Theory Week One – What is Space?

In this session we covered various ways of thinking about what space is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines space in a number of ways.  The definition which is usually meant in interior design is:

‘The dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things exist and move.’

First Thoughts

My first thoughts when we were asked to discuss the concept in groups was Rachel Whiteread’s work.

Whiteread produces casts of the spaces within and around objects.  Her iconic piece ‘House‘ has captured my imagination for a long time. I love how she has taken all the non solid space and made it solid, challenging her audience to think differently about the concept of space:


From Photo by Sue Omerod

Ideas about Space

We were taught that space:

  • can be either bounded or limitless
  • is the ‘tabula rasa’ (blank slate)
  • can affect our feelings and behaviour
  • becomes places when it develops meaning. Meaning is something that develops over time.

Space and Design

We were taught that design happens when we use our knowledge of conditions such as scale, form, light and dimensions in thinking about and working with a space, and that it is important for designers to think in terms of positive and negative space.  Positive space is usable and well designed, and negative space is unused/unusable and badly designed.

The orientation of the objects used to create the space play a key role in whether the space will be negative or positive.  It is also important to be aware that just because there is nothing occupying a space, this doesn’t mean that the space is negative.  We were shown an image of a building in Hong Kong which had been designed almost as if a large piece had been cut out of it. The piece that had been ‘removed’ added a great deal to the space – offering interesting views, shade, shelter and light to the building’s occupants.

Atmosphere and Response

One conceptualisation of space talks about sucessful spaces evoking a sense of ‘atmosphere’, or perhaps an emotional response in those who occupy it (e.g. P Zumthor, Atmospheres).  I’m thinking there’s a huge debate here about what makes a space successful, and that those with a more functionalist leaning are likely to argue that other factors will determine a space’s success.  As a philosophy graduate I would really like to explore these ideas and arguments in more depth.

I really like the idea of a sucessful space being one that evokes a response (although at the same time I can’t help thinking of those spaces that arguably should be purely functional – bus stops and newsagents are some that spring to mind!). Recently I read two articles (here and here)  about the use of space to impact on feelings and behaviour.  The part that fascinated me was the explanation of how the interior of some correctional facilities in America were painted in Baker-Miller Pink in the 1960s and 70s, on recommendation from the scientist Alexander Schauss.  The aim was that the colour would have a calming effect on aggressive and violent behaviour.  It’s important to note that there was some scepticism in response to this, but the basic idea of colour having the potential to impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour has really interested me and I would really like to look further into this.


Image from

Group Activity – Ideal City

We were then asked to work in groups and design our ideal city, in half an hour!  We were asked to think like children.  I actually really enjoyed how there was no time for perfectionism in this task, which I thought I would find difficult as my preferred method is to take a lot of time to consider and come up with ideas.  However it felt relly creative and fun to talk about these ideas in a group and I was impressed by what we agreed on and produced in such a small space of time.

There were a lot of commonalities in our group’s ideals.  As well as the usual elements that make up a city, the main theme that came out of our discussions was that we wanted a green, environmentally sound space, with accessible public spaces, masses of trees, wildflowers to attract bees and butterflies, communal allotments, and public greenhouses containing beautiful and exotic plant breeds.

We wanted excellent cycle paths, and trams and cable cars as public transport.  We wanted lots of water – lakes and swimming pools, and loads of connection between the inside and outside – so lots of glass in our buildings! Individual wishes were for horses and carriages, kitten petting cafes and huge outdoor aquariums (I think these things would work wonders for the wellbeing of our city’s inhabitants!)  Finally because we could design its shape, we went for oval.  I really liked this idea – an oval city is like a round table to me – inclusive and democratic.  I’m interested to ask my five year old and her friends what they would like in their ideal city now we’ve been asked to think like children!

image Oval City


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