13.12.2018 by Prof. Dr. Martina Löw

Architectural sociology: What rooms say about us

A person from Munich, who comes to Berlin for the first time, quickly realizes: Things work very differently in the city. This begins with the habitus of the Berlin people and extends into the spatial structures. The Research Department of Architectural Sociology at the Technical University of Berlin explores how the two are interrelated and how they influence our way of living and working. The results point to key aspects that should be considered when designing mixed-use commercial properties as well.

Berlin or Bielefeld? Where would you expect such a room? And why?
Berlin or Bielefeld? Where would you expect such a room? And why?

Can you remember your parents’ living room? Compare it to your own. This simple mental experiment shows that one’s own history, the social background, respective zeitgeist, and the cultural embedding have clear effects on the rooms in which we feel comfortable and how we design them. These relationships are by no means limited to individuals. Urban quarters and entire cities are also shaped accordingly and are subject to their own logic. By the way, if you have ever wondered why you personally like or don’t like a city at first sight – that might be the answer.

The intrinsic logic of a city begins with the large political and economic structures. In the Ruhr area, for example, there are classic SPD cities that honor their tradition in mining. Things are a bit different in German ‘car cities’, such as Stuttgart, where the pursuit of technological progress is the key engine for their own economic development. Even when the local economic structures or political situations change, many of the previous routines remain the same and continue to shape the profile of the respective city.

The intrinsic logic determines how we work

The intrinsic logic is also extremely relevant for the real estate industry. It is one of the reasons why some cities are more entrepreneur-friendly, whereas others focus clearly on the employee. This may also affect the designation of construction land for certain types of properties in certain micro-locations.

How does a specific city with its structures shape people’s everyday lives?
How does a specific city with its structures shape people’s everyday lives?

However, the interactions go even deeper. The respective culture of a city ensures that, on a subjective level, there are very different relationships to time and mobility structures: Whereas in Dortmund the past is often the focus of the residents and the solutions are often derived based on the tried and true, people in Frankfurt tend always to search for new solutions. Our research has also shown that this has an impact on the work structures and thus the space requirements of companies at the respective location. While people in Frankfurt often organize their spaces to allow them to work as quickly as possible, companies in Dortmund tend to be more concerned about optimal sharing of the available space.

The traffic situation in cities is just as different, which in turn correlates with the culture and prevailing political attitudes: Is the public transport infrastructure well developed? Where is it still considered smart and efficient to use the own car? Where do most people, even the wealthy, prefer to travel by subway or bus? Where are people willing to share their cars with others? For real estate companies, this is relevant not only in terms of how potential customers get to the company premises and the preferred routes. The growth – or the obstacles to growth – in the development of public transport means are also a key indicator of the overall economic development of the cities themselves.

Digital and global changes affect the business premises

Although the past decades or even centuries have shaped the present logic of the city significantly, the profiles of the cities are by no means carved in stone. The two megatrends of globalization and digitization have seen the relationship between people and their spaces transform systematically – and this has had a significant impact on urban structures. Scientifically, we have been able to prove that until the 1990s, people in Germany had the feeling of living in a space surrounding them. Today, space is no longer perceived as a unit by many, but rather as a kind of network: Many small subspaces, “islands”, are interconnected and interrelated in thought, but not necessarily in a territorial context. An illustrative example: the Skype call to the friend working in Australia for three months. What impact this will have in the future can hardly be estimated at this moment.

“For commercial properties, it might be advisable to create additional space that has nothing to do with the actual work processes.”



This is also linked to the growing suspicion that, particularly among young people, having your own home is gradually losing importance. The question of how this development will evolve needs to be looked at in more detail. Nevertheless, the trend is clear: One’s own four walls are being transformed into one of several locations within the city. The other spaces, in which people spend their time, are in turn becoming more and more relevant.

For commercial properties, this means that it might be advisable to create additional space that has nothing to do with the actual work processes. This development can be seen relatively well in the specific case of business parks: When a gym or canteen is constructed on the premises, it also affects the changed spatial and urban structures. In other words, the employee stays nearby and does not need to drive through the city to do sports.

Standardized solutions fall short

But even in the digital age, the logic of each district or city is crucial for determining which options are actually used. In a place whose intrinsic logic is marked by health and physical culture, employees are more likely to appreciate having a gym right next to the workplace. In locations that have less of that logic, on the other hand, exercise facilities should be of little interest to employees. The same also applies to the design and menu of the canteen.

As more and more real estate developers are transferring their concepts from one location to another, they should also take account of the complex cultural, transport, and economic interactions. A real estate concept that meets the expectations of the owners and tenants in city A can quickly turn into a non-seller in City B. Instead of pure reproduction of the properties, some of the features should be adapted to the respective logic of the city.

Basically, it may be possible to shape a location with new ideas, but these must hit the fertile ground among the residents or the employees. The best example in this case is the question of the property design. Even former industrial sites where the properties were constructed on a rather functional basis can be suitable for real estate development with a unique design – but only if the functionality expectations are met. If this succeeds, the real estate property can set particular accents and contribute to the development of the urban quarter – be it residential or commercial units.

Prof. Dr. Martina Löw, Head of Department VI Planning Building Environment, Technical University of Berlin
Susanne Heck
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