When I was studying Spatial Design in the Netherlands, we were taught to look at space as one single continuum between inside and outside.
Different parts of this continuum experience varying degrees of human touch, which led me to start visualizing our lived environments as heat maps of human interaction.
On a “human interaction” scale, a doorknob and a bench in a plaza are high-touch, while ceilings and high-speed roadways are considered low-touch.
Finding clues of repeated human interaction in the city is my way of playing “Where’s Waldo”, where I learn about how a place gets used.
The importance of allowing a place to age gracefully through human use.I pay particular attention to stairs and thresholds for clues on interaction.
Whenever I see a slight bow in a wooden or marble stair, I feel a sense of wonder at the countless soles that have stepped on this very place to have made such a gentle mark.
But for every high-touch surface I found, there was 100x more space that was ignored, derelict, unloved.
Then I had a thought: what if we aspired to design places where we maximize the density of opportunities for human interaction?
There’s a book for this.
Christopher Alexander wrote “A Pattern Language” (1977), a tome which presents to the reader no less than 253 patterns that can be used to design better human settlements. It covers the regional scale down to the position of one’s patio.
In Alexander’s patterns, no matter what scale, two things take priority:
- Human-to-human interaction
- Human-to-environment interaction
Using his book, designers are given a catalog of spatial patterns. They can use this to compose overlapping patterns of interaction and activity. For example, Alexander emphasizes the importance of paths, surfaces, rooms, and even ledges to be accessible and comfortable for humans to interact with.
While this is what makes old cities so attractive and charming, we can apply these lessons today too. Designers at Disney lean heavily on sensorial tricks inspired by this to design timeless park environments that look like they came out of a different era.