When stuff self-organizes, a logical approach to the task of architecture in the story, would be that it should create the right conditions. This can exist of, for instance, supporting the process by providing a comfortable climate.

Stuff cells search for the right conditions. When someone needs to sit down, start working or go sunbathing, the environment is screened for a place that fulfills those needs. These conditions are the requirements and therefore the control parameter of the system. When this layer of basic needs breaks down when the power goes down, the sun sets or the neighbor starts to drill a hole in the wall, the activity has a high probability to collapse.

Fig 6.13 and 6.14: Searching for and finishing conditions.

By accumulating stuff, the user also creates their own conditions. Either the requirements are completed, so that the action can be started (see fig. 6.13 and 6.14), or the accumulation of stuff serves to withstand a changing external influence so that it can be sustained.

The insight for design is twofold. Firstly, the right conditions not only attract and stimulate the self-organization of stuff, but are as a result even reinforced. This leads to a pattern of conditions, such as in a house where the bedroom is kept cooler and the bathroom warmer than the rest of the house, whereas the conditions are initially the same. Secondly, this process is eased with the right affordances. In the example below, the chair is already percieved by its rotatability, and the colder place for the presence of a blanket nearby. When one wants these patterns to emerge by themselves, the possibilities to create them should be existent and displayed.

A condition that deserves more attention is that of publicness. Stuff not only seems especially sensitive to publicness, but, by definition, also determines it by its own existence. On the following pages the parameter of publicness is further explored.

Mapping out an existing buildings using this method, can (as found so far) give insight in three different ways.


A stuff cell is the definition of a territory. It marks off a space, not only for a specific activity, but most of all for a specific person. Although the picnic at the cover is situated in a public space, it is highly unlikely other people would install themselves right next to it, even when the couple has left their spot. In a stuff cell someone literally makes themselves at home.

From the other side, a similar dependence can be recognized. In a public space such as a busy street it is improbable to set up a folding table and have dinner, whereas this is not abnormal in a collective inner garden. When a large group of people suddenly walks into your office space, it feels alien to start unpacking more stuff and enlarge your ‘terrain’, while as soon as they leave again, extending the activity by developing its stuff cell feels natural and unrestrained.

6.3.1 Domains as a control parameter

The publicness of a space is a control parameter of stuff systems; one to which they prove to be highly sensitive as even the tiniest changes (e.g. someone entering a room) can have a significant effect. In this intermezzo the relationship between degrees of publicness and the development of stuff cells is explored, by means of a thought experiment; for different degrees of publicness, a stuff cell is considered that is as extensive as possible, while still experienced as natural.

The common distinction between private and public as a property ignores the fact that the experience of publicness transcends the boundaries of ownership. As an alternative, Lyn Lofland (1985, 1998) proposes the term realm, later extended by Van der Wal and Van Dorst (2014; Van der Wal, Van Dorst, Leuenberger, Vonk & Van Vugt, 2016), in a theory of four domains1. These experienced layers of publicness are essentially dynamic and defined by the relationship between the people that use the space and the way they encounter each other. Below, the four domains proposed by Van der Wal and Van Dorst (2014) – public, parochial, collective and private – are discussed, in which the private domain is split in two: a shared private space (a shared home) and a completely individual private space.

1 Public domain

A public domain is no solid breeding ground for stuff cells. As unknown people walk by at a high pace, having stuff out of sight or out of reach evokes an uncomfortable feeling. One will only settle down when there is no other option, when, for instance, one is in need of something at the bottom of one’s bag. The stuff cell is typically smaller than the human body and protected by arm and legs. It normally exists no longer than a few minutes.

A situation that demonstrates the above is right after the security check at an airport. In the middle of a crowd of unknown people that nervously rush by, one has to put on a belt, a watch, shoes, tie the laces, keep an eye on ticket, passport and wallet all at the same time. This stuff cell is too large for the type of space, and feels unnatural and awkward.

Fig 6.15: A stuff cell in the public domain: unpacking a bag.

The public domain is described by Lofland as a realm that is inhabited importantly, though not entirely, by persons who are unacquainted with one another. It is a world of strangers (Lofland, 1985). Public space is characterized by typical behavioral codes, such as taking the role of observer rather than attracting attention and limiting extensive conversations with strangers (Lofland, 1998). Typical examples are busy streets, stations, the main areas of airports and the hallway of a hospital.

2 Parochial domain

The parochial domain is more enclosed than the public realm, and is characterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors, involved in interpersonal networks, located within communities. (Hunter, 1985; Lofland, 1998). A parochial domain is one in which bits of collective or private domain can come to existence, such as in a park, the streets in a small village, a courtyard or in the faculty building of a university. The type of relationship is that of ‘known strangers’ – one of recognition. The difference between the parochial and public domain is therefore equivalent to that of a village and a city (Van Dorst, 2005).

Fig 6.16: A stuff cell in the parochial domain: repairing a bike.

A parochial domain is already more inviting for starting stuff cells. It is imaginable that certain activities that do not fit in the house – repairing a bike, washing the car – take place outside in this more protected atmosphere. Also the picnic on the cover is situated in a parochial domain. It is an open place, not one to leave stuff behind (longer than a few minutes), but it is generally accepted that people lay hold on a spot for around a half-day.

3 Collective domain

The collective domain is characterized by a collective activity people engage in. What bonds them is a shared interest and goal (Van der Wal & Van Dorst, 2014). Most office spaces, shared gardens, shared studio spaces, but also class rooms or a nursery are examples of collective spaces. In contrast to the parochial domain, it is not open, but defined by boundaries. Its members are known, for they have, for example, a membership.

This domain is an interesting one in relation to self-organizing stuff. As the place is protected, it is possible to leave things lying around. However, this is merely socially accepted when related to the collective activity; a collection of pots in a communal garden is fine, but a rusty bike would not be appreciated. When functioning properly a collective space can even become a collective ‘external memory’; stuff can communicate the activities that need to be done without the members meeting in real life.

Fig 6.17: A shared stuff cell in the collective domain: communal garden.

4 Private domain (shared)

A private domain is characterized by ties of intimacy among primary group members who are located within households and personal networks. (Lofland, 1998; Hunter, 1985). Examples of shared, yet private domains are a kitchen, living room, garden or shed; spaces that are shared with housemates or family members, and will not be entered by uninvited individuals.

Fig 6.18: A shared stuff cell in a shared private domain.

Since the level of individual control in a house is high and the others using the space are mostly well-known, informed and non- judgmental, it is a perfect domain for stuff cells. It is possible to leave things behind overnight and continue the activity later on – which makes possible that stuff is used as a reminder, an external memory, that can easily be shared as others live in the same ‘mindset’. The only holdback can be that space is limited. Activities might have to compete for a room or working surface, which is why they eventually have to be cleaned up.

5 Private domain (individual)

The individual private domain is a place where no other person than oneself comes in without knocking; such as a study room or studio space. More recent examples include the ‘man cave’ and the ‘she shed’; by the Urban Dictionary defined as a corner or area of a dwelling reserved for a (male/female) person to be in solitary condition, in order to work and play, and engage in activities without any interruption (urbandictionary.com, 2017). These places are much written about on internet; typically the person in question puts much effort in the décor of the place, so that it reflects their character in a desired way.

Stuff cells in private domains like those can grow for months or even years without ever being disturbed. As the identity of the host is reflected in all elements in the room and their configuration, there is hardly any distinction between the stuff cell and the space around it. All merges into one private place, an external representation of activity, character and personal values.

Fig 6.19: A stuff cell in an individual private domain.

6.3.2 Domains and stuff cells

The causal relationship between the level of publicness and the self-organization of stuff seems definite; the more a space is experienced as private, the more an (individual) stuff cell can develop. This is not the least influenced by the time things can be left out of sight (from seconds in a public domain, to between minutes and an hour in a parochial domain to forever in an individual space). Shared stuff cells thrive best in the middle domains, that are protected enough to not be experienced as rushed and anonymous.

Fig 6.20: Stylized graph of development (number of objects, abstractness of action identification) and sharedness of stuff cells over the different domains.

Another factor possibly playing a role, is the degree to which the identity of the individual and their activity is in accordance with the identity of the space as a whole. In more private spaces, someone does not only exercise more individual control on their surroundings, but also shares the space with likeminded people, such as intimates or people engaging in the same activity, agreeing on what is socially accepted. The more public places are commonly not adjustable to one’s specific needs and are shared with a diverse group of people with different objectives. The ‘fit’ of a stuff cell in its surroundings seems to be a reliable prediction of its development.

6.3.3 Stuff is communication

Domains are dynamic, a fact illustrated by Lofland with the example of a ‘traveling pack’. This is a group of friends that by laughing and talking loudly takes over a public space as a private domain; the larger the group, the more confident it seems to display behavior typical for a gathering at home (1985). This shows how fluid domains are; a public property can within seconds be claimed as private. Apparently the presence of a group of people, in this case aided by their indifferent behavior and noisiness, can in itself change what level of publicness is experienced.

Setting out stuff is the demarcation of a domain in a similar way. Generally a stuff cell (either individual or shared) develops a higher level of privateness when more developed. This is clearly visible when considering campsites with no fixed places; the small and modest tents of bikers, who cannot bring much stuff, feel fine to walk by closely, and even to camp in a close distance of. Tents of families that obviously spend the entire holiday at their chosen spot, and whose tent is surrounded by toys, chairs, tables, parasols and wind screens, somehow command more respect. One would not as easily ‘trespass’.

On the surroundings space, on the other hand, stuff cells have an inviting effect. A tent on a field of green shows that the place is generally agreed upon to be meant for camping and individually claiming a piece of the terrain is approved behavior. This makes good social experiments in public space, comparable to those of the Situationists. As soon as a stuff cell is started in the middle of a busy street (e.g. by starting a picnic or repairing a bike), one does not only create a piece of private terrain, but gives the street as a whole a more village- like identity in which it is suddenly socially accepted to claim space. Public becomes parochial.

Apparently, next to action possibility and the exchange of information with one (future) self, stuff is also, and very boldy, a means to communicate with one’s surroundings. It makes that a space can be experienced as more private, both in a demarcating (close by) and an inviting (further away) manner.

6.3.4 The self-organisation of publicness

Stuff indicates privateness, and privateness communicates to others what is accepted. Thus stuff cell development and privateness find themselves in a circular causality. This means that the effect both have on each other is, in general, self-reinforcing and thus self-organizing.

Fig 6.21: Stuff cells and domains in a circular causality.

According to Van Dorst and Van der Wal (2014) a clear readability of domains in non-defined spaces (such as hallways and corridors in apartment buildings), can help in creating and communicating a social agreement on how to behave (Van der Wal et al., 2016). They propose clarifying the type of domain through introducing affordances that stimulate appropriate behavior. To this the above insight can add the dimension of time. Publicness is not only a dynamic condition, but is a process of settlement, that starts from volatile beginnings and gradually grows into a rigid structure. The indication of a domain through conscious (designed) interventions can thus be strengthened by easing the possibility for people to demarcate their (individual or shared) terrain. Also the opposite, marking a space as exclusively public, can be used to keep light, air and accessibility in place that otherwise would congest.

Credits hand drawings of domains: plein06, 2017