Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, a place familiar to Bill Kleinsasser and one he used to illustrate his lectures on the subject of spatial variety (photo by Jeffrey M. Vinocur, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license).
It’s been more than three-and-a-half decades since I first met Bill Kleinsasser. If anything, my experience as an architect since then has only reinforced the fundamental rightness of what he espoused. The whims of fashion did not sway him one bit, and as the years passed the latest fads or “isms” would likewise lose their mesmeric hold over me. I realized what Bill attempted to instill in his students was something much more fundamental about the power of design.
A good example of architecture (or landscape architecture) is a synthesis of many essential concerns, of which one is to provide a variety of places to be—places that are generously accommodating, lastingly useful, opportunity-rich, efficient, and strong. Good architecture also acknowledges our tendency as humans to favor ranges of spatial opportunity so that we have choices about how to use a place. We instinctively seek out supports within a setting and the freedom to control the degree to which we interact with that place; however, there is no choice if there is insufficient spatial variety.
The following is another brief excerpt from Bill’s self-published textbook Synthesis, in which he succinctly describes how spatial variation contributes to the experience of powerful, meaningful, and poetic spaces.
Choices of Places to Be, Precisely-General Places, Longevity of Support
During its lifetime, any built place will confront many different circumstances. These may be caused by different users, by different purposes, by the same users with different states of mind, or by a combination of these. At the same time, built places usually must be made relatively solidly and permanently, and in configurations that are not easy to change. They usually outlast their first purposes and their second, and sometimes even more. Under these circumstances it is very easy for the built environment to become obsolete.
Built-in spatial variety and consequent choice can help to offset this problem in built places. When generous spatial variety exists in built places, many long-lasting opportunities exist as well. One can experience different kinds of space; one can find accommodation for different purposes; one can find places for things; one can make different spatial combinations and thus realize greater space-use; one can choose from among a variety of circulation paths; and, if incompleteness and changeability are made a part of the spatial variety, one will be able to participate in the configuration of the place.
Spatially varied spaces support more purposes and needs than ordinary places and, therefore, are more meaningful to more people over time.
Spatial variety can be achieved by establishing an overall space (making the overall sensible), by making sure that each of the subspaces that comprise the overall have their own distinctive identity and spatial autonomy, and by developing mini-spaces of a variety of types within each of the subspaces. If this spatial variety is established, even more variety will emerge as various sub-configurations of spaces are identified by users.
If all these ranges of space-types are achieved, then many place opportunities will be sensible, felt by people in the spaces. These opportunities will be the means by which those people can find an appropriate place for any purpose, state of mind, etc. and therefore the means by which they can find personal-ness, fit, and meaning.