologies?”
One immediate answer may be that, since people’s main activity in libraries is reading, the definition of the typology “library” must include the term “natural light” and how this is treated to achieve suitable lighting in these buildings. Indeed, “natural light” has been a central and pervasive issue in these typologies throughout the History. The pictures below show several examples of how designers have approached this matter in different periods, from The Ancient Library of Alexandria (Fig.1_Left) and the medieval scriptoriums (Fig.1_Right), to more recent examples such as The Phillips Exeter Academy Library by L. Kahn (Fig.2_Left), The National Library of Staatsbibliothek by H. Scharoun (Fig.2_Centre) or the British Library (Fig.2_Right).
It is not surprising that buildings with equivalent functions present similar concerns, since they are physical objects that need to fulfill specific requirements. However, if we narrow down the definition of “function” to the modernist idea of “building conceived as a machine” or the use of a specific language or architectonic style as generator of function, how can we explain the fact that buildings are continually changing their uses without changing their main form? (Fig.3)
Hillier proposes a definition of the form-function relationship that could answer this paradox, by arguing that all buildings pass through a series of functional filters of possible forms before becoming real buildings (Hillier, 1996). The first filter is “generic function”. This concept refers not to the different activities that people perform in the space, but to more essential human behaviors in buildings such as people occupying spaces, moving around it or being aware of others. All these depend on the spatial intelligibility of the building (i.e. being able to comprehend the global picture of the building from a more local scale). These features are, according to Hillier (1996), what distinguish real buildings from the unlimited possibilities of purely configurational experiments. As a starting point, we can define the British Library as a building, since people are able to move about it and maintain in each moment a clear picture of its global structure.
The second filter is “cultural and programmatic intent”; this means that buildings that perform the same culturally defined function tend to present some common spatial properties (Hillier, 1996). This might explain why the treatment of natural light has become a central issue in libraries throughout History, as we can also see in the British Library. Or the importance that designers have given to visual connectivity in this building typology, exemplified by the more recent examples of the British Library, The Phillips Exeter Academy Library and The National Library of Staatsbibliothek. Hillier also stresses the importance of the programmatic intent through the notion of “global function” (Hillier et al., 1984). According to this, different typologies are characterized by interfaces or spatial relations between “inhabitants” (e.g. British Library staff, who are identified with space and control it) and “visitors” (e.g. readers and non-readers, who are present in the space but do not control it). Consequently, a library is a library also because of what people do there. In the case of The British Library, people do not only read, write or gather information, but also perform other activities such as having lunch, doing business, attending art exhibitions, educational visits, and so on (Fig.4). This means that the concept of “library” is not something fixed that an architectural form could retain, but a dynamic notion that may change over time.
The third filter corresponds to the level of the specific building, where those aspects that are not specified by the cultural genotype can vary either in a structured or random way, leading to individual differences between buildings (Hillier, 1996). This allows differentiating for instance, the British Library from The National Library of Staatsbibliothek, since the use of styles or materials differ from each other.
Finally, it is important to stress that these three functional filters work interdependently of each other (Hillier, 1996); therefore we need every dimension to properly understand the form-function relationship in architectural typologies.
– Hillier B., Hanson J. and Peponis J. (1984) What do we mean by building function? Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning, University College of London.
– Hillier, B (1996) Is architecture and ars combinatorial?, Part three, Chapter eight. Space is the machine. A configurational theory of architecture. Cambridge Univesity Press.