Architectural determinism

The theory of architectural determinism remains contentious. Why?


Architectural determinism and the built environment are thought to effect the way that people live and behave. Architects and planners are building environments for people to live in, without having thorough knowledge of the cultures, lifestyles, and behavioural patterns of the people who they are planning for. Architects believe that the environment can change people for the better.

Architects and planners are building environments for people to live in, without taking into account the lifestyles of the people who are living in the area. These effects have been seen in the 19th century when the migration of workers from the surrounding countryside started moving into the newly industrialised cities to work in the factories.

These people had moved from rural areas with lots of space and light to smaller compact living areas in multiple tenancy buildings which were unsuitable to their previous lifestyles. The psychological problems which would eventually affect these people because of deficiencies and dramatic changes in their lifestyles had not been taken into account at the time of planning.

Architects and town planners are given projects to work on and are designing towns, cities and the buildings within these to house and employ people. They have a limited area of land and a limited financial budget with which to work with. Within these limitations they have to integrate every possible need, depending on the project at hand. Physical needs are integrated into plans and designs, but, psychological needs are not really taken into account at any depth. This is where I believe determinism is an important point in architecture and design. How can an architect or planner know exactly what an individual or group of individuals psychological, economical,social and physical needs are?

Quote: “ The architect who builds a house or designs a site plan, who decides where the roads will and will not go and who decides which directions the houses will face and how close together they will be , also is, to a large extent, deciding the pattern of social life among people who live in these houses .” - Maurice Broady, People and Buildings: Social Theory in Architectural Designpg.174

Architects and planners hope that when designing or redeveloping an old design incorporating a good quality urban environment would enable environmental determinism. This determinism would be produced by living within an environment, letting the social and cultural elements built into the environment affect our behaviour and the way we live.

Charles blasts” sick cities “

By Jonathan Prynn, Evening Standard

Prince Charles launched an attack on modern city living today.

He blamed poorly designed offices, "sick building syndrome" and too much traffic for a host of health and social problems.

The Prince, who has criticised architects and intensive farming in the past, said a rise in allergies, obesity and asthma could be traced to the "cavalier attitude" of planners and the building industry.

A good example of why determinism remains contentious is the Red Road tower blocks in Glasgow. They were built in 1968 and had 31 floors. Built in the 1960's during the “housing crusade” to house the people of Glasgow.

Due to the demolishment of pre war buildings there was a large amount of people who needed to be re housed. The idea behind the towers was to house numerous families in one area. To a point this was viable. They were built after a similar idea from Le Corbusier's multiple housing scheme Unite d'Habitation in Marseille southern France. The Red Road towers were home to 4,700 people.

Le Corbusier was a pioneer in multi story housing. He enjoyed using the shape of the honeycomb and building on columns. During the 60's and 70's was a time when the work of the architect began to change. The thought about how to introduce morality into design and architecture began to take place. Le Corbusier was a pioneer of this trend in 1925. When he planned to demolish old buildings and re build the area with tower blocks. The damage which occurred should have really been a lesson to all. The loss of historical buildings, community and ways of life. Unite d'Habitation

In 1947 councillors visited Unite d'Habitation to inspect the new tower blocks. In 1979 Glasgow was privileged with 300 multi-storey tower blocks, all of which were to be set for demolition in 2008, when permission for the demolishment of the towers was signed. The reason for the demolition of the towers was because of problems which had arisen, both psychologically and physically. They were vandalised and became an area of anti social behaviour. Drug taking, teenage gang fights and violence. It became a high crime rate area. Due to the vandalism they became an eyesore. Neighbours were complaining and wanted to be moved to other areas. The most important factor was that it was realised that multi storey living has its downfalls.

“Determinism - was contributory to slum clearance in post war industrial world. A determinist view an explanation of social conduct is now most often referred to in the literature as discredited, yet is still found as an argument for urban renewal”. Paul Alan Johnson - The Theory of Architecture: Concepts themes & practices - 1994.

In Manchester we have a number of problem areas. These are mostly in areas where there are large council/housing association estates. Without being bias to people living on council estates, if we look at percentages of crime and anti social behaviour, it is noticeable that age and social status have a large input into behavioural issues.

If we look at the age of the housing available, then the average age of the people living in the area. Take into account their economic status and education levels, we may be able to realise why architectural determinism has a difficult part to play in the behavioural patterns of people. Especially when taking into account that the new generations who will be looking at being re housed may be third generation of families who have low levels of education, are unemployed, and may have been for most of their lives. May be drug addicts and taking all this information into account, even if architects and town planners provide ideal forms of accommodation and social facilities, would they be enough to make a significant effect on the embedded lifestyles of this new generation, the “under class” who are today's teenagers, who have a grim future ahead of them in housing where poverty and violence are the norm! When these estates were built in the post war era, architectural determinism did not take into account the needs of future generations.

These estates were planned during a period when social morals were completely different from today. The needs of the people today are very different from the needs of fifty years ago. This could mean that when designing, planning and buildings estates, the distant future needs of people will also have to be taken into account.

Quote: “You can kill a man with a building just as easily as with an axe” Adolfe Behne.

In today's world more attention needs to be given to environmental psychology. Designers can design buildings to standards that they think are workable to whoever would be using the building, but more interaction needs to be used with the actual clients who will be using the buildings. Designers have to think more about sustainability, environmental issues and think more about whether or not architectural determinism does have a positive effect on the behaviour of people.

Looking back at the late 19th century gothic era. Many architects were using gothic features in the hope that they would be reminding people of their Christian upbringings and to keep Catholicism alive. If we look at this more closely did buildings designed in the Gothic style really have any effect on the religious beliefs of the people of that era? Or was this just seen as a new trend in architecture at the time? I would like to think that it was more of a trend and taking into account the culture at the time for highly decorated buildings which portrayed the wealth of the owners and the ability of the architects.

When visiting Southampton for the first time, the first thing that struck me as it probably did other people who live and visit it was the amount of historical buildings. Some of these buildings must have dated back to the 16th century if not earlier. Unfortunately it was obvious that city planners and architects had not even tried to make new and old work together. The modern buildings stood out like a sore thumb, the reason being that they were ultra modern buildings built next to buildings which were hundreds of years old and there had been no effort taken to design the new buildings so that they would blend in with the older one's in ways of colour and materials used for the exterior of the new buildings. On one side of the main high street in old Southampton there were old coach houses/hotels, which had been restored as much as possible to their original décor. On the other side of the high street there were modern shops and banks. Everything was out of place and nothing fitted together to make the street look normal from either architectural age.

Pictures of old and new on Southampton High Street.

Photos of Southampton, Hampshire, England UKTurning around 180 degrees you can see this underwhelming glass building.

This pub on the High Street in Southampton dates back to the 12th century. Further down the road is a pound shop and Argos.

Southampton was badly bombed during the Second World War. Many people left never to return to the port. City planners and architects have taken it upon themselves to try and I explicitly use the word try to rebuild the city, but as you can see in the image of the glass building, there has not been much effort to try to retain any of the old image of the history of Southampton. Many residents complain about the councils lack of engagement with its residents and lack of interest in their views as how the town should be rejuvenated and designed.

The Grand Harbour Hotel Southampton.

“Southampton actually does not have nor never did have a taste for culture in any sense and now will be consigned to the cultural scrap heap 'non-cities' for all time”.

Southampton is proof in itself of lack of resident involvement and the that architectural determinism does not always work.

Before any designing can be started, it is necessary to look at the spatial layout of the project. We would have to look at the facilities available to the area which is going to be built. Where is the nearest town /city centre? Are there adequate transport routes to and from the area? Vehicle access and parking.

Then we would have to look at spatial life and social implications. What is the cultural mix of the area, are there any facilities for shopping and social activities. Lastly, what employment is available in the area. Taking all these points into account we then have to look at any older communities which may be in the area and how they will be effected or how they may affect the new build.

A good plan of action would be to invite people to discuss the plans for a new build in the area and for the architects and town planners to work with ideas put forward by old and potential residents in the area.

Taking into account cultural diversity, age, and social behaviour, an architect can start to plan what sort of a scheme he is going to build. Again interaction with the potential residents should be made to ascertain workable lay outs of the homes they are going to live in. Maybe giving input as to how a kitchen would be more practical to the person who would be spending more time in it. Lay outs of rooms, privacy and practicality. This would be a subtle way forward to sustainable tenancies, architectural determinism would not be one sided but an engagement between architect and resident. This would allow people to shape their own environments rather than having them shaped for them. Who knows better than the people themselves what their needs are.

All these ideas of resident involvement came about during the 1970's. Professor Alice Coleman was a pioneer of this radical way of thinking. She studied and researched public housing design and did many surveys to find out how poor housing design can lead to criminal activity and anti social behaviour. From her findings she wrote a book called “Utopia on Trial.”

This book is itself controversial her findings and views are very limited to the poorer areas of cities and were concentrated to council housing estates in various areas of the country. It has been argued that lower class families may not only live on council estates and just because you live in a middle class area doesn't mean that you are not poor and do not have any of the problems related to poverty.

There are poor areas in towns and cities but that doesn't necessarily mean that all people who are living in the area are poor. The area itself may be inadequate and be lacking in facilities and amenities for the people living there. There may be more demands on the area. When people are unemployed this can lead to psychological problems, which can lead to other problems. Access to financial help is limited and choice becomes limited.

In the poor areas, more demand is put on government resources, this then leads to less funding in other areas of need. Where as in a more affluent area there is less demand on social funding and thus more funding available for the area. Another point which could be made is that the lower income areas may not be a choosy as to what they expect from a building or the environment in proximity to the building. The further out of inner city areas that we go the more green areas we find. These Green areas become more the further we travel out of the city and into the suburbs. We may see poor areas in the suburbs, probably due to lack of available work. This again could be due to a failure in planning. This is where environment design also has to be taken into account.

Architectural determinism is away forward through design and planning to give a better standard of living to the people in the area. It is thought that a well designed and planned living environment will enable people to live better lives. That a good environment will discourage anti social behaviour and reduce crime rates in the area.

The Northern quarter in Manchester was a depraved area of the city. Old factories, mills and dark, dirty looking narrow streets. It was at its prime time a hub of industry and a working class area. The area had not attraction to potential residents, apart from being in the inner city. There were no facilities that would attract anyone to want to live in the area other local housing areas were run down. This area has been rejuvenated and has become a highly sort after housing area for young businessmen and students. It is extremely diverse with a high population of homosexuals. Exchange Sq.

8/12 Turner Street, Manchester

A residential development within the Northern Quarter.

Architectural determinism has been incorporated into the rejuvenation of the Northern Quarter in Manchester. The planning and the designs used in the Northern Quarter have been worked on through multi agency working. This is to me the real way to go forward when designing environments for people to live in. Old buildings which are the central part of the history of the city and part of the heritage of Manchester have been re designed to provide work spaces, social spaces, shopping, food, arts, and music and inner city living spaces.

The rejuvenation of the area has been successful because of good thought given to the planning of the area and taking into account all the social needs of the people who will utilising it. There is even an Association who represents, local residents, workers and anyone using the area. The work of the association is to promote, physical, economic, social and cultural development in the area. So far determinism is working well in the Northern Quarter.

If we look at the view of determinism that the building of our dreams is made for us by the architect and the outside environment is designed by the town planners. Then it is up to ourselves to make the most of what we have.

If we look at the inside of our homes, we choose what colour we want to use in our rooms. We take time and care into planning how we want our kitchens and bathrooms to look. As times and fashions in interior design change flooring, and furniture fashions change. If we are fortunate enough to be able to afford to make interior changes then we will labouredly walk round and round stores looking at carpets, wooden and laminate floors and kitchen cabinets. We do all this just to make us feel happy, in our homes. The old saying is: “An Englishman's home is his castle” This is probably true to the point that we can make our homes as we want them. It makes us feel good when we have just decorated the house or bought a new piece of furniture, or even moved the furniture around. We could say that the way we decorate our buildings is a way of showing our social status. This makes us feel good. In his book the Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton mentioned Stendhal's quote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness” to the spaces we inhabit daily.

Architects should to design buildings not for them to be an architectural monstrosity that will make them famous, but with practicality, and attractiveness and with the people who will be using them in mind. In some countries if a person is fortunate enough to be able to afford to have a house designed for them, the Architect will arrange for consultations with the client about the layout of the design. The client may want to alter the size of rooms the kitchen layout etc, due to the lifestyle that they lead. This should be taken into account for all buildings as it makes them more workable and tenant friendly. This seems to be working in the Northern Quarter of Manchester.


After researching about architectural determinism I now realise why it is such a controversial subject. I also feel that it will continue to be a controversial subject as there is no way that architects and planners can do right for doing wrong because they are never going to be able to please everyone and people are too complex for an environment to be able to change their behaviour for the good, no matter how well it is designed and planned.

All aspects of life can be addressed and everything put in place for what the architect /planner would hope would cover every need of the people, but as the saying goes. “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink”.

Due to the Governments new stance on, homelessness, worklessness and wellbeing, more thought by architects and planners needs to be put into town planning and housing projects that will provide housing that will provide the ultimate in enabling people to be able to live in an area which will provide for their educational, psychological, physical, economical and social needs and safety. For this to be achieved there needs to be input from all parties involved, from the start of the planning to the end product. In a day and age where people are free to live their lives as they want to it is going to be very difficult to standardise how a person is going to live and to lay down what we think a person's needs are. The architect and planner can ensure that the basic needs of people living in the area are met.

There may be areas where architectural determinism has been seen to work. I would like to be optimistic and hope that every effort made for it to work will have a successful outcome. There is no proof that it does work and there is no proof that it doesn't and this is why it remains a contentious subject.

Web References:

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill

School of architecture KMutt - environmental psychology - architectural determinism - accessed: 20.3.10 Http://

"Sick building syndrome" accessed:20.3.10

“Housing crusade” Red Road Tower Blocks accessed: 20.3.10

“Unite d'Habitation “ accessed 21.3.10

“Determinism” Paul Alan Johnson - The Theory of Architecture: Concepts themes & practices - 1994. Accessed: 21.3.10

“Adolfe Behne”. Accessed 21.3.10

“Dolphin Hotel” old Southhampton accessed : 22.3.10

“Red Lion “ Pub Southampton accessed : 22.3.10

“Grand harbour Hotel” Southampton accessed: 22.3.10

“Southampton actually does not have nor never did have a taste for culture in any sense and now will be consigned to the cultural scrap heap 'non-cities' for all time”. Accessed 22.3.10

Alice Coleman: “Design Disadvantagement”, 1985. By John Corbett accessed: 22.3.10

“Exchange Sq”. accessed: 23.3.10

A residential development within the Northern Quarter. Accessed: 23.3.10

Stendhal's quote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness: Accessed: 24.3.10


Botton, A. d. (2008). The Architecture of Happiness. McClelland & Stewart.

Corbusier, L. (1960). Vers une architecture. Trans. by Frederick Etchells, towards a new architecture. Praeger publ;.

Johnson, P. A. (1994). The Theory of Architecture: concepts themes & practices. John Wills & sons.

Lee, T. (1971). The effect of the built environment on human behaviour. Rutledge, Taylor & Francis group.

Robert Gutman, N. (. (2009). People and buildings: Social theory in architectural design. transaction publishers.

Taylor, N. (1998,99,01, 02, 03, 04). Urban Planning Theory since 1945. Sage publications.

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