Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture

Can buildings make us happy?

Peter Zumthor, Sogn Benedetg, 1989. [Credit: Adrian Michael, via Creative Commons]

How do designers understand space? This large question is the central focus of Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture [John Wiley & Sons], a wide-ranging and ambitious recent book by Leon van Schaik, who holds the apt title of Innovation Professor of Architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Schaik introduces his topic with a deceptively simple question with complex implications: What if architects, instead of endlessly recombining elements from a stock vocabulary of building forms derived from a preoccupation with shelter, actually designed from “our ideas about space, our histories in space, our communal mental space all built upon that combination of inherited capabilities that have evolved into us over millennia, and the unfolding of those capabilities in specific environments?” [page 9]

Schaik anchors his discussion of spatial intelligence by acknowledging the influential work of Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard, who two decades ago enlarged the understanding of mental capability with his theory of multiple intelligences. 1 Gardner identified different types of human intelligence, including logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and visual-spatial — this last a special talent for visualizing and mentally manipulating spaces that is integral to our navigational abilities. In essence, Schaik proposes that we reposition the foundation of architecture — to move away from a reliance on our logical-mathematical mind and to hew more closely to our spatial intelligence. “What if our forbears had professionalized architecture around spatial intelligence rather than the technologies of shelter?” he asks. “Might society find it easier to recognize what is unique about what our kind of thinking can offer?” [p. 13]

Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace, 1851, London. [Credit: Lithograph by Philip de Bay]

Spatial Intelligence unwinds from these initial questions by arguing that the professionalization of architecture in England in the 1840s was rooted partly in the envy of architects for engineers; the designers of bridges and dams and other utilitarian structures drew upon a highly rationalized typology of forms to meet any conceivable challenge — which impressed the public as the epitome of enlightenment enterprise. So when architecture sought to standardize its own vocabulary, and professionalize its activities, the emerging field “sought out as its body of knowledge the notion of being Master Builders.” [p. 11] But this was neither a necessary nor inevitable emphasis, and, as Schaik agues, it effectively closed out other possibilities, including a more intuitive — dare we say creative? — approach to buildings and environments. One of Schaik’s concerns will be to argue for this enlarged approach — for a field informed not only by formal and constructional vocabularies but also by neurology, information systems theory and an acknowledgement that buildings have the ability to make people happy.

Besides establishing his themes, the introduction also acclimates us readers to Schaik’s writing and teaching styles, both of which start with a crowd of images and propositions from which the themes will emerge and proliferate and find shape. The way to proceed, then, is to relax and realize that the book itself is a trope for the kind of practice Schaik envisions, one that draws upon and productively blends a host of information and ideas, from the history of ship building to that almost mystical French tradition of walking aimlessly known as dérive.

The first chapter provides a primer on the nature of spatial intelligence, from its distribution throughout the body to the relationship of sleeping and dreaming to the mapping of space; and here Schaik points to a gap. “Much has been discovered that makes the existence of spatial intelligence an ever stronger presence in the ways that we work in the world,” he writes. “But we … would have to acknowledge that we face a central mystery: while we know more and more about how we are put together, and of the material that constitutes us, and how it organizes itself and faces the challenges of being in the world, a working hypothesis on how the bundle of matter that we are achieves consciousness eludes us.” [p. 22] The second chapter discusses how spatial intelligence serves to “build our mental space,” [p. 36], and how the rise of analytical taxonomy in the enlightenment era broadly disrupted what had been a pre-modern unity of “time, place and mental space” — and a unity of individual mental space with creativity. [p. 45] The regional European architectures of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance periods developed in cultures that were intimate with their natural and cultural environs; the principal purpose of architecture “was to represent, within the belief systems of specific societies, their fullest understandings of the workings of the universe.” [p. 45] But this gave way to in modern times to a global encyclopedia of forms disconnected from local intelligence about specific environments.

W.R. Lethaby, Melsetter House, south gable, seen from garden, Orkney, 1898. [Credit: © Wolfgang Schlick, via Creative Commons]

Plainly this disruption was both spatial and temporal — witness Greek columns supporting the porticos of the plantations of the antebellum South. As an instance of how to counteract this deep and long-established practice of dislocated appropriation, he cites his own experience in Khutsong Township, in South Africa, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, where he and another architect worked on a project to build homes. (Schaik himself was born in the Natal province in the South Africa.) Working with an anthropologist, an urban planner and several local social workers, the architect devised a process that began “by helping each family to make a model of the shanty they had built for themselves when they arrived as squatters,” and resulted in 1,000 self-designed homes, each “tailored to the mental space of the family” that designed it. [p. 53]

Schaik broadens his thesis in the next chapter, tackling this pre-modern/modern historical disruption as it is manifested in cities. Schaik is not a puritan, and he acknowledges that the juxtaposition of forms and styles across space and time can produce delightful buildings. Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London, of 1851, and W.R. Lethaby’s Melsetter House in Orkney, of 1898, are provided as exemplars, the former a pastiche of quotations from earlier civilizations unified under the naked engineering of a monumental greenhouse, the latter a traditional farmhouse morphing into Arts and Crafts.

But in the case of the design of a city, Schaik contends that distilling the best forms from a global encyclopedia is a formula for disaster. In a complicated argument, Schaik traces the processes by which earlier civilizations created cities, arguing that essentially each generation was “laying down a stratum” that recorded its culture, and arguing further that the disunifying impulses of modernity effectively ended this complex process, bringing about the “separation of architecture from the matrix of the city.” [p. 59, 60] Schaik describes how an increasing “self-consciousness” and professionalization “slowly ended the tradition of the usually anonymous master builders who both designed and constructed” cities and their buildings, and “replaced it with the architects as designers and arbiters of taste.” [p. 60]

Barcelona, aerial photograph showing Ildefonso Cerda’s chamfered grid, from the 1859 city plan. [Flickr, Aldask, via Creative Commons]

In Schaik’s view, the more successful efforts of civic design are founded upon attempts by urban designers and city planners to understand what he terms the “epidemiology” of a city — which is to say, to document and analyze how patterns of habitation spread outward and upward in response to local environments, and then to develop appropriate responses. Ildefonso Cerda’s chamfered grid in Barcelona is given as an example. Schaik explains: “Cerda’s proposition for the extension of Barcelona arose from a spatial analysis of the longevity of the citizens of the ancient city. This epidemiological approach revealed that the higher up in the buildings of the old city people dwelt, the longer they lived. The pioneering spatial distribution of statistics then cross-referenced to adjacency to sunlight and fresh air, and distance from sewage and refuse.” Cerda’s solution, Schaik points out, was “to extend the city across its coastal hinterland on a grid that enshrined, in its very shape, spatial relationships between sunlight and air and propositions about transport that were the logical consequence of seeking to enshrine equality of access to the goods of city living for all of its inhabitants, not only for those rich enough to live in the top storeys. The chamfered corners of the grid allowed for the threading of cables and tramcar turning circles through any part of the grid…” [p. 63]

Another instance of this epidemiological approach is the organic mix of legal and illegal development in the neighborhoods of Taipei, which has been documented by Schaik’s colleague Sand Helsel. Here what could almost be described as an Asian version of a souk enables small businesses to incubate in an ad hoc economic environment impossible to achieve within the strictures of a highly rationalized modern grid. As Schaik writes: “The city has a fine grain of development … and families vie with each other through architectural invention and through novel encroachments on the public realm…. Helsel and her students made figure-ground plans of the legal structures of the Yong Kung community, and of the legal and illegal structures combined, revealing in the comparison a ‘swollen rice’ effect as the actual boundaries of the spaces were constricted by the expanded profiles of each small building. This is not simply a plan effect…. We often marvel at the phenomenon, but do we appreciate that we are looking at the popular manifestation of spatial culture?” [p. 67]

Warren & Wetmore, Grand Central Station, New York, 1913, photographed in 2008. [Credit: Alwynhoh, via Creative Commons]

Spatial Intelligence is illustrated extensively with photographs Schaik has taken worldwide, and the fourth and fifth chapters rely heavily upon both the breadth of his travels and the depth of his image library. Chapter four takes us on an extended tour of what Schaik sees as specific redemptive moments found throughout the history of architecture; or, as Schaik puts it, “Despite the manifest lack of awareness of [the] interdependence between architecture and the mental space that gives rise to it, the world is peppered with places and spaces that have the power to move us.” [p. 83] One example is the neo-classical Grand Central Station, in New York City, which, as Schaik says “haunts the mental space of New Yorkers,” and appears as an “emotive force” in, for instance, novels by Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Smart. [p. 93]

Chapter Five, titled “Pioneers of Mental Space,” explores the works of such contemporary architects as Peter Zumthor, Sean Godsell, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Kathryn Findlay, and Zaha Hadid; Schaik argues that these practitioners use spatial intelligence to move beyond the mere flexing of their status as master builders or star architects and in the process create designs that address society’s need to integrate memory with place and our senses.

Schaik describes the Swiss Peter Zumthor as “the architect who possibly above all others today … operates within a single unified mental space.” [p. 142] Zumthor, who started out as a carpenter, has an almost uncanny sensitivity to local materials. “It is as if they did not exist, they would have had to be spontaneously invented,” writes Schaik [p. 143] Thus his elliptically-shaped Sogn Benedetg Chapel, in Sumvitg (1989), responds to the avalanche-swept ridge that is its site, an homage to nature and a softly rounded refuge for meditation. “Nothing here is mimicry; the design reads the site with mathematical accuracy,” says Schaik, “defining the ellipse as if it were a natural topological derivative of the spine.” [p. 145-146]

Top: Peter Zumthor, Sogn Benedetg, 1989. [Credit: Adrian Michael, via Creative Commons] Bottom: Zaha Hadid, Maggie’s Centre, Kirkcaldy, UK, 2006. [Credit: Nhung du an noi tieng, via My Opera]

Or, for another example, Schaik describes Hadid’s Maggie’s Centre, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (1986), as making a compelling case for the use of the “fold” as more than a fashionable design trope. Hadid’s design, he writes, “wraps the tarmac of the existing hospital car park into a folded ribbon on the edge of the cavity of a wooded former quarry, and sets this knot against the flank of the hospital’s slab of rooms…” But the point is not merely virtuoso form. “You keep rolling along the edge of a steep declivity into that abandoned quarry until the programme of Maggie’s Center — a kitchen for making coffee and snacks, a large table adjacent for round-table discussions, a service area for the kitchen, a library, a quiet zone for spiritual contemplation, a sunny outlook — is accommodated.” [p. 158] In a sense, it’s as if Hadid had given the patients a design with which to exercise their minds while recuperating. Although Schaik does not say so explicitly, it could be extrapolated here that the deployment of creativity in the service of diverse needs is required to sustain a family, a city and a state.

It could also be argued that Schaik’s comprehensive and eclectic teaching method — which I’ve tried to suggest here — makes him an exemplary design educator. That’s a large claim, as the field is notable for hosting a crowd of talented and persuasive teachers. But the final chapters — which outline how practitioners should be schooled in designing real and virtual environments, and the ethical concerns that fall out from such a discipline — are proof that Schaik is willing to take on the entrenched wisdom of what has become a deeply analytical profession that fails time and again to remember a simple condition of life: happiness. At one point, referencing the philosopher of science W. Zimmerli, Schaik notes that “members of a profession around the world have — due to their acculturation of a common body of knowledge — more in common with each other than with members of their own families who are in different professions.” He continues: “This is a trap for us, whatever profession we inhabit, but it is particularly devastating for architects whose business is — I argue — our spatial intelligence.” [p. 172] Schaik has an unshakeable belief that architecture can promote well-being and joy, and at one point he even affirms: “There are real spaces — and we all know this — that support us, buoy us up in our endeavors, but we forget to demand them!” [p. 177] For Schaik, as exemplified in his latest book, teaching students to design homes, workplaces and cities that awaken spatial intelligence as an ethical concern — versus schooling them in a formal and empty discourse of abstract forms — arises from an obligation to address what is human. If that’s a heresy, it’s a valuable one.

  1. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983). Gardner added his eighth type of intelligence to his theory in 1990.
William L. Fox, “Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture,” Places Journal, July 2010. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Tom Sanocki

    07.29.2010 at 09:57

    There is a wonderful convergence starting, between art and design on one hand, and the fields of neuroscience and psychology on the other. My area of psychology is visual cognition, which is the study of perceiving and understanding through vision, including the appreciation of space, the interaction of perception and memory, and the possibilities of mental maps and navigation. Thanks to Schaik for making the mind-architecture connection, and to Fox for making this great work visible.

    We all agree that there is something to well-designed spaces. The fields of health are discovering that natural spaces can be literally good for humans (e.g., work on nature parks and immune function*), and we know well the inspiration of a good public designed space (watch the kids run in delight!). In psychology we can now measure many of these phenomena -- things such as delight, and effects of surroundings on creativity. This type of work is needed now, because the forces that have driven so much of our built environment (summarized as greed?) have not served humanity well. What can serve humanity well is understanding humans and using the human response as a gauge for what is right.

    Tom Sanocki
    (Professor of Psychology and Visual Cognition,

    *see, e.g.,

  • Mattie

    07.29.2010 at 10:40

    all this damn talking amounting to nothing. just go visit a zumthor building- you don't need words.

  • Doug C.

    08.01.2010 at 11:30

    Zumthor's buildings are indeed remarkable but seem the antithesis of the method he describes in Khutsong Township "tailored to the mental space of the family" that designed it.
    Instead, his structures seem dictatorially derived from his desires, not his clients. This is not the sort of touchy-feely "let everyone have their input" method that drives modern development and results in so much mediocrity.
    Like abysmal modern car design architecture may just have to wait for that brief intersection of consumer desire and creative impulses. Consumers seem so visually illiterate that it seems unlikely that they will sensitize to the more subtle spatial literacy any time soon.

  • E. "Manny" Abraben AIA RIBA Architect

    08.05.2010 at 16:36

    Illuminating and invigorating!
    When we stop continually looking in our rear view mirrors perhaps we can forge a new dynamic in Architecture.

  • B Dov

    04.07.2011 at 20:45

    Doug, fundamentally and after all, it's not about the 'visual literacy' of the consumer'; it's about making buildings that enhance or make possible her/his well-being. Once inhabiting spaces, people are well able to recognise when these spaces are beautiful and conducive to happiness. Perhaps the design/building industry needs to take responsibility for marketing buildings in a way that will educate consumers, making them able to select for spatial health. But it's well known that consumer informedness is anathema to marketers. THAT'S the barrier that needs to be overcome; the mechanism that works against integration of mental space and physical, individual and community, producer/marketer from consumer. Without advocating an end of capitalism and buyer power/'buyer beware', responsibility for innovation shouldn't be placed on the consumer first.