Architecture is Destiny: A Tale of Two Cities and Lessons for the Social Business

About three years ago my wife and I made the rash (and wise) decision to buy a 17th century home in Southwestern France . Puy L’Eveque is a 13th century medieval town situated on a hill overlooking the Lot River. Its narrow streets all lead upward to the summit – where the Mairie (the mayor’s office) and the church occupy the high ground (Puy L’Eveque translates as “Bishops Hill”). It is beautiful in the way of most towns built to withstand the long-passed threat of siege. But Puy L’Eveque is unmistakably struggling. Its shops are anemic and situated between empty storefronts. Its farmer’s markets and vidi greniers are lean affairs and it recently canceled its yearly medieval festival. Its population still remains below pre-World War One levels. From the tourist office brochure:

“In 1880 the community consisted of 2950 inhabitants, boasted 4 hotels, 6 bars, 9 café’s, a mounted brigade of gendarmes, a charity office, a city toll booth, a ferry-boat at Escafignoux, a flour mill and a suspension bridge! The 1999 census registered 2159 inhabitants.”

Three kilometers away lies the rather bland town of Prayssac; with ancient roots but clearly developed in the 19th century. Lying on the flat plain of the Lot valley, its nothing special to behold but its cafes, markets and festivals are bustling. It was something of a mystery to us when we moved here.

Why is picturesque Puy L’Eveque struggling while Prayssac thrives?

This is the topic of many dinner discussions among the expatriates here. Usually the blame is laid at the hands of incapable administrators. I believe the problem goes deeper. It is a question of architecture and urban planning. Puy L’Eveque’s siege architecture just isn’t built for the modern age. Its positioning on a hillside was chosen for its unassailability. The medieval town privileges control of all traffic (human and material) with choke points at top and bottom. Until very recently there was a single, one-way street leading up to the summit; a stoplight at top and bottom alternated the flow of traffic – for five minutes traffic led upward – the next five minutes, down. The prime vantage points are held by church and state. Puy L’Eveque is lovely but it is relic of the past: privilege of place, control from the top, constricted material flows, and strict regulation of its borders.

Prayssac makes no such assumptions or attempt to control – people and goods move freely in and out of its borders. Prayssac is a social town – it welcomes outsiders. Its hierarchies form naturally through assembly at any of a number of town squares and the town dissolves naturally into the surrounding countryside. There are no fortress walls. The Mairie and Church are discreetly nestled amidst the other edifices.

In short, Puy L’Eveque was not architected for the modern world where goods and people follow an accelerated flow… where commerce privileges open exchange and more porous, natural borders between town and countryside. The very thing that made Puy L’Eveque thrive in the 14th century makes it hard to survive in the 21st; its architecture.

Many of our 20th century behemoths resemble Puy L’Eveque . They are closed fortresses with strict, forbidding hierarchies. While information flow outside has radically accelerated (everyone has a real-time broadcast tower) the modern organization is marked by glacial response times and chokeholds on who is an “authorized” spokesperson. The world is divided between those inside (employees) with very fixed roles and responsibilities and those “outside” (everyone else) who can’t be trusted.

Hendrik Hertzberg’s insightful comment on healthcare as a by-product of the system of legislation rather than Obama, Nancy Pelosi or even (or especially) Joe Lieberman, provides a lesson not just for government but for business on how architecture is destiny:

“The American government has its human aspects—it is staffed by human beings, mostly—but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, and its independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) makes it more like an inanimate object.”

We tend to blame people and let architecture off the hook. But the structures we live within shape our behavior and govern what is possible just as the physical architecture of our towns both emerge from and reinforce the way we see world.

As the social norms set by the Social Web – openness, sharing, participation, become the norms of business (this to me is the key insight behind the new term “social business”) and as the information flow outside accelerates, organizations will need rethink their structures. They will need to think about whether or not they are designed like Puy L’Eveque or Prayssac.

Architecture is destiny.