‘Environment’: Redefining Space in American Architecture and Urbanism, 1965-1980

Members of MIT’s Architecture Machine Group working on their art installation SEEK, 1970. Image from: Jack Burnham, Software. Information technology: its new meaning for art (New York, NY: Jewish Museum, 1970)

In the 1950s, a modernist notion of space — conceived as the very ‘essence’ of architecture — represented the central element of American architecture theory. Postmodern architects of the 1980s rejected this view, arguing for a relativistic approach to spatiality. However, an overemphasis on this dichotomy between modernism and postmodernism has led to an academic blindspot for alternative interpretations of space that emerged between 1965 and 1980. This project addresses that lacuna by showing that during these years, architects were actively reconceptualising spatiality through the transdisciplinary notion of ‘environment’. While it nowadays carries mostly associations of sustainability, ‘environment’ originally signified a radically new approach to space. The implications of this notion for the field of architectural history have yet to be fully assessed. On the one hand, collaborations between computer scientists and architects at MIT resulted in a technological interpretation of ‘environment’. On the other, interactions between human ecology theory and urban design led to an ecological-psychological interpretation of the term, especially on the American west coast. This project’s central question is: how did this ‘environmental’ interpretation of space enable new approaches to architecture? The project discloses an obscure yet highly influential current within architectural history, the relevance of which has outlived its modernist and postmodernist counterparts.

Funded by the FWO

Promotor: Rajesh Heynickx

Co-promotors: Filip Mattens, Stéphane Symons

PhD student working on the project: Janno Martens