Wandering the Halls

by Kieran Healy on August 1, 2003

The Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences, where I am presently ensconced, is a great place. It has amiable institutions such as Morning and Afternoon Tea, for instance, which make it possible to pass the entire day moving from one sort of break to another. It also has lots of interesting people in it. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find any of them because they are all located in the Coombs Building. On the other hand, you may bump into them while you are looking for your office again.

The building’s layout is a marvel of logic and clarity, provided you are looking at it from the outside and are in a helicopter. Like a gigantic carbon molecule, it is composed of three, three-storey hexagonal blocks each of which shares a side with one of the others. One (soon to be two) of the hexagons has a stub protruding from it that appears to be the bottom side of a fourth hexagon but of course is not.

Once inside the building, finding your way around is simplicity itself. Rooms are numbered according to an elementary system whereby the first digit denotes the block, the second the level and the third the room itself. You will of course not be tempted to think there are three blocks (on an obviously absurd analogy to the three hexagons) but rather will intuit straight away that there are seven. Blocks are numbered beginning with the main entrance corridor at the bottom of the middle hexagon (which offers the shortest route between the left and right hexagons) and ascend from 1-7 in half-hexagon sized chunks proceeding in a clockwise fashion along the three blocks, sorry I mean units, except for block six which is the stub to the rightmost unit mentioned earlier.

To aid navigation across the floors there are staircases on every third (or sometimes fourth) turn. Bear in mind that when you take a corner you are making a 60-degree rather than a 90-degree turn. Due to the slightly sloping nature of the site, the upper floors in two of the hexagons do not line up vertically with the third, so occasional half-staircases are necessary to facilitate the transistion from one hexagon to the next.

Seminar rooms in the building are helpfully labelled A to F. Some of them also have proper names, such as the Nadel Room.1

The information booth (if you can find it) is staffed by helpful people who will give you directions and even a map of the building. All the same, I may soon invest in a GPS unit of some sort, and a copy of A Pattern Language, which Chris has recommended before. The book offers a set of basic building patterns that make for livable and navigable spaces, and a set of rules for distinguishing patterns that work from ones that just look good on the drawing board. I wonder if the “three interlocking hexagons” pattern is in there somewhere.

Any other contenders out there for least-easily navigable building in the world? More precisely, buildings which look at first glance like they ought to be navigable, but turn out to be impossible?

1I believe this room is named for the anthropologist SF Nadel, whose analysis of role structures in his Theory of Social Structure inspired some of the pioneers of modern structural social theory. Nadel was amongst the first to note that an objective picture of a society’s role structure need not map directly onto the picture of that structure carried around in the heads of the people who constitute the society, and that the two will affect each other in complex ways. This seems appropriate.



Chris Bertram 08.01.03 at 7:44 am

I found much of the University of Essex similar to this. You might ask Bob Goodin who moved to ANU from there whether the move was to a more or less navigable space.


John Quiggin 08.01.03 at 8:00 am

I spent many years wandering the corridors of the Coombs, and even alluded to it in song form once.


Anarch 08.01.03 at 8:46 am

The Humanities building of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a contender, due in part to the fact that one of its mandates was to be a bastion for the National Guard in case the students rioted again. Gotta love ’60s-paranoid architecture :)


dsquared 08.01.03 at 11:36 am

I am pretty sure it is not possible to arrange three hexagons such that each of them shares precisely one side with each of the others. But I am usually terrible at these kind of puzzles, so maybe someone else can suggest the correct arrangement.


Doug Turnbull 08.01.03 at 1:36 pm

My vote is the Pentagon. It’s nicely divided into floors, concentric rings (A-E), and sectors(1-10 if memory serves), so in theory the room number (eg 2D0816)tells you exactly where the room you want to find is. Sounds good, but once you’re inside it’s not so simple.

First, every hallway looks nearly identical–there are no cues about which direction you’re facing. It’s also laid out with axial and circumferential hallways, which is not the way most peoples minds work, so it’s easy to get turned around. And lastly, there are many places where the hallways are sealed off by large offices, so even if you get on the right track to where you want to go, often that track will end and you have to find a new one.

On a slightly different tack, I’d suggest the city of Ravenna (or probably most any old European city.) Armed with a car and two different road maps, it still took us over 30 minutes driving around the rather small central city to manage to get to our hotel. One way streets, poor signage, and large areas sealed off to motor traffic made the apparently simple task herculean.


Jeremy Osner` 08.01.03 at 1:38 pm

dsquared — look at the picture Kieran linked to under the text “from the outside and in a helicopter”.

Is the name of the building pronounced to rhyme with “ohms” or with “looms”?

Some campuses of the State Univ. of NY are designed with “60’s paranoid architecture” — the pair of long boxy dormitories separated by a courtyard, so I was told when I was at Potsdam, was intended as a corral for rioting students.


dsquared 08.01.03 at 2:02 pm

The middle hexagon shares a side with both the other two …


Gerry Hyde 08.01.03 at 2:25 pm

What you are dealing with, rather than “a gigantic carbon molecule” as Kieran would have, is 2-methylphenanthrene, a polycyclic aromatic, though that’s not as nice as it sounds. From what you say, there are plans for further methylation, which wont help one bit either. Go to:


for some analysis, or, depending on your perspectives, possible blueprints for future architectural developments.


Scott Martens 08.01.03 at 4:19 pm

I nominate Le Pavillon Principal at the University of Montreal. The building is enormous and is built into a steep hill so that it has ground floor entrances on four different levels. Furthermore, there was a giant underground conveyor belt that ran from the Metro station at the bottom of the hill – some 30m lower – up to the lower entrances, and a system of tunnels from the new Z-wing that connected the building to the library complex to the west (another building embedded in a hill, with a student entrance on level 0 and a delivery entrance on level 7) and to the humanities buildings (a ten-story multi-building complex) off Boul. Côte-des-Neiges.

When I was a student there, they had just renumbered all the rooms in the complex and so all the doors had two different numbers on them. The trouble was, there was some overlap between the two numbering schemes. The result was that looking for Locale D420 in the physics department could out you in the old D420, which was a women’s restroom in the dentistry department.


ben wolfson 08.01.03 at 4:38 pm


   / \_
   \_/ \
   / \_/

There’s an awesomely unnavigable building in the Freie Universitaet of Berlin, but I can’t remember what it’s called or much of its layout (unsurprising really). It was absolutely huge, and contained notional streets that didn’t really help finding one’s way about.


Xhenxhefil 08.01.03 at 4:54 pm

Wean Hall at Carnegie Mellon is absolutely huge; the level you enter on from the main quadrangle area is the fifth floor; and there’s a seemingly simple system for room numbering that soon reveals itself to be inconsistent from floor to floor. And there is a staircase and two elevators, but they’re all contained in one column right at the middle of the building.


Mike Kozlowski 08.01.03 at 5:04 pm

I’m always skeptical of claims that a building was designed to be riot-proof, because it sounds like so much folk lore. But whether or not it’s true, Wisconsin’s Humanities building is still a monumentally confusing building — largely because of the way that arbitrary walls in the middle of a floor make it impossible to continue on to the rest of the building, so you have to go back down two flights of stairs, exit, enter through another doorway, and back up the stairs.


Tom 08.01.03 at 6:55 pm

“What you are dealing with, rather than “a gigantic carbon molecule” as Kieran would have, is 2-methylphenanthrene, a polycyclic aromatic,”

A carcinogen, IIRC. (polyaromatic hydrocarbons with a “bay” are carcinogenic).

“though that’s not as nice as it sounds.”

They used to call ’em polynuclear hydrocarbons, but it made the natives nervous, so they changed the terminology.


Laura 08.01.03 at 9:27 pm

I’ve always thought you needed a degree in cartography to find a book in Firestone Library at Princeton. Compared to that, my experience with a riot-proof dorm of much the sort other people seem to be talking about was a breeze.


Michael Kremer 08.02.03 at 1:31 am

dsquared is right that it is impossible to have three hexagons each of which shares a side with exactly one of the other two. In fact it is impossible to have three polygons of any type each of which shares a side with exactly one of the other two. Ben Wolfson’s picture is of three hexagons each of which shares a side with both the other two.

It is easy to prove dsquared’s claim (this is pretty trivial, if any mathematicians are watching). Suppose A, B and C are three polygons. Suppose two of them share a side; for example suppose A and B share a side. Now if C shares with A, A shares with two, not one. If C shares with B, B shares with two, not one. If C doesn’t share with either, then C shares with none, not one.



Jacob T. Levy 08.02.03 at 1:34 am

I was going to post a comment earlier today about the resemblance between Coombs and the labyrinth in Name of the Rose, but decided it might sound pretentious.

But now that one your cobloggers has mentioned Name of the Rose on the very same day…

I never even figured out the basics of the room numbering system as you’ve described them here; and I was too embarrassed and self-conscious to ask anybody. I used to leave an extra half-hour or more for wandering the halls when I was going to a seminar or workshop in the building.


Jeremy Osner 08.02.03 at 2:50 am

Michael — it is easy to make three polygons each share exactly one side with each of the others, unless we are required to keep them in the same plane.


Michael Kremer 08.02.03 at 5:48 am

jeremy, sorry.

I was a bit confused. dsquared said that “I am pretty sure it is not possible to arrange three hexagons such that each of them shares precisely one side with each of the others.” That’s false, as you say (think of a pyramid), but also not relevant to the original post, at least as I read it.

Kieran said “it is composed of three, three-storey hexagonal blocks each of which shares a side with one of the others.” That, I take to be saying that for each hexagon there is exactly one other hexagon with which it shares a side. I read dsquared’s post too quickly and took him/her to be objecting to that.

What I said is: “it is impossible to have three hexagons each of which shares a side with exactly one of the other two” and that still stands even if the hexagons (or polygons) are not required to lie in one plane.


Kieran Healy 08.02.03 at 7:28 am

I am pretty sure it is not possible to arrange three hexagons such that each of them shares precisely one side with each of the others.

Whoops. So much for my lucid prose. “There’s these three hexagons stuck together in a row, kinda.” Gerry does ab initio quantum chemistry (whatever that is) so I am also embarrassed to have even loosely brought up the whole carbon thing.


Jeremy Osner 08.02.03 at 12:55 pm

Michael — yes, you are of course right that it was not relevant to the original post; I was just trying overhard to be clever…


Jean 08.07.03 at 4:10 am

I worked in the Coombs building for several years. It’s a brilliant place to work, as every room has a window to the outside or to one of the courtyards, full of trees and birdlife. If you religiously follow the arrows on the signs at every staircase, it is possible to find your way around without getting lost.

Comments on this entry are closed.