What Seating Arrangements Reveal About a Meeting’s Culture

In an article from a few months back, two architects argue that the seating and structure of a country’s legislature reveal a lot about its culture and how decisions are made. What do seating arrangements and room setups say about your events?

Think back to your school days for a minute. What were the seating arrangements in your classrooms like?

For the most part, I spent my time sitting in rows, facing either the blackboard or the teacher’s desk.

Which is why I always got excited when my teachers rearranged our desks into clusters of four or six. For them, it was probably about getting us to work together on a project, but for me, it was about making it easier for me to chat with my classmates. The latter may also explain why, in second and third grade, my best friend at the time, Angela, and I were never seated in the same cluster.

I hadn’t thought much about my elementary school days lately until I came across a Washington Post article shared a few months ago in ASAE’s Collaborate forum [member login required].

The article, written by two Amsterdam-based architects, makes the case that five architectural designs influence every legislature in the world and that the seating and structure within each country’s assembly hall reveal a lot about how decisions are made. And they should know: They spent six years collecting and analyzing the architectural layouts of the plenary chambers for each of the United Nations’ 193 member states.

While comprehensive findings have been published in their book Parliament, here— in order of most to least common—are the five designs: semicircle, opposing benches, horseshoe, circle, and classroom.

“By comparing these plans in detail, we wanted to understand how a political culture is both shaped by and expressed through architecture,” they wrote.

For example, the semicircle design, which the chambers of the U.S. Senate and House convene in, “fuses the members of parliament into a single entity.” Meanwhile, the British model of opposing benches “provokes a more heated debate than the single body that is created in the semicircular setting.” And the classroom setup, which has members focused on a single speaker in the hall, tends to occur in countries with a low rank on the Economist’s Democracy Index. The authors pointed out that the parliaments of North Korea, China, and Russia all meet in a classroom-style setting.

With all that in mind, consider the seating at your association’s meetings. If, as the authors say, political culture is shaped and expressed through architecture, then you could also make the argument that “meeting culture is shaped and expressed through architecture.”

Consider the kind of experience your attendees would have if they spent your entire conference sitting in a classroom-style setup. For instance, would they feel as though they are only being lectured to and aren’t being asked to contribute their own experiences and ideas? Would it hold back discussion, conversation, and getting to know other attendees?

Now, I’m not saying that classroom style doesn’t have its time and place, but think about how seating choices can boost an attendee’s experience. If your association were holding some type of debate-style session, it could make sense to seat the debaters and attendees in “opposing benches” to allow them to more easily face off with one another.

In the article, the authors point out that the circle design is often used “to represent democratic equality.” Perhaps this seating arrangement would be a good fit for smaller meetings where an association is trying to build consensus on an issue and wants every attendee to know his or her opinion matters.

Changing up seating styles could also address another problem at events: empty front rows. How does your association use seating at its meetings and conferences to encourage conversation, collaboration, and other outcomes? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!