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date: 27 October 2020

Application of Space and Place Theories to Design

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The history of anthropological research into the reciprocal influences of human behavior and space and place in the production and use of built environments reveals a long-term growing awareness. While concern for the spatial needs of children and the elderly, special populations, and contemporary workers appear as the main focus of attention, these questions actually originated in the 19th century with the design of mental hospitals seeking to “cure” schizophrenics. Vigorous renewed interest in questions of human behavior and the built environment re-emerged in the mid-20th century when architects, landscape architects, planners, and facility managers, sometimes also trained in psychology or sociology, began investigating the kinds of designs that might be more prosthetic for people with disabilities, that could accommodate and support social interaction, or that could inhibit or protect users of dangerous public spaces.

Grounded in the research methods of ethnography, sociocultural anthropologists have traditionally described native peoples in relation to their physical environments giving rise to economic, sociological, and political systems that they invented and adapted to enable their survival. The concept of culture—a holistic understanding of integrated collectivized institutionalized systems and values—frames these investigations and findings. From multicultural and cross-cultural perspectives, anthropologists have often tested findings from more individualized American or western studies to advance a perspective that all human uses of the built and natural environments are cultural.

A variety of theories of space and place emphasize notions of practical and symbolic foundations in place making: perception, cognition, and proxemic differences in spatial recognition; structuralist; consumption; practice, and moral/ethical dimensions of engagement. In addition, the study of contemporary institutions (prisons, hospitals, and schools), work environments, recreational and outdoor spaces, and housing and neighborhood, all offer opportunities for cultural insights and design recommendations. International disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, and slum dwellings in developing countries provide further opportunities. Finally, in the world of professional design services, anthropology contributes insights into POE (Post Occupancy Evaluation), and in design, anthropology provides an emphasis on participation to validate research-based design recommendations.