Module 3, “Interior urbanism – Outline of a research milieu”

The main purpose of my thesis project is to investigate the role of three buildings as interior components in ongoing neoliberal redevelopment processes of three cities. Looking at these buildings in their current condition, the project investigates the lobby as a stage where notions of urbanism are produced and consumed. As an external driving force behind this process I identify neoliberal urbanism, here defined as an unfinished project of restructuring the city’s public institutions, services and physical environment.[1] Analyzing the three lobbies as thresholds between building and city, where issues of space, time, and labor are at stake, I point to the entanglement and fragility of architecture’s relation to neoliberal urbanism.

I situate my thesis project in an architectural research body that within the last decade has attempted to add nuances to the relationship between building interiors and urban environment.[2] Laid into this project of nuancing, I see three themes that together constitute the outline of a research milieu: Attempts to question the existing conceptual apparatus for analyzing the relationship between interior and exterior; a focus on the materiality, form, and geometry of interiors; consideration of building interiors as spaces for the production of ideologically underpinned notions about the city. This milieu can be described as research on interior aspects of urbanism, either from a historical or contemporary point of view.[3] At the outset, this research addresses a shared problem – what can the analysis of building interiors say about historical or ongoing social, economic, and political changes to the city? In this short text, I want to sketch the outline of this milieu by elaborating on the three characteristics mentioned above, and highlight the contribution I see with my own work in relation to existing research.

A first common denominator of this research milieu is that it questions established theoretical concepts for building interiors in relation to city – inside/outside, closed/open, surveilled/free, private/public – by introducing terms such as “environment”, “atmosphere”, and “public interiors”. This is evident in David Gissen’s book Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment and Urban Crisis.[4] Combining geographical theory on the integration of social and natural processes with an architecture historical approach, Gissen outlines an environmental history of architectural responses to the urban transformation of New York City during the second half of the 20th century.[5] The emergence of late-modernist large-scale interiors, in which the atmosphere could be regulated, controlled and cultivated signifies for Gissen the social and cultural construction of an urban nature. What is at stake in Gissen’s case studies – the Washington Bridge Apartments, the Ford Foundation Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the World Financial Center – is not only privatization or gentrification, but how these interior environments functioned as a stage to alter, distance from, or reconstruct the city outside. In other words, the interior environment of these buildings constituted and shaped the experience of the city. Gissen argues that these projects, at the time of completion conceived as solutions to specific urban problems (pollution, heat, humidity, lack of green space, etc), often consolidated prevailing notions about the city as contaminated, eroded and unsafe. Gissen’s research demonstrates how the links between large-scale corporate building interiors, the surrounding city of New York, and the global market was part of an architectural idea of expanding “maintenance environments”. Such environment, he notes “suggests a pervasive refashioning of space, labor, and culture both within and outside its literal interiors.”

A second identifiable feature in the research on interior urbanism is an attention to the role of architectural form, geometry, and materiality when considering interiors. This is illustrated in the work of artist, designer, and architectural teacher Mark Pimlott, primarily in his book The Public Interior as Idea and Project.[6] Based on a transcript from lectures given within the course “The Architecture of the Interior” at TU Delft, Pimlott considers six themes on public dimension of interior spaces in architectural history: The Garden, The Palace, The Ruin, The Shed, The Machine, and The Network. Each chapter suggests a formal and geometrical genealogy between projects distributed over a large span of time. For example, Pimlott identifies a continuation of the idea of the enclosed garden between biblical renderings of the Paradise, the 19th century Crystal Palace, and Roche’s and Dinkeloo’s Ford Foundation Building, completed in 1968. In associative sequences like these – often driven by images and drawings instead of conceptual coherence – Pimlott identifies the recurring idea of “public interior”. Defined as interior spaces that – despite being privately owned – can be appropriated to produce a sense of freedom among its visitors, Pimlott argues that public interiors form an undercurrent to external public space through history. The public interior is envisaged as a stage for people to “appear, move, act, associate, and become conscious of themselves and their place in the world as individuals, as selves, as others, as selves among other selves, together and distinct in public.”[7] With this claim, Pimlott wants to sidestep the issue of building interiors as private or public, and consider instead the momentary effect of emancipation that the experience of being in such a space can have.

Although there is much relevance in Pimlott’s work, with its encyclopedic approach to how interior form relates to notions of publicness and city, the concept of “public interior” remains unclear. “Public interiors” are identified in fundamentally different social and historical contexts. Moving through both built and unbuilt examples, Pimlott in many instances omits the historical, socio-economic circumstances under which these interiors existed. Freed from the burden of contextual considerations, the public interior appears trans-historical, as the effect of spatial and formal arrangements only. Lifted out of context, the examples of public interior are presented as readily available formal instruments for architects to design “environments of genuine richness and freedom.”[8] But this kind of celebration neglects the economic pretexts in which the experience of the discussed buildings exists. In that sense, the most conspicuous absence in Pimlott’s study, is the consideration of these interiors in relation to the economic and ideological force of neoliberalism. Pimlott’s ambition to exculpate the profession from the logic of neoliberalism, in order to argue for the emancipatory possibility of public interiors, makes his analysis ambiguous.[9]

A third characteristic of the discussed research milieu is a rethinking of how the concept of interior has been projected onto an urban scale, as spaces for the production of the city as an ideological project. This is apparent in the architectural theorist Charles Rice’s research on the atrium spaces of John Portman, most notably in his book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America.[10] Composed as a series of chapters analyzing several of Portman’s buildings and their discourse, the book considers the interdependency between the interior environments and ideological, institutional, and economic forces behind the redevelopment of many North American cities in the post-war decades. Analyzing what he calls the “interior urbanism” of Portman’s design, by considering the historical context, the dynamics between architect and real estate market, and the geometry often repeated from project to project, Rice argues that the large-scale interior space of the atrium suggested a new approach to how the city should be understood and constructed.[11] Rice traces the geometrical logic of Portman’s architecture to the design of his private villa, a small-scale prototype of what later became larger interior atriums. In doing so, he locates the roots of interior urbanism to the domestic sphere, an interpretation that opens up for a range of possible critical perspectives on Portman’s work, not the least considering issues of gender and class. Unfortunately, such critical topics remain unexplored in the book, as identifying the formal and geometrical continuity between Portman’s different projects is given priority.

How do I position my thesis within the discussed milieu? At the center of my investigation is the present-day implications of neoliberal urbanism mirrored in three buildings. Unlike Rice and Gissen, I do not analyze the lobby in order to write a history of urban transformations of North Americans cities during the postwar years, or to rethink the environmental history of late-modernist architecture. The case studies in this thesis are considered as they are today, and are analyzed primarily by surveys, drawings, observations, and descriptions on-site. The historical record of the projects, such as publications, official statements, archive materials etc., form a reference frame rather than an empirical source in themselves. By visiting and writing about the buildings and their sites in their current state, I want to underscore the unstable nature of architecture, and show how seemingly minor changes (the adding of exterior benches, a stanchion belt closing off part of the lobby, or the constant rearrangement of plants and flowers) reveal linkages between the building’s interiors and ongoing processes of neoliberal redevelopment. A first contribution is therefore to move away from architectural history as the main focal point of “interior urbanism”, and place the reading of the interior within a critical analysis of ongoing urban transformations.

I see the second contribution of my thesis related to the first, as all of the case studies point to the often-overlooked fragility of interior environments. The continuous refurbishment, refitting, and maintenance of the lobby challenges the notion of architecture as solid and autonomous from its surroundings. There are clear parallels between on the one hand Pier Vittorio Aureli’s call for an autonomous architecture, and on the other hand, Charles Rice’s identification of a stable geometry in the interiors of Portman’s architecture, or Mark Pimlott’s belief in architecture’s capacity to resurrect a trans-historical and non-contextual “public interior”. By moving away from the notion of architecture as defined by stable matters of form and geometry, and instead consider the multiple material and immaterial agencies that shape interiors in relation to the city, my project points to the open-ended character of architecture over time.

A third contribution is in the development of a transversal research method for studying interior urbanism, a research milieu hitherto characterized by analysis of historical sources. My thesis project explores writing as a method that can transgress the borders between different academic traditions, and essayistic forms of text production in the study of architecture. Each case study-chapter undulates between site-close experiential accounts, observations of humans and objects in and around the building, architectural theory, isometric drawings of the lobby, and quantitative data from external sources or from site surveys. I want to juxtapose several different ways of thinking about the lobby’s entanglement with the outside world: Descriptions of immersions into space needs to be placed against theory on labor; accounts of hyperspace with observations from the lobby early on a Tuesday morning; the slowness of ethnography with the high-speed investigations of journalism; and the hasty attempt of the essay with detailed descriptions of elements like doors, stairs and floors. Writing in this sense constitutes not the summary of empirical data, but an investigative process in itself, where the interrelationships between topics, ideas and sources are exposed that would otherwise remain unseen.[12] With this transversal approach, I hope that the project can find a broader audience, and be relevant for architectural practitioners as well as researchers.

Hannes Frykholm


Gabrielsson, Catharina, and Hélène Frichot. “Transversal Writing Course Pm.” KTH Architecture and the Built Environment 2015.

Gissen, David. Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Peck, Jamie, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brenner. “Neoliberal Urbanism: Models, Moments, Mutations.” SAIS Review XXIX, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2009).

Pimlott, Mark. “Interiority and the Conditions of Interior.” Interiority 1, no. 1 (2018): 5-20.

———. The Public Interior as Idea and Project.  Heijningen: Jap Sam Books, 2016.

Rice, Charles. Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America.  London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.


[1] Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brenner, “Neoliberal Urbanism: Models, Moments, Mutations,” SAIS Review XXIX, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2009).

[2] David Gissen, Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Charles Rice, Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). Mark Pimlott, The Public Interior as Idea and Project (Heijningen: Jap Sam Books, 2016).

[3] I borrow the term interior urbanism form Charles Rice. Cf. Rice, Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America

[4] Gissen, Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pimlott, The Public Interior as Idea and Project. See also more recent publications, where the same argument is continued: “Interiority and the Conditions of Interior,” Interiority 1, no. 1 (2018).

[7] “Interiority and the Conditions of Interior,” 16. p 16.

[8] Ibid. 10

[9] An obvious example of this is the distinction Pimlott insists on between Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace” and Jon Jerde’s “Mall of America”.[9] Price’s project is presented as a “good” example of public interiors because it implies the active and uncontrolled engagement of the visitor, whereas Jerde’s is a malign version, existing only to encourage consumption. However, the distinction does not recognize the most fundamental difference: Unlike Jerde’s “Mall of America”, Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace”, as influential as it has been, was never built.

[10] Rice, Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman and Downtown America.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Part of this method was developed in discussions and exercises with the teachers and students of the Resarc course “Transversal Writing”, given by Catharina Gabrielsson and Hélène Frichot at KTH Architecture and the Built Environment in 2015. Catharina Gabrielsson and Hélène Frichot, “Transversal Writing Course Pm,” (KTH Architecture and the Built Environment 2015).