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The Spaces Between Buildings

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I’d never been a big fan of the spaces between buildings and once said as much in order to get the conversation started at some “round table” urban workshop. It wasn’t just me who never saw the point of the spaces between buildings. A whole industry seems to have grown up around the need to make them look as if they’re not as incidental as they are [c.f. Благоустройство]. 

Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion of architecture as The Object. The very phrase “spaces between buildings” even implies buildings first and that the spaces between them are some unplanned consequence.

What if it were the other way around and buildings were evaluated not by the volumes they occupy but by the volumes they don’t?  

It’s worth thinking about, and might even suggest a new and challenging way for Architecture to be. It will never catch on because spaces are notoriously not as Instagrammable as masses. An architecture of space would have to be evaluated by real observers and not on the basis of images moving or otherwise.

It’s not that the world of Art hasn’t been suggesting alternatives. How long ago did Matisse say he painted the space between things rather than the things themselves? I never really wondered what this would mean for a city.

Shortly into 2018 I revisited this corner of Paris. That’s Place de Catalogne in the middle. On the left are train lines entering Montparnasse Station. To the south is the Ricardo Bofill social/market housing I mentioned in last summer’s Misfits’ Guide to PARIS.

immeubles HLM / ILM Place de SŽoul Place de L’AmphitŽ‰tre Place de Catalogne architecte Ricardo Bofill fontaine de Shama• Haber (1988)

There’s something nice about a place and I suspect it’s got something to do with them not being square or squarish like oh, Union Square, that are unfilled gaps in a road grid designed for traffic. A place, on the other hand, contrives both buildings and traffic into a unifying and satisfying configuration. The buildings create the space and this is why Place de Catalogne doesn’t feel empty even though there’s nothing at its centre.

In these photographs is Ricardo Bofill’s 1985 les Échelles du Baroque. One criticism I read of it said “It’s just a building around a roundabout” – which is like saying a street is just buildings either side of a road. The point being missed is that with a place, the building creates the space that is then occupied by the roundabout. A street’s a street regardless of whether or not it’s lined with buildings.

Les Échelles du Baroque comes after Bofill’s 1982 Les Espaces d’Abraxas and before his 1986 Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing and his 1991 PA Soder Crescent in Stockholm. All use the shape of the building to create the space and give it meaning.

Internally, all these projects have multiple stairwells with two double-sided apartments per landing as at Les Espaces d’Abraxas.

Les Échelles du Baroque, however, does it with concave curves on two sides, defining a public place on one side and two communal private places on the other, separated by a public thoroughfare linking the public with a less public and pedestrian place on the other side.

I didn’t think this could have wider application until I saw these next buildings up the road and that create a place anyway and without bending the traffic to its will.

A city can’t have a roundabout on every corner so adding this variation to the Bofill mix just might allow the configuration of urban blocks of a workable size. My hunch is that it will also enable the following.

  • An urban unit that incorporates traffic as part of a vibrant city and not something that needs to be excluded or separated from the problem by putting it underground so its presence and its contribution can be ignored. [c.f. The Extruded Mat Building]
  • An urban unit that provides an alternative to a grid of streets separating perimeter blocks, and in which buildings and traffic coexist visually as well as functionally.
  • An urban unit having graded transitions of space between public and private.
  • An urban unit that has daylighting, ventilation and access solved for a repeatable unit.
  • A density comparable to Paris’ which is a phenomenal 21,600/km².

So then, just for fun, now that architecture is for all intents and purposes dead, I want to have another crack at a city composed not of buildings but of the spaces between them.

PlāceMat City

A proof-of-concept study for a mat city using a mirrored and triple-rotated repeat of les Échelles du Baroque around a 100m-radius place looked promising, especially if each major place didn’t have to contain a roundabout and each roundabout didn’t have to be a junction of six roads. It was still ideal for all apartments to be dual-aspect with one side facing the communal property of the negative-space courtyard, and the other side facing either the negative-space public vehicular place or a secondary public pedestrian place linked to others of the same.

The huge advantage of this configuration is that it’s already a complete and repeatable urban unit that solves traffic and access along with daylighting, ventilation and view. One could argue this is what a city grid with perimeter buildings always did, but that configuration existed for traffic and gave no thought to poncy concerns such as the allocation and gradation of public and private space.

But is there some sort of natural principle at work? As Bofill understood, the primary, secondary and tertiary places fit well with notions of public vehicular thoroughfare, communal space and public pedestrian space. The doughnut shaped building units will invariably settle into some shape that’s either a circle, a hexagon or some picturesque Baroque hybrid such as Bofill’s project for the Antigone district of Montpellier (below). This is fine as long as the entire external surface area can overlook one of the three types of public space and the internal surface area can overlook the “private” communal space.

The layout of Les Espaces d’Abraxas is a reasonable place to start if one ignores the unrealistic amount of space given over to elevator lobbies.

The reference footprint will have an outer diameter of 100m and an inner diameter of 50m – it’s basically the larger of the two buildings in this next lovely drawing. The central planting didn’t happen, and neither did the separated buildings or the orchards they were to open onto. The principle is sound though.

The A2: Taking Bofill’s lead, the first configuration to try is apartments paired around elevator lobbies [c.f. The Domino’s House].

A party wall angle of 9° provides 240 apartments over six floors, and with areas of between approx. 60m² to 130m². There are no problems as long as the depth of the apartment is greater than 12m and the minimum width greater than 3m. Pairs of additional rooms can be inserted between apartments to configure 2-bed and 3-bed apartments. G+6 buildings configured this way will give a population density of 40,600 persons/km² and which is about two-thirds that of Manila’s 70,000+/km²still.

Two apartments per landing is totally reasonable now the cost of elevators has fallen to less than the cost of providing corridors to access them but we might want to do clever things with corridors every third floor just because we might want to be aware of people moving around a building [c.f. The Landscape Within].

The D [c.f. Detective Story]: These apartments require 16m depth as shown, and a minimum 12m internal width for a party wall angle of 6.5°. There are only sixteen of these three-storey units in 360° but four six-person apartments in each of them.The density of 43,300 persons/km² is still about two-thirds of Manila’s yet bathrooms and kitchens can still be naturally ventilated, and the plan allows for individual living rooms to be on either side.

The U [c.f. The Piano and the Double Sided Apartment]: Party walls angled at 9° give 38 three-storey units containing a studio apartment, a 1-bed apartment, and a 2-bed apartment.

Thirty-eight divisions with three apartments over three floors give a density of over 38,000 persons/km².


The F V3 [c.f. Critical Spatiality]: These apartments have living rooms with additional height, and that are on whichever side of the building is more pleasant, while the corridors can be on the side where visible activity is more desirable.

Party walls rotationally spread at 16° gives 40 x 3/4-person apartments vertically paired over three stories and a total of 80 over six. Configuring a G+6 building with these apartments produces a population density of about 24,000 persons/m² and which is lower than the density of Kathmandu or Kolkata but still higher than that of Paris.

Paris. We’re now back there with a workable urban unit that accepts the presence of vehicular traffic that has to do with the functioning of the unit. Choosing a configuration that provides a higher density means our city now has space to spare for parks and other large-scale public spaces. It means the individual urban units don’t have to all be seven stories high and they don’t have to be so dense. As Bofill had originally planned for les Échelles du Baroque, it is now possible to open up these rings of buildings towards the shared pedestrian space between them and to perhaps plant those orchards after all.

• • •

Unlike parametric models that veil notions of economic hierarchy and subservience with naturalistic analogies of growth, Plāce-mat City is unapologetically artificial and defiantly non-hierarchical. Roads exist solely to service the buildings and the people and functions they house. Roads are not given representation (as either arteries or tentacles) supporting a central nervous system command centre. Plāce-mat City and its buildings are egalitarian and autonomous. They do not give meaning to or derive meaning from centres of power. They reject the notion that everywhere must be articulated within a single hierarchical system of organization and control. By rejecting new ways of representing relationships of power/subservience, they are not complicit in sustaining them.



  • on your question of “space between buildings”, a great reading is Albert Pope’s Ladders – sadly eclipsed by another urbanism book release at the same year – definitely worth to check it out.