The form-function paradigm

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).

Alexandria_ Scriptorium

Fig. 1_Left: Alexandria Library (light seems to enter from above)
Fig.1_Right: Medieval scriptoriums (light entering through stained glass windows)


Fig.2_Left: Phillips Exeter Academy Library by L. Kahn (lighted through a skylight)
Fig.2_Centre: National Library of Staatsbibliothek by H. Scharoun: lighted through fanlights
Fig. 2_Left: British Library by Colin St John Wilson (lighted through skylights)

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)


Fig.3: Library loggia at Somerville College after converted into a hospital for soldiers during the 1º WW.
Fig.3: Cathedral converted into a book store.

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.


Fig.4: British Library (people doing different activities: educational visits, business, etc.)

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.

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Looking for The British Museum’s core

 “Designed by Foster and Partners, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. It is a two-acre space enclosed by a spectacular glass roof with the world-famous Reading Room at its centre” (

The British Museum’s Great Court was conceived, in its original design by Robert Smirke’s, as a garden. However, in 1852-7 the space was lost when the Reading Room and other library departments where built there. When the Museum’s library departments were moved to the British Library in 1997, a competition was launched to retrieve the courtyard as a public space.

The Great Court has become now the most important space within the British Museum, it could be considered by most people as undoubtedly “the core of the building”. It could be suggested that two rather differentiate spaces can be distinguished within it: one more dynamic (south side) and one more static (north side).

The south side, near to the main entrance, is fundamentally the place where people is received and oriented to the different galleries. Here, as the “visitors’ movement survey” by Space Syntax Limited shows, a high flux of movements can be found. It can be also observed some stationary activity but shortly prolonged in time, such us people taking photographs or finding their way, either at the information boards or at the information desk.

Great Court (South Side): the “dynamic space”
Map by

The north side can be considered a more static space in terms of movement activity (decreasing in the movement flows showed in the “visitors’ movement survey”), and therefore its definition could be closer to our understanding of “public square” as a place where people gather and spend their time. But let’s see more carefully this space. As the diagram below shows more than half of the space is occupied either by places to consume, such as the main museum’s shop or the cafeteria, or places that you have to paid to go in, such as the Reading Room where the temporal exhibitions (the ones that you have to buy a ticket or be membership to go in) take place.

Great Court (North Side): the “static space”
Map by

The previous analysis makes me reflect on what exactly means the expression “the core of the building” within a museum. In The British Museum the physical core of the building, The Great Court is, on the one hand a place where “consume goods” (shop and cafeterias) and, on the other hand, a place where people is addressed efficiently to the different rooms where “consume culture”, rushing between the most iconic pieces of art to take the picture which will prove “I was here”.

“Consuming goods” _ “Consuming culture”

However, visitors hardly ever realize that there is a huge concealed and complex part of the building which, I would suggest, is the actual core of The British Museum. This is the back of the house, the area where curators, restorers and other staff keep alive the history of our civilization. As we can see in The British Museum, organizations are complex structures and analyzing them beyond their surface could reveal new and interesting insights in the study of the correspondence between them and their spatial layout.

Back of the house: Curatores’ and restorers’ spaces

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“Ceremonial space”? For who?

Civic space is defined by Charles Goodsell in his study “The Social Meaning of Civic Space (Studies in Government and Public Policy)” (Goodsell, 1988) such as that which presents the following four characteristics: state owned, publicly accessible, ceremonial and enclosed.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London present all of these characteristics. They are state owned; they are open to the public, although controlled by a strong security system and some access restrictions depending on the nature of the trial, and they are ceremonial and enclosed in an impressive “High Victorian Gothic” style building commissioned to George Edmund Street in 1865 and completed in 1882.

In this post I would like to focus my attention in the third characteristic identified by Goodsell, “ceremonial space”, and how it is deployed in The Royal Courts of Justice.

From the point of view of a barrister the “ceremony” begins actually even before entering the Courts. The barristers came to the Courts from the different Inns located around them, these are enclosed and self-regulated precincts of professional associations, where they have traditionally prepared their cases. Just leaving the Inn, the huge building of the Royal Courts appears, imposing its powerful image.

Inn of Court (Temple): the map shows the enclousure of these professional associations

The main space in the Courts is the Great Hall, which resembles the nave of a Gothic cathedral, reinforcing the “ceremonial” experience with its ornamented stained glass windows, its mosaic marble floor and especially with its large scale dimensions. But is in the courtrooms where the “ceremonial” point is more evident, not only in the features of the space but also in the way the different agents involved in the trial look and behave.

Great Hall – Royal Courts of Justice: the resemblance to a cathedral emphasize the “ceremonial space” 

The space is arranged in a strongly hierarchical way. Each courtroom presents three different entrances in order to separate the different groups involved: judges, defendants, claimants, public and so on. Besides, the status of each group is stressed by their position in the room, with the judge located in the most central and higher position at the front of the room and the public located in stands at the rear of it.

The trial also displays a series of rituals that assign a specific role to each of the participants, as if it were a theatre play. The leading actors are unmistakable, with his white wigs and his black togas; we have the scriptwriters among the public, assuring that all is said as the script dictates and finally, the most difficult role, the role of that who actually is not performing, but who is going to get all the success or failure of the play: the accused.

A barrister “on stage”: the trial’s performance

Now, if we put ourselves in the skin of the accused, it is hard to believe that our experience of the “ceremonial” space in The Royal Courts is going to be somewhat near to the experience offered for this same space to the barristers. So, being The Courts a place where democracy should be represented stronger than anywhere else, several questions arise in my mind:

1. Is it possible to offer an equal or similar “ceremonial” experience to all the agents involved in a trail? Does the space play a key role in doing so or is just a question of performance?

2. Or, if we go beyond, have the space be “ceremonial” in order to be considered Civic space?

Modern law courts buildings seem to suggest that “ceremonial” is a word not needed any more in the justice realm, but they show that in a very superficial way, through external style features. I also suggest that the permanence of the “ceremonial” concept, among the four characteristics proposed by Goodsell, must be reconsidered or redefined. However, I recommend that in doing so “organization of space” must be one of the key guidelines.


Goodsell, C (1988) The Social Meaning of Civic Space: Studies in Government and Public Policy

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A building is not a diagram

Circle, a co-owned employee partnership of healthcare professionals, is planning to build around 25 new private hospitals across England in the next five years. Circle Reading Hospital is the second of this series of hospitals, designed by Bryden Wood who have also been commissioned to build the forthcoming hospitals in Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol and Manchester.

To understand the complexity of a hospital’s brief, as well as the structure inherent to this typology, Bryden Woods have developed a series of diagrams that render the essential configuration aspects underling the organization’s aims and policies, besides the technical requirements that such a complex building as a hospital requires (Fig.1). These diagrams also aim at informing and guiding the design of forthcoming hospitals. As Hillier (1996) states, buildings present cultural or typological invariants in patterns that lie not on the surface of things, but that are buried in the nature of configurations themselves; this is, buildings present genotypes. Through these genotypes, each society and each function in society seeks to express itself architecturally. An analytical theory of architecture may tacitly use these genotypes as starting point in two different ways in the design process: as aids to the creative process of design itself and to predict how a particular design will work and be experienced.

Fluxes and function diagrams

Fig. 1: diagrams by Bryden Woods rendering the essential configurational aspects of its hospitals.
Diagrams provide by Bryden Woods

However, we have to bear in mind that buildings are not diagrams that we can apply directly and independently of the context where they are placed. One of the great challenges for Bryden Woods is how these diagrams will materialize in the actual building. As Hillier (1996) pointed out, “Buildings are complex configurations, and not simply assemblages of parts. The use of precedent in design is necessary, since it brings concrete evidence in support of prediction, but it is never sufficient, because each new synthesis recontextualises each aspect of the precedent. The use of precedent therefore necessarily involves interpretation”.

From my point of view, this interpretative step has been minimized in Circle Reading Hospital; the functional diagram having become the actual design of the building. This may be seen in a number of features:

1. The context has been highly dismissed, resulting in an introverted building that looks inwards not only in the private areas (which require a quiet environment due to the own nature of a hospital), but also in the most public areas such as corridors or waiting rooms (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2: corridors to patients’ rooms (left) / Patient’s rooms looking inwards, to the main atrium (centre) / view of the surroundings from a crack in the system’s roof (right)

2. Circle’s policy stresses the idea of a hospital as a “factory”. The most important feature is efficiency. Services and patients are treated as fluxes within highly established linear circuits: one access point, several checking points throughout their trip such as hot desks that assure the proper circulation of the fluxes (Fig. 3) and one exit point. All this ensures execution within the minimum possible time. Moreover, this way of operating reduces contact between actors, by promoting just the necessary communication, while incidental communication is minimized.


Fig.3_Left: reception’s desk, the first checking point.
Fig.3_Right: one of the nurses’ desks, checking point along our trip.

3. As mentioned above, an excessive focus in the efficiency aspect of the hospital through functional and flows diagrams moves aside the more social aspects present in this type of buildings. This is clear for instance in how the nurse station is located far from patients, precluding a more direct relation between them and limiting the encounters to just those required for medical reasons.

It is clear that Bryden Woods are pursuing one of the most difficult and interesting issues in architecture: the creation of a theoretical realm through their experience of a highly complex typology. However, it could be said that a greater insight on how this theory relates to the concreteness that the real world imposes should be developed for foreseeable projects.



 – Hillier, B (1996) The need for an analytic theory of architecture”, Part one, Chapter two. Space is the machine. A configurational theory of architecture. Cambridge University Press, pp. 39-64.

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Change: “an act or process through which something becomes different”(

Change… always is difficult to change, especially when there are some establish rules that go against your goals but that you are, nevertheless, required to fulfill. The Chelsea Academy in London, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio, is in this process of trying to change, in this case the way that we receive one of the most important pillars of our society: education.

The Academy has places for students between 11 and 19 years old. Within these ages the English curriculum establishes: the National Curriculum for students between 11 and 13 years old (a series of compulsory subjects), the GCSE (General Certificated of Secondary Education) for students between 14 and 16 years old (compulsory core subjects plus subjects of the student’s choice) and finally, if the student want to pave his way to university, the A-levels (4-6 modules related with common subjects, e.g. science, fine arts, etc. At the end of each stage students have to achieve not only the requirement of the organization, but also national standard requirements. According with Bernstein (Bernstein, 1971), the English education system is based in what he calls “collection codes”. On the one hand, it has what he defines as a “strong classification”; as the curriculum shows through this idea of “common subjects”, the contents are well insulated from each other between strong boundaries. On the other hand, he speaks about relatively “weak frame”; this is, there is a lower degree of control by the teacher in the selection, organization and pacing of the knowledge transmitted to the student.

Both of these claims are true in Chelsea Academy, since they have to fulfill the national curricular requirements. However, when you go around the building, as subtle as the daylight that leaks through the courtyards and skylights to represent the religious character of the organization, you can see a word everywhere: change, change, change… Indeed, the Academy is trying to change from the collection code that implies accomplish the English curriculum to what Bernstein defines as “integrated codes” (Bernstein, 1971), and it has a perfect ally: SPACE.

Conversely to the collection code, an integrated code tries to blurs the boundaries between the different subjects. Some specific features in the building’s design show that from a spatial point of view, for instance, as the picture shows, trying to join in an only space pure and applied knowledge. In this case, a more traditional classroom layout cohabits with a technological workshop, allowing the students simultaneous experiences in both approaches.

Actually, the general design of the building breaks with the idea of design associated to “collection codes”, a design mostly based in the presence of extremely private spaces that remark the strong boundaries between subjects. Chelsea Academy’s design is, on the contrary, characterized by a high degree of visibility and connectivity, not only between the inner spaces, but also with the context, allowing the community to be engaged with the organization and encouraging the children to include in their process of learning everyday realities. I am just going to enumerate some features of the building that give evidence of that, because the list is extremely wide and we would need another post in order to go deeper in each of them, as we can see in the pictures below, vast open – plan space in the ground floor that contains the main communal areas (entrance lobby, café, restaurant…), wide corridors with great visibility that goes deeply in the building, visual connection between corridors and classroom through big windows or between different levels through atriums, “open – plan” toilets, openness to the surroundings through large windows, etc.

From my point of view, there is still this challenge of find a fully correspondence between what the space is suggesting and the limitations that the English curriculum is imposing over the organization aspirations since, despite their efforts to blur the limits between contents, there is still certain grade of division between subjects from traditionally not related fields, such us science and arts.

But I repeat: Change… always is difficult to change, but Chelsea Academy has started the revolution.


Bernstein, B. (1971) On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge, Chapter 11, Class, Codes and Control, Volume 1: Theoretical Studies towards a Sociology of Language, London, Routledge&Kegan, 227-256

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“Products”* and “Production systems”, the “Modern Times” have gone.

In my previous post I raised the attention on how, in the latest decades, some global architectonic practices might be considered “architectonic global brands”. I argued that this could be easily seen in the emphasis that some firms put in the external image of their buildings, regardless their location around the world, in order to build a seal of identity or a “house brand”. I also pointed out that this feature could be sometimes seen in the way that the firm itself is organized.

Last week I reflected on these issues regarding our visit to Foster + Partners (F + P), so I think it would be interesting make me the same question today, after visiting another of the most well-known architectonic offices in UK and around the world: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP).

In some way I think RSHP have something of this idea of “architectonic global brand”. For instance, although they have offices in several countries worldwide, they actually play a minor role in the design process. Clients still rely on the UK office’s premises as the hub where original ideas must flow, where his founder, Richard Rogers, can impregnate them with a special identity. However, in my opinion one advantage of having offices in the different countries where projects are developed, might be to allow designers to immerse themselves in the culture and space of that specific society, understanding and consequently responding better to the needs of that particular community from the very first moment and not only taking part in the final stage of the project.

So, what makes the difference between F + P organization and RSHP organization? I think that the difference is not as much in the “product”* as in the “production system”. RSHP main headquarters is plenty of features that make us perceive the practice as a generative organization. For instance, one interesting thing is the difference in the configuration between something as simple as the role of the mezzanine that we saw in F+P and the mezzanine in RSHP. In the first case, the mezzanine is facing the main studio and you perceived it as a space of power, from where the most senior partners can “surveillance” the rest of the team below, while they are taking decisions in the different projects following a hierarchical chain of steps in the design process. On the contrary, the mezzanine in RSHP is a social space where encounters between different people within the organization take place. Spaces such us the plotter room, informal meeting spaces or the canteen are placed there and are the stages where people meet in a daily basis, encouraging not only social relation between them but also a horizontal and democratic process of design.

I definitely believe that in architecture is as important the “product”* as the “process” of generation. RSHP is an outstanding example of generative architectonic organization; the “Modern Times” where Charlie Chaplin parodied the idea that the only important thing within an organization was the profit has gone (Chaplin, 1936). And when the “product” and “the process” speak the same language is when we achieve the most amazing results.

In my opinion, is not by chance that some of the most RSHP’s inspiring projects, such us the Pompidou’s Centre or Maggie’s Centre, are those who reflect in their features the closeness and the richness that the organization itself release.

* By “products” I do not mean buildings or spaces as final objects, but as the foundations that allow human beings develop their lives in different ways and transform them according with their needs.

Picture 1: from .uk

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A performance about watch and being watched

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Debord, 1967)

“The Society of the Spectacle” was written by Guy Debord in 1967, as a critique of consumer culture and the transformations of human relations within a society dominated by trading of commodities. It also argued that social life in modern society has been replaced by its representation.

Westfield London Shopping Centre seems to be the perfect place where to test whether Debord´s ideas still apply to our society.

Conversely to what we could have thought on a first instance, the preconceived idea of a shopping centre as a place that “incites you to buy” has evolved to an idea of a place that “invites you to watch”. Throughout the building some meeting places have been scattered to give you a break from your day of shopping or, if you like of “watching”, and surprisingly you don´t need to consume to seat there and socialize with people around you. You can also see people wandering along the space or even having a nap.

So, do these unexpected features mean that shopping centres are becoming the new social centres within our cities? It might be, thus they seem to be the perfect container of urban life: you have all the activities that you can imaging in an only space, from shopping to all sort of entertainment activities such as cinema, restaurants and so on. All of this within a safe, controlled and sparkle environment.

However, I would argue that “images” are still dominating our relations, as Debord suggested in its manifest. Before going there, I already had an image in my mind of how the place would look like and, not surprisingly, it was not far from reality. This is probably because of features about the physical, social and culture context of our cities have been removed in these places in order to easily reproduce this containers globally regardless its surroundings. Once there, all the people seem to know its role, the performance can start! Here the “democratic stage” where almost everybody is welcomed; a little away the “exclusive stage” where you can watch and, if you are lucky, you can also being watched while you are having a glass of champagne while a smart pianist is playing its best sonata.

Personally I still prefer the streets, with its noises, its smells, its conflicts and, above all its complexity. A street where, while you are shopping, you can bump into the woman who goes to work, the child who return from school or, maybe you have to come back home because suddenly the typical English weather has made his appearance.

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