‘Buildings are for (Some) People’: Reconsidering Architecture and the Struggle for Urban Space


GJA Student Ambassador, James Gacek

The Global Justice Academy is delighted to post its second book review of the 2016-17 academic year as part of its Student Ambassador Programme. James Gacek is reading for a PhD in Law. Here, he review’s Bill Caplan’s Buildings are for People as part of our Urban Justice Lab.

Exploring the interactions between people and the natural environment, Bill Caplan’s Buildings are for People: Human Ecological Design issues a clarion call for the design/build professions to critically assess architecture, green design and sustainability in the context of human ecology—that is, the examination between people, community spaces and the ecosystem which surrounds and penetrates us.

Such a focus is significant, as sustainable building has gained resonance in recent professional and academic accounts (Jones & Card, 2011). The built environment of urban spaces has the potential to alter “our living environment in material and experiential ways, shaping the character of human experience, the physical, mental and economic wellbeing of individuals and the community at large” (Caplan, 2016, p. xvi, italics in original). Caplan’s book is a unique approach to further understanding the process of conceiving architectural design, while both highlighting the social aspects of human interaction as well as the benefits of ‘green’ and sustainable architectural designs.

However, while the intention of the book is to focus on ‘buildings,’ ‘people,’ and ‘environments,’ Caplan seems to specifically analyse the first and third concepts in greater detail than the second. Separated into three sections, ‘Buildings Intervene,’ ‘The Struggle for Green,’ and ‘Human Ecological Design,’ Caplan traces major shifts in the development of the interrelationships between the human experience and how the built environment within community spaces impact one another. While he attempts to draw connections to the various contexts a building can comprise to the human experience, he neglects to extend an assessment of the sociality of human experience, the client-driven culture that architecture and design firms routinely engage with, and how buildings are ultimately shaped to deter certain groups from public spaces generally (and urban spaces specifically). The “social themes” Caplan argues that should be address in the built environment’s reality (2016, p. 10) is not made apparent to the reader, as arguably his focus on green and sustainable designs for community spaces overshadows those citizens and groups (marginalised or otherwise) comprising the community spaces.

Perhaps this is Caplan’s intention. It could be the case that, within the architecture and design firm culture, connections should be (re)considered to the ways in the human experience interacts and operates with built environments and with ecosystems at large. For example, in ‘Buildings Intervene,’ Caplan draws on examples such as New York City’s Seagram Building and the IAC building as well as Boston’s Hancock Tower in order to explore how a building as a physical, sensible and operative construction is inherently social. Put differently, a building’s materiality as an occupying space within a community physically connects it to urban space. In a sensible context, the building affords an experience to humans, enabling “the visualisation, sensation and perception of shape, form, space, materiality and sense of place” (Caplan, 2016, p. 28). Finally, a building’s operative context suggests that the way in which the building operates to weather the natural environment as well as operate for the individuals in need of the building shapes how humans view and socially interact with the building as a viable structure within community spaces.

However, herein lies the problem: how humans socially interact with buildings should not be reduced to psychological or cognitive perceptions of experience, as is what Caplan suggests in the first section of the book. A rich understanding of social interaction and the built environment should highlight the diversity of the community that uses the building both for its original intention and those which recreate the building’s purpose. No better example for the latter would be for the urban homeless population, of which contextualise the building not for its materiality, shape or impression, but for its use as a temporary shelter for the night, as a place to utilise the washroom facilities, to seek panhandle from fellow passersby, or for another reason or combination not mentioned.

Similarly, the lack of sociality is apparent in the following section, ‘The Struggle for Green,’ Caplan urges architectural and design firms to reconsider the benefits of incorporating green and sustainable building constructions. Highlighting the reasons why there are obstacles to successful inclusion of environmentally friendly designs, Nevertheless, Caplan insists that navigating such initial hurdles are possible if we focus on positive synergistic opportunities for both client and community; indeed, coupling ‘green’ conscious designs with architectural creativity and engineering ingenuity, innovative solutions that benefit all parties are obtainable. While encouraging, the focus on ‘green’ dominates an even greater conversation which is in dire need of recognition: the struggle for space. In other words, architectural and design firms should reconsider the politics of urban space, and the capitalist culture influencing them as they are contracted to create buildings which foster certain citizens as ‘desirable’ while excluding ‘undesirable’ groups simultaneously (namely, the homeless).

Finally, in ‘Human Ecological Design,’ Caplan indicates that built architecture should materialize integrally with both society and occupant, and with the nature of the building and the operative function such buildings are created to initiate. While contextual engagement is important, we are left to question once again whether the architecture profession has moved away from community-centred approaches and have predominantly focused on client-driven conceptualizations of urban space. Furthermore, such an assessment would then critique the profession’s steadily move away from social issues like homelessness, the growing crisis in affordable housing and the challenges of traffic-choked, unmanageable urban areas (c.f. Crawford, 1999). Indeed, such concerns are witnessed within neoliberal cities, as urban spaces (re)design ‘defensive spaces’ and implement hostile architectural strategies—such as ‘anti-homeless spikes’—in order to move the homeless away from specific buildings and places, and to exacerbate anxieties and fears within late modernity (Andreou, 2014, 2015; Raymen, 2016).

In order to develop a critique of the architecture’s capital-intensive, client-driven practices, some architects have referred to themselves as ‘social architects’ in order to resist the dominant neoliberal capitalist culture and preserve their architectural creativity. Theoretically, social architecture challenges existing social hierarchies and calls into question capitalistic domination and oppression. However, scholars have begun to question whether simply applying the word ‘social’ to ‘architecture’ is contradictory, as they believe the discipline comprises an inherent sociality (c.f. Card, 2011; Jones & Card, 2011). Nevertheless, if the profession has become reduced to client-led, capital accumulation and production, then perhaps, as Bouman (2007) states, “the time as come to design not as solicited by client, site or available budget, but to design unsolicited architecture and find clients, sites and budgets [instead]” (p. 26). Indeed, such an idea for architects and urban planners is not outside the realm of possibility.

Notwithstanding, the greatest strength of this book is its focus on ‘green’ architectural designs and the link between the built and the natural environments. Caplan’s emphasis on both green and sustainable architectural designs attempts to focus on the positive effect the built environment can have on human welfare whilst simultaneously reducing the overall environmental footprint humans have been known to have caused. Moreover, Caplan cites statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicating that between 1980 and 2012, it is estimated that, on average, more than 80,000 commercial buildings per year were built in the United States, and that specifically between 2000 and 2012, over one million new buildings were built (Caplan, 2016, p. 101). Certainly, we can see how roughly one million new buildings will have an impact on quality of life and wellbeing for humans, but what Caplan stresses is the human connection to that which is larger than the built environment itself; the connection to the natural environment.

Taken together, Caplan’s book interestingly unpacks how the truism ‘buildings are for people’ should consider environmentally-friendly, human ecological and architectural designs more thoroughly. And in all respects, the incorporation of green designs into the architecture discipline is worthwhile to consider. However, it becomes clear that within contemporary urban spaces, buildings are meant for some people, and not others. In doing so, Caplan’s green consideration should be coupled with a greater interest in exploring strategies that critically assess architects’ practices and designs, and whether such architecture resists the social struggle of urban space.



Andreou, A. (2015). “Anti-homeless spikes: ‘Sleeping rough opened my eyes to the city’s barbed cruelty.’” The Guardian: February 18.

Andreou, A. (2014). “Spikes keeps the homeless away, pushing them further out of sight.” The Guardian: June 9.

Bouman, O. (2007). “Unsolicited, or: The New Autonomy of Architecture.” Volume Magazine, 14, 26-29.

Card, K. (2011). Democratic Social Architecture or Experimentation on the Poor? Design Philosophy Papers, 3.

Caplan, B. (2016). Buildings are for People: Human Ecological Design. Faringdon: Libri Publishing.

Crawford, M. (1999). “Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?” In Diane Ghirardo (ed.), Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture. Seattle: Bay Press.

Jones, P. & Card, K. (2011). Constructing ‘Social Architecture’: The Politics of Representing Practice.

Raymen, T. (2016). Designing-in Crime by Designing-out the Social? Situational Crime Prevention and the Intensification of Harmful Subjectivities. British Journal of Criminology, 56, 497-514.