The negotiation of strong and weak boundaries in the UCL Academy

The identification of the built environment’s impact on the learning progress is a major new finding in school’s research (Barrett et al, 2015, 2013). Utilising University College London Academy as an exemplar, state-of-the-art public secondary school, the blog will focus on the interplay between strong and weak boundaries and their impact on the learning process. More specifically, it will draw on concepts of classification and framing, as described by Bernstein (1971), making a reference to spatial and social configurational elements, and the way these are affected by movement economies (Hillier 1997).

House System.jpg
Figure 1a (left): The house system is embedded in the building’s skin, Figure 1b (right): Each of the five staircases belongs to a unique house

The main principles of the Academy’s organisation are already manifested from the outside (see Fig.1a). Colour coding reflects the house system, which is based on five constellations. Every student belongs to a house for the duration of their time at the Academy. The identity component is very strong within the school itself; both socially by house identification, and spatially, by the five staircases that link all floors, each belonging to a different house (see Fig.1b). Moreover, educational development is also reflected in the school’s layout; sixth form students take up the top floor, seventh year students the floor beneath, and the rest of the floors are used by everybody else (see Fig.2). ‘Framing’ therefore, in terms of group selection and organisation is defined by strong boundaries.

6th form.jpg
Figure 2: 6th form and seventh year students take up the top floors

On the contrary, the nature of teaching and learning is characterised by weak boundaries. Teaching happens in the ‘superstudios’; a group of open plan, linked spaces that encourage students to move between activities, working collaboratively and across disciplines (see Fig.3a and Fig.3b). Individual effort and group learning are both important aspects of the Academy’s agenda. There is also high inter-visibility among pupils and visual control of what is happening inside the class by both teachers and students. The fact that the teachers’ offices are transparent and located immediately opposite the ‘superstudios’, emphasise the blurred thresholds between teacher-pupil interface. This is also obvious in the ‘enclosed’ teaching spaces, such as the dance and music studios, where glazed partitions enable visual surveillance from the corridor (see Fig.3d). Another interesting spatial element is the integrated toilet space, used by both genders; the fact that it is exposed to high movement flows, has significantly reducing bullying (see Fig.3c).

weak boundaries1.jpg
Clockwise, Figure 3a and 3b: Two types of ‘superstudio’ spaces, Figure 3c: The removal of the toilet’s wall has exposed the space to high movement flows, Figure 3d: Blurred boundaries between circulation and teaching spaces enable visual surveillance

As far as ‘classification’ is concerned (or what Bernstein (1971:231) terms as ‘the degree of boundary-maintenance between contents’), although there is a strong specialisation of the school’s curriculum towards STEM (10% of which is controlled by UCL, acting as an intellectual sponsor), there’s also emphasis on an interdisciplinary progression, enabling students to build their own educational agenda. Learning is negotiable and teachers become facilitators of information. Even if the curriculum initially shaped by the building, the flexibility of its internal space over time enabled teachers to adapt it according to their needs. Furthermore, different styles of furniture accommodate a diverse teaching style, illustrating the ability for both teachers and students, to personalise the learning process (see Fig.4).

superstudio furniture.jpg
Figure 4: Various types of furniture enable personalisation of the learning process

Overall, UCL Academy can be characterised by the ‘strength of weak ties’ (Granovetter, 1973), since its social system lies in strong organisational boundaries, such as the House System, but weak overall spatial structure. High levels of movement flows enhance its social dynamics, maintaining a multi-cultural environment that thrives on openness, equality and inclusivity.


  1. Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y. and Barrett, L. 2015. The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment. [online] 89, pp. 118-133. Available from: [Accessed 12 December 2015].
  2. Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J. and Kobbacy, K., 2013. A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’learning. Building and Envrionment. [online] 59, pp. 678-689. Available from: [Accessed 12 December 2015].
  3. Bernstein, B. 1973. Class, Codes and Control. London:Routledge.
  4. Granovetter, M. S. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.
  5. Hillier, B. 1997. Cities as Movement Economies. In: P. Droege (Ed.), Intelligent Environments: Spatial Aspects of the Information Revolution, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 295-344.


All images by the author, except Figure 1a:

Penoyre and Prasad Architects. UCL Academy, London. Work Report, [accessed on 12 December 2015].

Spatial and transpatial solidarities in the emergence of organisational culture: An innocent case

In the post-industrial society, offices have become the main form of ’workplace’, despite the tendency for organisations to gradually de-materialise. Research has shown that during the 20th century, workforce in UK offices has shifted to 83% (Office for National Statistics). While the first types of offices historically focused on solitary work, control and hierarchy, nowadays a user-centred approach to space management that promotes interaction, is being gradually adopted as people tend to spend the majority of working hours in office environments.

From Google and Pixar, another concrete example that manifests an office’s success is the ‘’Innocent’’ firm, a company which produces a variety of organic smoothies and juices.  It will be shown that its organisational culture emerges not only from its context and its character, but also from the spatial and transpatial modes of operation within the office.

Figure 1.jpg
Figure 1 (Left to right): the welcome sign into the central hub, the ”wall of love” hosting gifts from fans and a collage of images from employees childhood moments

When entering its shallow core, one feels merged into a fruit paradise, which has an air of fun and comes to life by a variety of vivid images, various objects scattered around the space and a faux grass running all over the area (see Fig. 1).  The office’s space is bright, open, enabling communication between different floors (see Fig. 2 bottom), while maintaining a constant relationship with its context, the Regent’s Canal (see Fig. 2 top).

Figure 2.jpg
Figure 2: (top) The building’s location by the Regent’s Canal, (bottom)  Bright, open, colorful, relaxed – all make up the central hub, a key space, which hosts various types of activities.

The spatial and transpatial modes of operation within the office are manifested by the ”distance-dependency of interactions” (Sailer and Penn, 2006:6) between people and the frequency of contact.  Transparent glass screens are utilised for all the meeting rooms, and open clusters for informal meetings are provided to enhance communication between employees, since the latter is also an essential part of the research and development process of the company (see Fig. 3). Moreover, by adopting a non-hierarchical open plan throughout all levels, as Sailer and Penn (2006:6) have noted, it is obvious that ‘’individuals relate to each other in a dual way, either by means of closeness (spatiality) or by means of conceptual closeness (transpatiality)’’.

meeting room types.jpg
Figure 3: Various Types of meeting spaces. On the left: An enclosed, transparent meeting area. On the right: ”The Library” – a multi-functional space for borrowing books, meeting or simply relaxing

Movement is also a central element to the office, as the company expands in 5 floors. Allen and Fustfeld (1975:156) have underlined, ’the location of stairs or elevators, their accessibility, and the amount of visual contact that they allow, all enter in’’, as they have a direct effect on communication patterns. By utilising the staircase as a conceptual thread to trace the company’s history, the distance-dependency of interactions is minimised, while randomised and frequent social encounters are enhanced. Much of the vertical congregation results both from spatial attributes, such as placing main attractors (fridge, table football and ping pong) on the central hub and from transpatial ones, such as people gathering from different floors to hold a meeting (see Fig. 4). However, the transpatial mode of operation is not only limited within the office but extends to society itself.

Movement Figure.jpg
Figure 4: On the left: Attractor points in each floor plan highlighted in red, with the creatives taking most of level four. On the top ight: The main staircase linking all levels by showcasing the firm’s timeline and achievements on the walls
Figure 5: Transpatial solidarities: Innocent’s charity involvement is one of the reasons for receiving daily a big amount of packages from its ”drinkers”

To conclude, ‘’innocent’’ has a very ‘strong’ organisational culture, because of an honest approach to its values, manifested also in the integrated spatial configuration and in the intense transpatial experiences shared with its ‘’drinkers’’, as they prefer to call them, such as charity involvement (see Fig. 5). Culture though is not static; as Schein underlines, ‘’it is what a group learns over a period of time as that group solves its problems of survival in an external environment and its problems of internal integration’’ (Schein, 1990: 111)


  1. Allen, T., and Fustfeld, A., 1975. Research Laboratory Architecture and the structuring of communications. In: R & D Management 5, (2), pp. 153-164.
  2. Sailer, K. and Penn, A., 2009. Spatiality and Transpatiality in Workplace Environments. In: D. Koch, L. Marcus, J. Steen, eds. Proceedings of the 7th International Space Syntax Symposium. Stockholm: KTH, pp. 1-11.
  3. Schein, E., 1990. Organizational Culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), pp. 109-119.

Data source:

Office for National Statistics (UK):


All images by the author, apart from the following:

Figure 2 Top:

Cobb, A., 25 March 2013.  How to get into Marketing: An innocent perspective. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 29.11.2015].

Deforming and Reforming: Spatial affordances and intelligibility in University College London Hospital.

 ‘’[We can understand] architecture as a system of possibilities, and how these are restricted by laws which link this system of possibilities to the spatial potentialities of human life’’ (Hillier, 1996:10).

The origins of the hospital are far from the city, Prasad underlines, but the typology of the city has played a large part in shaping the modern hospital (2012:67). Originally founded in 1934, the UCLH underwent major redevelopment with the construction of a new hospital completed in 2005. Being part of the NHS Foundation Trust, it consists of 75,822 square meters of space, hosting state-of-the-art clinical facilities. Clearly restricted by its small urban site footprint, the hospital develops via a podium and tower typology (Prasad, 2008).

The themes I would like to draw attention to, is how some of UCLH’s basic spaces are formed and how user activities challenge the affordances that take place in it, de-forming the social boundaries.

UCLH exterior
Figure 1: On the left: UCLH as seen from Euston Road ; the highly clinical facade is manifested through the podium and tower typology, On the right: The main entrance to the hospital: a powerful visual axis.

The clinical facade of the building (Fig.1) establishes its role as an institution which is there to fulfil a programme of re-formation for those who have become de-formed by various pathologies (Markus, 1993:95). However, we found out that the building’s facade is in high contrast with its interior. Access is not controlled and the waiting area is overlooked by bridges linking the various tower floors together with the podium. It is a ‘watched-over’ space, reflecting Bentham’s panopticon concept.  The use of axes and lines of vision in various converging patterns within the building is very powerful, since it brings into play the most direct sense-experience-what we see (Markus, 1993: 106). Through this layout the relationship of movement and user co-presence is highly integrated within the building (Fig.2), giving it a unique social character. Co-presence is linked with different groupings of user categories, some of which use space in the same way, such as nurses, while some others, such as visitors, tend to use it very differently.

Figure 2: Visibility and Integration analysis of a typical tower floor plan shows that movement and user co-presence is highly integrated within, especially in the open patient bays.

However, spatial relations, as has been emphasised by Penn (2005:4), ‘’are both complex and asymmetric and this makes it important to understand the rights of different social groups to occupy specific locations in a building’’. The podium hosts all the servicing spaces, outpatient utilities, blood tests and operating theaters, whereas the inpatient wards are all located in the tower. This layout makes the upper floors problematic in terms of travelling distance, especially for the doctors who have to racetrack patients across all floors, as their limited office space is based only on the third floor. From a visitor’s point of view, this also requires many steps to reach from a main circulation space to a ward, especially on the north wing, where direct access from the visitor’s lifts is prohibited (Fig. 3a and 3b). In UCLH’s case though, the function of the inhabitant and visitor domain is not a highly hierarchical relation, but one of containment, restoration and maintenance of status (Fig.4).

Figure 3a(left): Diagram illustrating the south and north wings of a typical tower floor plan, its convex spaces and their relationship. Highlighted in red is the doctor’s office. Figure 3b(right): Justified graph diagram of the south wing.
Visitor inhabitant interface graph
Figure 4: Visitors – Inhabitants Interface Diagram: a social relationship of containment, accessibility and status maintenance.

Differential solidarities within UCLH generate and reproduce probabilistic interfaces, as informal encounters re-form the formal structures that are put in place. However, the problem of intelligibility maintenance still remains important, as the hospital grows bigger and technology advances. Today’s hospitals should reintegrate the public realm into the healing process, while there is a need to rediscover their typology and healthcare settings to achieve a dynamic integration within the city (Prasad, 2012:68).


  1. Hillier, B. 1996. Space is the machine. A configurational theory of architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Markus, T. A. 1993. Buildings and Power: Freedom and control in the Origin of Modern Types. New York: Routledge.
  3. Penn, A. 2005. The system-user paradox: Do we need models or should we grow ecologies? In: Task Models and Diagrams for User Interface Design: Proceedings of the Forth International Workshop on Task Models and Diagrams for User Interface Design – TAMODIA, Gdansk, Poland.
  4. Prasad, S. 2012. Typology Quarterly: Hospitals. Architectural Review, Vol.231 (1383), pp. 67-79.
  5. Prasad, S. 2008. Changing Hospital Architecture. London: RIBA.


All diagrams from the author, except:

-Figure 1: The Main Building of University College Hospital. 02 May 2004. University College London. [online]. Available from: [Assessed 07 November 2015].

-Figure 2: Visibility-Integration Plan. [online] Available from: [Assessed 04 November 2015].

(Un)folding the Layers: a spatial journey in the British Library

”The library expresses the gap between the total perception of the world laid out as infinite possibility and the time-bound life of humans whose destiny to experience a system from within prevents them from grasping its construction. But it also evokes the history of ideas in philosophy, linguistics and mathematics as a condensed and poetic message’’ .       -Psarra, 2009, Architecture and Narrative, p.91

Buildings like libraries, museums and archives, despite their obvious differences, can be characterized by a similar identity, as they all influence human knowledge and culture. In most of these institutions, design is usually portrayed as a mental activity, while a building is seen as something to be experienced. ‘’This experience follows a route and unfolds in time’’ (Psarra, 2009:67, 89).

Through the case of the British Library, we will investigate how the unfolding of the visitor’s journey develops from the architecture of the surrounding cityscape to its internal, ‘hidden’ spaces, and the ways in which co-presence challenges the nature of its spaces.

Figure 1: A secluded brick island of invisible layers
Figure 1: A secluded brick island of invisible layers

Despite the fact that the whole library block can be identified as a secluded island (Fig. 1), it is also part of a vital public movement shortcut from King’s Cross to Euston station and vice versa (Fig. 2a). The most intriguing fact of the British Library though, is the layering of its spaces; not only above ground, but underground as well. The oppressive exterior of the building manifests an undercover architecture; however, this is more likely to be found in its hidden levels of the non-public basement quarters, which make up a significant portion of the complex (Fig. 2b).

Figure 2a (top): two of the site’s multiple entrances; on the left, shortcut from King’s Cross station, on the right, main entrance facing Euston Road, Figure 2b (bottom): the hidden levels of the basement

The entrance of the building is characterized by a shallow core; as soon as you step in, you get a feeling of belonging in space. Wandering through the library is a matter of vision-in-motion. The library provokes the visitor to construct his/her own narrative while meandering through it. The street’s grid system and materiality of the surrounding buildings are embedded into the building’s skin and organization of space. The change of levels and differentiation of position is introduced in two ways: through the stairs/escalators and via the transformation of the floor surfaces, as one progresses towards the upper levels. Mirroring the court’s materiality, grid laid bricks, are symmetrically spread out in the entrance floor, blurring the boundary between inside and outside (Fig.3), while gradually evolving into dark carpet floor surfaces, taking up entire corridors and study rooms. Being above one sees more, there is a panoramic surveillance of the space (Fig. 4a) and from the very top, as Lyndon and Moore underline, ‘’it is possible to anticipate and one stands out, one is exposed. Being below often means carrying the burden’s of what’s above’’ (1994: 55).

Figure 3: The main entrance area: grid laid brick floor surfaces blur the boundaries, forming a subtle transition from the outside
Figure 3: The main entrance area: grid laid brick floor surfaces blur the boundaries, forming a subtle transition from the outside

Central to the transition of movement and vistas is the King’s Library (Fig. 4b), which lies at the very heart of the building, orchestrating all kind of activities around it. This ordered display of symbolic meaning is in contrast with the disordered informal activities that take place in space. As Hillier notes, a building’s function ‘’is what people do – but it is also a characteristic spatial pattern, and a characteristic part of an overall pattern’’ (1984:65). The Library in this case, is defined by the social practices that cross it and successfully accommodates change (Fig. 4c), encompassing the gap between the static image of the archetypal library and that of user’s needs, ‘’in the degree to which the ordering of space appears as a conspicuous dimension of culture’’ (Hillier and Hanson, 1984: 4). The British Library’s dual function to inform and socialise through its multiple layers, is realised via physical and visual co-presence, formulating a community that both educates and is being educated.

Clockwise: Figure 4a: Panoramic surveillance from the top floor, Figure 4b: The King’s Library, Figure 4c: Adaptation of space and of user’s needs– activity clusters in the corridors, and Figure 4d: Co-presence through opening up of vistas
Clockwise: Figure 4a: Panoramic surveillance from the top floor, Figure 4b: The King’s Library, Figure 4c: Adaptation of space and of user’s needs– activity clusters in the corridors, Figure 4d: Co-presence through opening up of vistas


  1. Hillier, B.; Hanson, J.; Peponis, J.; (1984) What do we mean by building function? In: Powell, J.A. and Copper, I. and Lera, S., (eds.) Designing for building utilisation. (pp. 61-72) E & F.N. Spon Ltd: London, UK.
  2. Lyndon, D. & Moore, C.W. (ed), 1994. Chambers of a Memorable Place. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  3. Psarra, S. 2009. Architecture and Narrative: The formation of space and cultural meaning. Abingdon: Routledge.


All photographs have been taken from the author, apart from the following:

  1. Figure 1: Infrastructure Intelligence. 02 August 2015. British Library has last laugh with Grade I listing. [online]. Available from: [Assessed 24 October 2015].
  1. Figure 3: Charlotte Katie. 19 January 2015. I think I broke a pigeon [online]. Available from: [Assessed 24 October 2015].

Separating and connecting: the social life of thresholds

According to Hillier, ‘’the physical process of drawing a boundary is analogous to naming a category, […] in the same sense that when we name the space inside we also imply all the space that is outside’’ (Hillier, 1998:15). The threshold, according to Stevens, is this point where the boundary between inside and outside can be opened, space becomes loose and various social encounters become possible (Stevens, 2007:73). However, it is also a restricted space; its design always constrains people’s behavior and their perceptions (Hillier and Hanson, 1984).

Following the fore mentioned arguments, I would like to draw attention to two buildings within the UCL campus: the Slade School of Fine Art and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. The comparison between them proposes that different physical (doors, stairs, corridors) and social (natural movement, behavior of people) thresholds may lead to different forms of encounters, defining the character of the building.

Approaching the Slade School of Fine Art, the visitor is drawn to its interior via the staircase (Fig.1: Left Bottom). It doesn’t only act as the main connector between inside and outside, but also as a transitional territory, capable of being redefined by unpredictable activities. The through-movement is integral to the organic use of space, increasing the potential of exploration within the building. Space functions as a blank canvas (Fig.1: Right Top), unfolding every type of creative activities and is constantly being reinvented by its users (Fig.1: Right Bottom). The lack of reception and access control (Fig.1: Left Top) emphasizes the space’s openness, while the main corridor promotes human interaction, serving both as a circulation and work space.

Fig 1. The Slade School of Fine Art

A quite different case is presented at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where the transition from outside to inside is very prescriptive and geometric, both characteristics being also reflected on the external skin of the building (Fig.2: Bottom Left). Access is controlled and movement is framed around a narrow corridor surrounding the main atrium (Fig.2: Right). The ‘island’ feeling generated by the atrium, intensifies the levels of physical, visual and social segregation. Moreover, the ‘Escherian’ language of the stair halls leading to the study areas (Fig.2: Top Left), attracts social encounters, while its multiply effect intensifies the inward nature of the building.

Fig.2 The School of Slavonic and East European Studies

It may be suggested therefore, that liberated uses of space, as in the case of Slade, challenge the more regular ones in very creative and productive ways, contributing to a dialectical development of social life (Simmel, 1917 and Lefebvre, 1991). On the other hand, social encounters on major thresholds, as observed in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, are frequent and intense, increasing bodily exposure and thus tension (Stevens, 2007:77). In both of the fore mentioned cases, individuals chose to inhabit enclosed, isolated spaces, whereas a group of people chooses to inhabit exposed, integrated spaces.


  1. Hillier, B. 1996. Space is the machine. A configurational theory of architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Hillier, B. & Hanson, J., 1984. The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Lefebvre, H., 1991. Critique of Everyday Life. London: Verso.
  4. Simmel, G., 1917. Sociability: An example of Pure, or Formal, Sociology. In G. Simmel, ed. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  5. Stevens, Q., 2007. Betwixt and Between: Building Thresholds, Liminality and Public Space. In K. A. Franck & Q. Stevens, eds. 2007. Loose Space: Possibility and diversity in urban life. Oxon: Routledge. pp. 73-92.


All photographs have been taken from the author, apart from the following:

-Figure 2 Top-Left:

Short and Associates. School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 10 October 2015].

-Figure 2 Bottom-Left:

Cadman. S. 7 July 2008. School of Slavonic and East European Studies. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 10 October 2015].