The Social Roles of Buildings An Account of Materiality and Meaning in Urban Outcomes

University dissertation from Stockholm : Department of Sociology, Stockholm University

Abstract: The dissertation explores the roles of buildings in urban social life. Buildings, as both a methodological tool and a research site, are valuable for understanding society. As a method, buildings allow access to various urban contexts. As a research site, the material and the social are integrated, where buildings and society are shown in continual construction. The overarching case shows how a new building type is born in a society and what buildings do, as both materiality and meaning, to help bring about outcomes. The study follows a single building type through history and analytical levels in the city of Santiago, Chile where three empirical studies emerge. The first traces a process of late 19th century urbanization to show the entrance of new residential building types into a city and how the physical and social landscape is reshaped in the process, emphasizing how one urban form emerges and is defined. Intercontinental connections bring new architecture and new language, stabilizing the link between form and name in the city. The resulting spectrum of buildings within the type shows how the diversity of residents shapes material outcomes. As the new buildings become fixed in the urban landscape, so too do social categories. How buildings change definitions both between and within societies, as well as start to take on meanings, is explored.Once definitions and form are established, the following studies explore the roles of the buildings in contemporary urban life. Photos analysis is employed to examine uses of shared space (a patio) in a residential building where buildings are theorized as material structures that contribute to patterned activities. It addresses how the building creates opportunities for observed everyday uses of private collective space. Using published comparison cases demonstrates that practices appear to differ between buildings of the same type when income of residents differs. It is hypothesized that opportunity is created not by the existence of the space per se, but by its gated enclosure, which separates the public street from the private space. The building is understood as a bound that simultaneously fosters interaction and exclusion. In addition, activities in these spaces, over time, contribute to new cultural understandings of the building type, showing how use can generate meaning.The last empirical study examines the reuse of residential buildings for commercial purposes in one neighborhood. The goal is to illuminate roles buildings play in contemporary neighborhood transformations. Rather than understanding transformation through reuse itself, modes of material conversions are examined. The differences between older conversions and newer ones in the area highlight the role of visible characteristics in the newly reused buildings. The material maintenance of residential facades on new conversions locks in the visual of a residential neighborhood, where intended function is built into form, even under commercial reuse. This is valuable in line with a constructed narrative about the place that focuses on the past. The building type under investigation is further redefined as reused buildings take on visual and spatial similarities to housing models from a past era that were not involved in changes in the neighborhood, but appear as if they were. This study relies on participant observation and analysis of marketing materials, as well as other documentary sources.