Centred, Peripheral and Dispersed Plan Types

Modernist discourse on space often proposes an opposition between spatial organisations that emphasise the centre versus those that emphasise the periphery. Classically planned buildings nearly always put the emphasis on the geometrical centre of the plan (see 1 square, 4 square, 9 square). Modern architects, in their attempt to link interior and exterior space, put the emphasis on peripheral spaces often eliminating a central space altogether. Since the middle of the last century another plan type, dispersed, did away with emphasis on either centre or periphery. This plan type reinforced the idea of networks, nets or labyrinths rather than fixed geometrical figures. For a time these inflections reflected cultural and social belief systems of their time.

Today we can plan as we like; there is no longer a dominant or shared ‘universal’ spatial order.  If anything, our pluralist contemporary values suggest that we must employ a variety of approaches rather than enforce any single one. In addition, we no longer see centralised plans and its implied hierarchy as inherently bad. It therefore becomes more important to understand the effects and implications of centralised, peripheral or dispersed organisations. For example, we should not see these as just geometrical ‘games’ but as different types of spatial intentions. Although modernist plans often avoided centralised spaces they often reinforced a non-geometrical centre or focus. In the work of Frank Lloyd Wright this was often the hearth; for Le Corbusier it was the double height space, designed as the social heart of a project but located peripherally. Read this was we can see that modernist plans had their own hierarchy even while displacing the symbolic centralised space of classical planning. Dispersed plans might be said to privilege movement rather than any particular space or object.

Although we are now free to use any plan type without the restrictions of a single cultural reading or technological constraint, locality and specificity of place can generate a meaningful choice of plan type. In addition, the plan type is no longer an automatic choice (based on the architect’s rigid belief system) but often evolved through a process of design investigations. Nevertheless, you are likely to eventually arrive at one of these plan types. The question to ask is whether the design intention is utilising the right tool (plan type) to be effective and communicable.

Source: Le Corbusier

Villa Rotunda, c.1580, Andrea Palladio. This is a classic nine-square plan following the geometrical schema quite closely. There are subtle adjustments worth noting: the circular central space emphasizing its importance; a non-symmetrical north-south versus east-west layout; achievement of four different scales in room sizes.

Villa Rotunda, c.1580, Andrea Palladio. Typical centralised and hierarchical plan

Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin House, 1906

Frank Lloyd Wright, Martin House, 1906. Peripheral plan with hearth at centre.

Le Corbusier, Maison Citrohan, 1919.

Le Corbusier, Maison Citrohan, 1919. Non-centralised plan with double height social space (at bottom).

Aldo van Eyck, Orphanage, 1962.

Aldo van Eyck, Orphanage, 1962. Example of dispersed or network plan with an emphasis on movement circuit.

Sanaa, Moriyama House, 2005.

Sanaa, Moriyama House, 2005. A contemporary dispersed plan. Note that this plan avoids reinforcing a centre, periphery or a movement system. In this case it is being used to neutralised as many aspects of space as possible.

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