Perception of Space


Villa Borghese Gardens
Villa Borghese Gardens

‘Big is beautiful’ is a mantra so often quoted and so often misleads, particularly in the way we live. Are big homes really what we either need or crave? Certainly they are often seen as a measure of success but only if success is measured in financial terms, surely real success is found in contentment and calm. This is not brought about in the dimensions of a person’s home but by the space they create and occupy, either alone or with others.

Space is almost indefinable; it is a personal perception of what is around and about. We describe the infinity of the universe which we perceive as ‘above’ us, in reality all around our tiny planet, as space, not ‘a space’ but ‘space’. A strange use of the word in English, I prefer the use of the word ‘cosmos’, a dictionary definition of which might be ‘The universe seen as a well-ordered whole’. Which now leads me to something of a contradiction of my earlier sentence, space is definable, which the cosmos is not, despite the best efforts of astronomers, physicists and the scientific establishment and nor should it be in my opinion.

Having now determined that space is definable let us now think about space in relation to how and where we live. In 2007 the human population changed in a very significant way, it was in that year that more people on earth lived in large urban centres than lived in the country. Large towns and cities, by their very nature are very crowded places, thus affording each occupant very little in terms of individual space, a strange irony in that one major topic of conversation to be heard regularly is about space. Why then do we do move into cities? Economic forces, of course play a part, cities are where work tends to be and I would conjecture the human race, although resilient has become more risk averse in some senses, by gathering together in cities, populations feel protected.

So what can we do to give ourselves a sense of space that we know we crave but can’t always achieve?

In thinking about the building and design of cities, great spaces have often been the concern of architects and designers and remains so today. There is a marked move to return to urban planning allowing for the occupation of public spaces by people rather than buildings, roads and especially the ubiquitous motor car. Some spaces have been revived and renovated; The Great Court in the British Museum being a good example of bring a glorious space back into public use. The re introduction of atria, a Roman invention , back into public buildings is another way light and space are now seen as important to use of the space, the very recent renovation of The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a wonderful example of this form. Similarly many city squares have been designed to accommodate people again thus reintroducing the idea of space and light, a place to both relax and congregate, to enjoy space.

The Great Court, The British Museum

In urban planning we have created the public park, the first of these possibly being The Grove in Tunbridge Wells created in 1703 . The first municipal park created in 1843 by Birkenhead Council was the precursor of many parks in towns and cities, prior to that there had been open spaces, village green and an abundance of countryside. Of course there were other open spaces, the Royal Parks, originally royal hunting grounds, there were forests, again used for hunting and other sports, the coastal regions and I could go on. All these places gave people ‘space’, defined space sometimes accessible only under certain conditions. Open countryside did not necessarily conform to these conditions but was still defined by natural boundaries or boundaries of ownership. We can see, as the great world cities developed. So did some of the most famous open spaces we know, Central park in New York, the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome, The Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, and Regent’s Park in London and so on.

All very well but living in a park is not practical, many homes do have a garden and the British have a joy in gardening rarely exhibited anywhere else. Summed up in that wonderful line:
‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!’ (My Garden – Thomas Edward Brown [1830-1897]).

A home, be it a house or an apartment with windows opening onto a garden has light and air, more importantly it has space. The space being projected both outward from the home into the garden but also into the home from the garden, however small that garden might be. If however the home is not fortunate to look out onto a garden and that is true of many urban homes it is important to think carefully about the use of space within the home, the way that windows are dressed and the way that light enters the different rooms. The larger the room the easier the job however clutter must be avoided where possible. In saying that I do not mean that objects be placed in serried ranks and furniture always be at right angles to each other. That might be appropriate in a minimalist or modernist setting but that is not how the normal family home would or even should work. An artfully placed piece of furniture, lamp or object can impart individuality and style, beginning to stamp the character of the occupant on the space. How, though, to create an illusion of space? This is something that has been addressed for thousands of years in domestic decoration; the Romans decorated their walls with murals often of mythical or bucolic scenes leading the viewer’s eye into the picture thus creating a illusion of space. This was however a distraction as often, especially in Roman villas, the rooms had only three walls the fourth opening onto an inner courtyard. This habit was revived in 18th century domestic decoration with beautifully painted murals and friezes in the great houses and continues today. Made easier by the creation of wallpapers illusory effects could be applied to walls thus changing the perception of space in a room, this method also allows the occupant to change the mood simply, easily and relatively inexpensively. Of course, this can also be made possible by the introduction of art; the use of art is, however for another discussion.
I mentioned windows, dressing windows has been something of an art form for hundreds of years. Early domestic architecture often meant the use of simple shutters which served a practical purpose but with the introduction of glazed windows it became possible to dress windows more and more elaborately.

In many great houses the windows each led out onto the vista of parkland or formal garden and the window dressing could act as a frame for these scenes. These gloriously extravagant falls of silk damask are really only suited to very high windows but can look truly magnificent. Returning to the reality of the 21st century domestic home, we are truly fortunate in the variety of ways we can frame the view, however limited the view we have. The ideal is not to prevent light entering a room, to that end curtains are not always the answer. The modern vogue for blinds means we can expose far more of the window to light but, when required, close the view out completely.
What then has this to do with the perception of space? I hope from what I have said, it is evident space does not begin and end in the room we are in, we do not have to drift into a dream to experience more of a sense of space, we need only try to allow as much light, possibly a view of the sky as we can to extend a feeling of space.

Let us not be despondent about the use of and access to space, space is there and simply needing to be experienced. I am always reminded of that when looking out to sea, by invoking awe and wonder space can also give us a feeling of great well being, something that I am sure went through the minds of the creators of our great public spaces.