The Spatial Patterns of Society


“In an obvious way, human societies are spatial phenomena: they occupy regions of the earths surface, and within and between these regions’ material resources move, people encounter each other, and information is transmitted.”

(Hillier and Hanson, 2003, pg.26)

 Discussed throughout the first chapter of the book ‘The Social Logic of Space,’ Hillier and Hanson describe the spatial realisation that society and people generate space, through movement, conversation and interactions with one another. By creating unique characters and forms of space, we can recognise that a communicative and evolving society exists (Hillier and Hanson, 2003). We know that people form space through the use of physical structures – creating our built environments. But, what is interesting is that unknowingly, the communication, interaction and relationships between people, their individual movements, choices and actions generate spatial forms; being the social arrangement of space; within the built environment that we ultimately generate as a result. As our movements and actions naturally form spatial systems, shouldn’t our physical built environments reflect, harmonise and enhance the relationship between society and space? This article discusses the relationships between people and space, spatial arrangements and social systems and how they integrate and inform one another.


Our environments are commonly associated with a social perception. We all, naturally, make assumptions towards the ‘social status’ of a place based on their occupying activities and behaviours. The conditions of these places are shaped by our architecture and built environments, which, generate spatial systems framing the spaces in which we live, move and socialise, causing patterns of movement and social encounters to form (Hillier et al. 2003). Therefore, it could be considered that the spatial arrangements and forms of our built environment have a direct impact on social relations, actions, activities and ultimately, the development of a society. However, this should work both ways; with the pre-existing social logic of society, our movement and ‘events,’ should have an impact on how we design our environments (Hillier et al. 2002). The deceptively simple questions that we ask ourselves, as designers – ‘will this work for these people?’ and ‘is this solution an improvement on the existing?’ are often misconceived as specific to the form and function of the final product, but unknowingly they conceal the larger questions about the relations between spatial patterning and social outcomes (Hillier, 2008). Through these questions it becomes clear that the concerns of the built environment professional, in providing successfully functioning places for people, intersect with those of the social theorist (Hillier, 2008).



According to Oxford Bibliographies, the practice of Social Theory is the methodological way of studying the ‘ideas, arguments, hypotheses, thought-experiments and explanatory speculations about how and why human societies – or elements of structures of such societies – come to be formed’ (Harrington, 2014). Social theory is a trained reflection on ways of knowing social life, with some considering it as a ‘scientific’ method of measuring the action of our social structures (Harrington, 2002). Ultimately, this research is quantitative. Allowing us to determine facts about the way in which people act and react to both social and spatial encounters from a systematic, psychological point of view – which, is important for designers to understand at a level that allows us to provide quality and relevant urban spaces and architecture. However, as most methods of measurements form, this quantitative method cannot be isolated from a qualitative assessment. Fundamentally, social theory arises from everyday life, through an enormous, complex variety of conversations, discussions and interactions between ordinary people (Harrington, 2002). The ‘qualitative’ aspect of social theory is often referred to the practice of understanding ‘common sense.’


Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist* philosopher, under the imprisonment of the Italian fascist regime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, produced a series of ‘Prison Notebooks.’ Gramsci discusses in depth the way in which people form structures that result in social classes. He explains that anyone brought up in a certain society shares a ‘conception of the world…mechanically imposed by their external environment’ (Harman, 2007) suggesting that people are influenced by, and are subject to their surroundings. Elsewhere in his ‘Prison Notebooks’ Gramsci wrote:

“…everyone is a philosopher.”

(Gramsci 1926-37)

It seems Gramsci believed that ‘social theory’ is not exclusive to experts or professionals and researchers but is formed by the everyday. Social theory ought to be the natural progression and extension of social debates and actions in which all members of society have a say and opportunity to contribute. Part of the Marxist movement, which held the position that all philosophy develops progressively out of ordinary everyday consciousness, by a process of reflection of lived experience (Harman 2007), Gramsci’s writings confer to the notion that we are influenced by our surroundings, with social theory being a product of both research and everyday life, derived by the individual person or social group.


As a result of this philosophical thinking, we can begin to understand that our individual contributions within our environment, through conversation, movement and interactions form spatial patterns of a societies. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the results of social theory, nor the physical patterns that societies form in space – as, this should be considered as specific to individual social situations, physical environments and the function of these space – but to acknowledge that these ideas exist. When we design our environments, it is essential to have a clear understanding of both the existing and desired spatial societal structures. How society and people, inform their surrounding and how design within the urban environment should not hinder this process but encourage and support it naturally.


If societies form our spaces and contribute to spatial arrangements through dialect, movement and resulting ‘events,’ shouldn’t we encourage these people – for whom we are designing – to assist design professionals in forming the physical environment in which they occupy?

The spatial patterns of society, and society itself become a fundamental, collaborative entity in the process of the development of their built environments; which, in theory, compliments and enhances how society and space integrate with one another.   



*Marxism – The study of Marxism, a philosophy derived from Karl Marx in the mid 1800’s. Concentrating on the social and economic relations in which people live in society. Often referring to social class and analysing the complex and developing relationships between social classes. A grounded philosophy that is both dialectical and materialist. (Ollman, 2004)

Part 2 of this Article - The Relationships Between Event, Space and User - discusses the works of Bernard Tschumi and how event and the interaction of users become the definitive program to our architectural and urban design.


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