What if, you could simply give an area of the office the name ‘conversation space’, and then people would automatically go there to talk to each other? After all a Lounge is where we …well, lounge, and a library is where we go to look at books. I know what you are going to say. It depends on the furniture and fittings. A lounge has comfy chairs in it and a library has shelves and books and, again, nice chairs for sitting and reading. But last week, on a foggy November trip to Vienna, I discovered the 18th Century Lower Belvedere palace and a room within it which was labelled as originally having been a ‘chambre de conversation’ or ‘conversation room’. Not only that, the information board showed an historic illustration of be-wigged gentlemen standing conversing with each other, in an unfurnished room.
I am not a well informed enough architectural historian to know anything much more about ‘chambres de conversation’ and what went on in them, so I would love to hear more from anyone who does – Google was surprisingly not very helpful and I haven’t yet found any other examples to compare this one with. But I was intrigued. Did this empty room become the place for conversations just because of what it was called, or did it become the conversation room after people began choosing to go there to talk to each other?
I was initially quite taken with the thought that maybe there is some psychological truth in the idea that designating a space for some purpose by name, somehow makes it permissible or even almost compulsory for that activity to take place there. If so, wouldn’t that save office designers a lot of heartache? Indeed Googling did reveal to me that there is a design concept called a ‘conversation pit’ which is a sunken seated area and that in this case, language was having a negative effect on me, because who wants to be in a pit? Thankfully knowledge of previous research on this subject came to my rescue.
The seminal paper ‘What do we mean by Building Function?’ written by Hillier, Hanson and Peponis in 1984, argues that we can only begin to understand building function when we understand how to describe building form. They looked at the configurational properties of the layout of different hospitals to explain how they each functioned. They contended that it was the ‘interfaces [between different groups of people that] are what we mean by the global function of the building. It is this, we believe, that we name – at once socially and spatially – when we say ‘school’ or ‘church’ or ‘hospital‘’and crucially that it is the floor plan that allows those interfaces. In other words they answered the question ‘What makes a hospital a hospital?’ or a ‘school a school?’ and simply calling it a hospital or a school was not the answer!
So how does the Viennese ‘conversation room’ fit in the configuration of all the other rooms in the palace? The floorplans show that the room in question was part of system of rooms interconnected with each other, without the use of corridors, and was the last room at the end of one wing. It had two sets of double doors opposite each other, one set from the adjoining room and the other would have originally led outside towards the conservatory maybe via a porch. It was also one of the smaller rooms, though when I say small, it was probably at least 350 sqft. So it looks like the conversation room was one of the more segregated in the layout, that is, one that is relatively less accessible to everywhere else. Although there are doors in and out which technically makes it a ‘through space’ and might give rise to some ad hoc meetings as people passed through to the outside, it looks like it is the sort of room where you would choose to go if you wanted to be a bit more discreet. In fact the length of the room means that you can move away from the through route to get deeper in towards the back.
So could this have been the place for small numbers of planned, intimate conversations carried out amongst the palace residents, rather than for accidental encounter or informal gatherings of large groups of people? In fact according to Robin Evans: ‘Figures, Doors and Passages’ and revisited by Kerstin Sailer: ‘Figures, Doors and Passages – revisited. Or: Does your office allow for sociality?’, the plans of interconnected rooms, such as the ones found in the Lower Belvedere, ‘represent an architecture and a society of habitual gregariousness, passion, carnality and sociality’. Maybe those more discreet conversations would have been conceived in other more integrated and connected parts of the palace, where people would more naturally come into contact with each other. In an office setting this would be the equivalent of bumping into each other in a busy part of the office and deciding to find a quiet corner for a chat. In the Lower Belvedere Lower there is an opulent and grand conversation room ready and waiting for you.
So forget the name, when it comes to influencing human activity inside a building look at the configurational properties of the whole layout which give rise to a complex mix of spatial settings. Give me a time machine and I will go back to 18th Century Vienna and prove it!