Sociofugal vs Sociopetal Space
In 1957 a doctor named Humphrey Osmond began observing the effects of environmental change on the interactions of patients in a mental hospital in Saskatchewan. From that research he eventually identified two major systems for patterning space. Sociofugal space (gridlike) tends to keep people apart and suppress communication while sociopetal space (radial) does just the opposite. It brings people together and stimulates interaction as routes merge and overlap.
This probably won’t come as a shock for architects, but for service designers it’s valuable information to add to our understanding of human interaction.
Many other researchers followed in Osmond’s footsteps, developing a body of work known as “proxemics” to describe the cultural distinctions between intimate, personal, social and public space. The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall is a classic reference on the spatial aspects of human interaction. A typical pattern might explain how the arrangement of furniture in a room discourages or encourages conversation or interaction. Airport lounges for example are designed to isolate people. So are most libraries, supermarkets and classrooms.
Sociopetal and sociofugal patterns work on multiple scales. Washington Square Park in New York City is a fantastic example of sociopetal space. The book Drawing a Circle in the Square catalogs the series of interconnected rings, spirals, and funnels that bring people together throughout the park and contribute to its popularity as a gathering place.
On a still-larger scale, Spiro Kostof explores the isolating nature of grids in The City Shaped and compares the urban pattern of New York to radial cities such as Washington DC or Paris and organic cities such as Pittsburgh or London.
Whenever I encounter a space that seems particularly sociofugal or sociopetal I step back and try to articulate my impressions. For instance, a design firm here in San Francisco sometimes hosts events in an upstairs space. The last time I was there, I was struck by the alienating nature of the environment:
Something about the din of voices against the high ceiling of the concrete room is disquieting. There’s an undifferentiated mass of people. Visitors come in and are immediately thrust into the room itself. No buffer. Do the stairs count? No, you enter directly into an overwhelming space. Acoustics, acoustics, acoustics. This room sounds awful. Uninviting. Something about it feels like an airport.
I’ve only worked in one office that I’d classify as exceptionally sociopetal, but for the two years I worked there the environment was an incredibly important factor for collaboration. We had a small space, located in the basement of a larger agency. Low ceilings, curved walls, no doors. I have no doubt that it brought us together as a team. On the other hand, I’ve also worked in environments that were powerfully sociofugal. I’m convinced that offices with doors are a terrible barrier against interaction. My office connected with other offices along a single hallway in a huge ring around the periphery of the building. It was like walking around a space station; incredibly isolating.
Compare that to Frank Gehry’s thoughts on designing an academic building for MIT in Managing as Designing. He describes how architecture plays a role in shaping interaction:
They will have a building for seven departments that need to talk with each other. The reclusive ones among them will find ways of interacting and the building will function to facilitate that interaction. It’s simple. Just putting the cafeteria in the middle and putting their breakout spaces in view of the cafeteria means they can see when other professors are going to lunch and say, “Oh God, I’d like to talk to that guy. He’s going to lunch, I’m going to go to lunch.” It’s that dumb, and I think it’s going to work that simply.
Service designers don’t often work at the level of architecture or urban planning, but understanding structure and flow within space is critical for crafting engaging experiences. The sociofugal/sociopetal distinction gives us an important tool for approaching the problem of situated human interaction.