“Places are never finished, but always becoming.”
To an architect, space is anything that hosts design. As such, it’s evident that architects should design spaces with intention so that they bear an impact on the people who inhabit them. Think about it, a building designed to deliver togetherness will deliver togetherness. There is no way that a building, when designed correctly, won’t provide what it was intended for.
Theories of place and space are not only considered in the context of architecture. In fact, they’re more prominent within the art, philosophy and anthropology spheres. The notion is that, according to semiotics, our sense of space is static and confined our immediate surroundings. Whereas our sense of place is impacted by our perceptions, culture and emotional intelligence — as such, it is continually evolving.
How Space Becomes Place
Place and space are, for the most part, two separate theories. However, there is a point at which place and space merge. The desire of humans to occupy and explore new places is what drives the creation of inhabited spaces. Space is an essential tool of architecture used to create environments that make us aware of our external reality. The way we move our bodies and handle or transport objects all suggests space. When space gains social, cultural or emotional meaning, it becomes a ‘place’. We can understand place as an environment where ‘things happen’, consequentially giving it a purpose.
For example, in traditional Zulu Hut building, the men of the tribe collect ‘outer sticks’ and place them in a circle on the ground. The women of the tribe bind and thatch the structure using braided grass. They make use of a central tree trunk for structural support and dung and polish to create a solid floor. A beehive-type architecture that is indigenous to Zulu tribes and holds rich cultural meaning and heritage. We can understand this as space transitioning into place. The hut becomes a place of belonging for its inhabitants and therefore gains an applied meaning.
Types of Space and how They Make us Feel
The concept that space has qualities besides emptiness may be challenging to comprehend. But considering how we feel in particular spaces, we come to realise that elements used to create finite environments impact our associations with ‘places’. How does one feel standing on a skyscraper compared to being stuck in a mining shaft? There are psychological reactions to how surrounding spaces enable or limit movement.
Architects control an inhabitant’s spatial experience. They compress and expand above, below and all around the infinite environment. The idea that the world is ‘placeless’ suggests that space dominates what surrounds us. Places take up space. We must keep in mind; however, that space does not have to have a meaning that will psychologically affect us. If one finds themselves standing on the edge of a cliff (an open space), they might feel exhilarated.
The feelings we associate with different kinds of spaces are not always consciously grasped. People tend to humanise matter or open spaces to identify what it makes them feel. A tall tree is ‘majestic’, or a rocky mountain is ‘menacing’. It allows architects to arouse predictable patterns of emotions and experiences of inhabitants or observers.
Architecture That Embraces the Presence of Space
Minimalist architecture, popularly known as minimalism, is defined by the simplicity in its design elements. It is an architectural style that condenses the form of design to its bare essentials. In this modern age, we see the rise of a structural and a design trend that embraces the dominance that space has over ‘place’.
Many architects claim that minimalism draws its most significant influence from Japanese architecture. The Japanese ‘Zen Philosophy’ places value on simplicity as a way to achieve inner freedom. Their architectural style is one based on principles of harmony and the beauty of objects in their natural state. Many people are embracing this style within their homes and office spaces because it tends to bring feelings of balance and tranquility.
Minimalism highlights the presence of space within places, how the two co-exist and can give each other meaning.
Place and Space Co-Existing
Although there is a significant difference between place and space within architecture, they still reinforce one another. One cannot have ‘a place’ in this world without taking up space. Space cannot exist without being some variation of a place.
The corner of a room can stand empty, but the floor and two walls will still define it. A field is an open space. When people play soccer there, it becomes a place. It is challenging to differentiate space and place in architecture when the two environments exist within one another.
As we come to realise that space has the potential of being more than just emptiness, it, therefore, has meaning. The notion that meaning is what differentiates space and place can perhaps be reconsidered. We associate particular feelings with space found within places and with places taking up space. Maybe, what space and place mean to us could indirectly be the same thing.