The social potential of architecture

3 October 2017

Nolli Plan

When in 1748 Giambattista Nolli completed la Nuova Pianta di Roma, its figure-ground representation of the city showed a revolutionary way of perceiving urban spaces.

Until then, the majority of cities had been represented mostly in perspective, illustrating buildings and occasionally key spaces fronting them. But in Nolli's plan the inside of public buildings are shown as part of the social fabric of the city and the full web of streets, routes and squares that hold the city together, comes alive.

Almost 300 years later it is this relationship between buildings and the network of places that holds them together, the procession of public and private spaces and the ritual of life between them, the notion of full and void and their proportional tension that interests me the most.

As an architect, and a citizen, I have always been interested in the mutual relationship between people, spaces and land form. On the one hand, the space offered as a platform for human activities; on the other, the people as generators of the space.

But, as poignantly expressed in this quote from Isidore of Sevilla in 560 AD: “A city (civitas) is a multitude of men unified by the bond of society, and the word derives from the term citizen (civibus) that is the inhabitants of the city themselves. For the terms urbs designates the walls themselves, but the term civitas (city) refers not to the stones but to the inhabitants.”

It is therefore the observation and analysis of human interaction, memories and history and its translation in architectural forms that becomes key in the generation of successful spaces.

However, human interactions are complex, and the individual and the collective constantly co-exist in a bipolar relationship. On one side all individuals need a collective. Almost no one lives alone. On the other side, almost as a primordial behaviour, individuals constantly need to define their own boundaries and spaces. We continuously see manifestations of this at all level in our society, being that in the dwelling, the city or the world as a whole.

In a society in danger of becoming steadily more privatized, as architects I believe we have a role as mediators to this process and our buildings, neighbourhoods and cities have the responsibility to filter these two dimensions - public and private - and transform the tension between them through new opportunities and, with that, to celebrate the social potential of Architecture.

I ultimately believe that the best examples of design, being those of an object or a space, are the ones capable of unlocking the potential of the individual, either on his own or in a group, and create platforms for human interaction and collaboration without forcing prescribed patterns of behaviour.

Sara Grohmann

This essay is part of the St Catherine’s Papers, and was originally presented as a short talk at the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios 2017 Awayday.  


  1. La Nuova Pianta di Roma