People in relation to their environment is a topic that is currently being studied with much concern by sociologists, anthropologists, and biologists. How people are affecting the environment and how the environment in turn affects people is of significant importance. No less important is how people affect people in their everyday personal contact. Dr. Edward Hall, an anthropoligist, has looked closely into the above topics and describes the many aspects of biological, psychological, and cultural ccharacteristics which dictate behavior in relation to time and space. Proxemics (Hall’s term for the inter-related observations and theories of use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture) is the main concern of Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension. Hall points out that people of different cultures not only speak different languages but inhabit different sensory worlds. As Hall states, “selective screening of sensory data admits some things while filtering out others, so that experience as it is perceived through one set of culturally patterned sensory screens is quite different from experience perceived through another.” The filtering screening process is expressed in architectural and urban environments.
Hall believes that, through the elaboration and specialization of the senses, people have created a new dimension, the cultural dimension, in which the extensions (senses) are replacing nature. According to Hall, the “relationship between [people] and the cultural dimension is one in which both [people] and [the] environment participate in molding each other.” As culture developed, “a whole new series of worlds” were created. To Hall, the effects of the environment are not the same on all cultures: “each world has its own set of sensory inputs, so that what crowds people of one culture does not necessarily crowd another.” The Hidden Dimension looks at the various phsysiological, psychological and sociological reasons why people of different cultures are affected differently by differing environments. Hall spends quite some time describing how the various physical components of the body affect our perception of the world and how perception, as one part of proxemics, affects behavior.
In order to understand Hall’s theories as applied to housing and cities, one must have some understanding of the basis from which these theories developed. Hall believes that, through the study of animals in their environment, we will be able to learn more about how space requirements are influenced by environment. In the first section of his book, Hall describes studies concerning distance regulation in animals. First, there is a notion of territoriality, behavior by which an organism characteristically lays claim to an area and defends it against members of its own species. Man has territoriality, also. Hall states that there are spacing mechanisms in animals which are like “irregularly shaped balloons” that serve to maintain proper spacing between individuals. These distances can be described as flight distance and critical distance. These distances are used when two individuals of different species meet. When members of the same species meet, personal distance and social distance come into play. These types of distances are indicative of the minimum space requirements of all animals. As seen from the various animal studies, survival is impossible if these minimum space requirements are not met. From overcrowding and stress from such, the animal undergoes certain physiological changes which lower its resistance, making it prone to disease and death. In experiments dealing with overcrowding of animals, there were found to be increased aggression, various forms of abnormal behavior, and mass die-offs. Other results showed increased problems with pregnancy in females. As Hall sums it up, “Probably there is nothing pathological in crowding per se that produces the symptoms that we have seen. Crowding, however, disrupts important social functions and so leads to disorganization and ultimately to population collapse or large scale die-off.”
Hall goes on to describe some very interesting theories which are being researched concerning the biochemistry of crowding, i.e., “the relationship of the body’s delicately balanced chemical control systems to the external world.” The research on these theories has demonstrated that certain changes take place within the endocrine systems of the animals studied when the organism is subjected to stress from overcrowding. The inference here is that people are not much better protected from the consequences of stress than are animal relatives. Hall points out as an example the Black Death that occurred in Europe during the mid-14th century, killing two-thirds of the European population: “though this human die-off was due directly to Bacillis pestis, the effect was undoubtedly exacerbated by lowered resistance from the stressfully crowded life in medieval towns and cities.”
Hall, in the following five chapters, discusses the perception of space, that is, how people perceive space through the various senses and how perceptions are in part based on the culture. From here, Hall goes on to explore the effects that furnishings and architectural features have on individuals and on personal interactions. Hall talks of “fixed-feature” space, “semi-fixed feature” space, and “informal space,” which are terms pertaining to the degree with which architectural environments are physically conducive to personal interactions. Fixed-feature space is, for example, that of a building or rooms within the building and how these areas affect people. Different people and, in general, different cultures have internalized fixed-feature needs which can be quite different. For example, a woman usually has different fixed-feature needs in the kitchen than does a man. If the architect does not take these into consideration, then the woman in the kitchen will experience conflict between her needs and the design of the kitchen. The same can be said of office space, city patterns and urban areas. Hall says that architects are almost “totally unaware of the fact that people carry around with them internalizations of fixed-feature space learned early in life.” Hall sees this as presenting a definite problem: “The problem facing us today in designing and rebuilding our cities is understanding the needs of large numbers of people. We are building huge apartment houses and mammoth office buildings with no understanding of the needs of the occupants.”
The structuring of semi-fixed features, such as tables, chairs and couches can have a profound effect on behavior. To enhance interpersonal relations, it is desirable to have flexibility and congruence between design and function so that there is a variety of space and people can be involved or not, as the occasion and mood demand. The third category of space which Hall speaks of is informal space. He describes informal space as a series of expanding and contracting fields surrounding people. There are four distances (spaces): intimate, personal, social, and public. Hall thinks that “the ability to recognize these various zones of involvement and the activities, relationships, and emotions associated with each has now become extremely important.” He believes that builders and speculators must pay special attention to the effects of crowding, that they should consider people as surrounded by a series of invisible bubbles which have measurable dimensions. If the architects and builders think in these terms, they can see that people can be cramped by the spaces in which they live and work. The people may even find themselves forced into behavior, relationships or emotional outlets that are overly stressful. When stress increases, sensitivity to crowding rises and people get more on edge so that more and more space is required as less and less is available.
In the section, “Proxemics in a Cross-Cultural Context,” Hall gives examples of various proxemic patterns of different cultures. He shows that there are hidden cultural frames which determine the structure of a given group’s perceptual world. As Hall sees it, “perceiving the world differently leads to differential definitions of what constitutes crowded living, different interpersonal relations and different approaches to both local and international politics.” The next logical step is for planners to develop different types of cities, cities which take into consideration proxemic patterns of those who live in them.
All of the previous research on animals, the studies on the physical aspects of stress, the discussions of perceptions of the world are the basis of Hall’s conclusions about city planning and architecture. Scale is the key to planning towns, neighborhoods and housing developments. Urban scale must be consistent with ethnic scale, since each ethnic group seems to have developed its own scale. City planners and architects should welcome opportunities to experiment with radically new integrated forms that will hold an entire community. City planners should create congenial spaces that will encourage and strengthen the cultural enclave. There is a great need for conserving outdoor space. More parks, city recreation areas, green belts, and large sections of primitive outdoors are needed.
In summing up his book, Hall points out that the hidden dimension–that is, the cultural dimension–is with people permanently and that they cannot divest themselves of it because it has penetrated to the roots of their nervous systems and determines how they percieves the world. Concluding, Hall reminds us that “[people] and [their] extensions constitute one interrelated system. It is a mistake of the greatest magnitude to act as though [people] were one thing and [their] house[s] or cit[ies] were something else.” Hall has tried to look in an objective, scientific manner at city and urban planning and how architectural environments affect people. He has studied the results of research and has conducted research of his own. This book is truly of great importance if one considers that today cities are in danger of total collapse if something is not done to alleviate the problems caused by overcrowding and poorly suited architectural environments.