Spatial speculations JEREMY MELVIN Decoding Homes and Houses by Julienne Hanson. Cambridge University Press, 1999. 318pp. £45
Space syntax is here to stay. First brought to wide public attention with the publication in 1984 of The Social Logic of Space, co-authored by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, it is now being used to inform policy; if your chosen exit from Trafalgar Square on 31 December 1999 is closed, that is because space syntax models will have predicted that it would be dangerously crowded. In between Hillier has given us Space is the Machine (aj 24.10.96), and now Hanson adds Decoding Homes and Houses.
Domestic architecture is one of the most fraught areas for architectural theory because the experience of domesticity depends on so much which is not architecture. That realisation is the one enduring legacy of Modernism's failure to solve the housing problem. Space syntax purports to find a way around this because it investigates the use of space rather than form, and adduces the existence of what seem to be pervasive - if not universal - codes of configuration which both serve and testify to social patterns. Decoding Homes and Houses covers an enormous range, from Norman and Warwickshire farmhouses, through country seats, London artisans' cottages in their pre- and post-gentrified state, to speculative housing and architects' homes - some of which have canonic status.
Here lie two problems. Both seem contingent and minor initially. First is an assumption that there is no gulf between intention and actuality. Space syntax relies on analysis of known form; if a space is integrated, it is because the designer intended it to be integrated; if a configuration creates a 'ringy' circulation pattern, again it must be deliberate. This is important because, especially in the older or more remote samples, these formal characteristics are assumed to be evidence of social behaviour.
'The relations with visibility are often . . . a means by which the basic permeability syntax of a complex is fine-tuned into more effective device,' Hanson writes about Norman farmhouses. But who is to say that the results were not as undesirable as the 'ringy circulation' which 'an eminent architectural practice' designed in a children's home and which - intending to give children 'as much freedom as possible' - proved impossible to control? Elsewhere, Mario Botta is condemned for designing a house which is 'well composed but configurationally boring', which apparently makes it interesting to visit but boring to inhabit.
This leads to the second problem about the nature of evidence. Some of the samples (especially archaeological ones) have no means of corroboration; others, such as 1970s children's homes, do. Without corroborating evidence, the children's home might never have been recognised as a failure, and false conclusions might have been drawn about social relationships within it. And the nature of Hanson's evidence worsens this problem. The chapter on farmhouses in the Banbury area, for example, relies on basic research by Raymond Wood-Jones which is almost 40 years old. The 18 architects' houses in London are lifted directly from Miranda Newton's book Architects' London Houses. One architect whose house is featured immediately spotted an error on the plan, and was tickled to hear that she had achieved an integration factor of 1.
Even though the error was minor, it shows up the problems of working from secondary sources, and it reinforces the assumption that two-dimensional diagrams are more important to space syntax aficionados than experiencing buildings - a preference which leads to serious problems in the chapter on country houses. Having dismissed staircases as 'reducing [the potential for movement in the third dimension] - for practical purposes - to two', it is rather hard to take any comment about Hardwick Hall entirely seriously. Hardwick is designed to incorporate the most spectacular staircase in British architecture, and whatever the configuration, grandeur and importance of other spaces, it is the device which functionally and symbolically organises the design.
This chapter best encapsulates the book's weaknesses. Again it appears to rely on published rather than primary sources, but the bibliography has no mention of Mark Girouard. He virtually created the study of country houses as social entities in Life in the English Country House, and if you are dependent on secondary sources you should know the most important. Brief consultation of his early work on Hardwick's designer Robert Smythson would not have gone amiss either. Hardwick is one of that great body of British domestic architecture when a new aristocracy was more or less inventing itself and its way of life: the design is experimental so its characteristics as identified by space syntax need corroboration to have any meaning at all.
Space syntax is doubtless a useful tool. But its usefulness can only come when its revelations are properly placed in context. That is what this book lacks.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher