I have often borrowed Winston Churchill’s quote, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”  I’m a firm believer that our behavior, our point of view, how we interact with others is greatly shaped by the buildings, the streets and the neighborhoods we occupy.  What I didn’t know, until recently, was the context behind the quote.

Churchill was not making a general statement when he said this, he had a particular building in mind.  The House of Commons, which had been badly bombed during World War II, was in the process of being reconstructed.  The old House was about to be rebuilt, and some Members wanted to expand the building to accommodate more seats, as the number of Members had grown since the original building was constructed.  Churchill’s statement was made when the British parliament was deciding how to proceed – to keep the building as it was, or making it larger to accommodate more seats.  Churchill was against “giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang” because, he explained, the House would be empty most of the time.  At critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with Members spilling out into the aisles, in his view, a suitable “sense of crowd and urgency.”  Here is the full quote:

“On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.”  – October 18, 1943

I think Churchill was very keen in his understanding of what made the House of Commons building work.  Rubbing shoulders with people face to face was and still is important for lawmaking and politics.  Having an “overflowing room” from time to time and creating a little buzz is a good thing.  And designing space, not for it’s maximum capacity, but for it’s optimum density is an important balance to strike.

I get three lessons from Churchill’s statement: 1) bigger is not necessarily better, 2) density creates value and 3) spaces have memory.

1. Bigger is not always better.  Many companies are finding, as they grow, that they can get by just fine in their space, by changing their space policies, changing operations or using new technology.  They don’t need more space to accommodate growth, they just need better space or other tools to help them manage it.  This is sometimes referred to as growth without growth.  All this growth without growth requires thoughtful planning and some expense, but it keeps buildings from needlessly being torn down.  Because sometimes the building is worth more than brick and mortar.

2. Density creates value.  Many organizations today are seeing their office spaces occupied only 50% of the time and laboratories only 20% of the time on average.  There has been a surge of interest lately for ways to increase “buzz” in workplaces and encourage cross talk and collaboration.  Many organizations centralize shared spaces (bathrooms or kitchen areas for example) in order to encourage cross-talk and the flow of ideas across teams. Though it may seem a little “forced” as a strategy, creating circulation patterns and increased density in the building where brief conversations happen between employees that don’t work normally work together can create value.  Steve Jobs used this strategy at Pixar – putting an atrium in the building so that employees would all run into each other there, a strategy he also designed (at a much larger scale) into Apple’s new headquarters building in Cupertino (purposely consolidating 30 buildings into one).

3. Spaces have memory.  There is emerging evidence that physical artifacts help us remember things.  In workplaces, teams might put up a “shared project wall” with flow charts, notations, diagrams or other reminders to help them build on their knowledge and, every time they see the wall, pick up where they left off.  Sometimes just being in a certain place will trigger memories of things that have happened in the past. I can image a place so full of history and individual experiences, like the House of Commons, as a memory bank on steroids.  So tearing it down would be more than just tearing down walls, it would be removing the collective memory for the British people and all the members that served there.  If you are looking for more research on the topic of space and memory, here are some recent articles on the subject: