How We Experience Spaces

For some, the art of creating architecture is the art of providing structure, shelter and definition to the world we inhabit. For others, it is the means of designing space. Most frequently this is occupiable space – a room, a garden, a hall, a cupboard and so forth. But what is this space? 

‘Space’ (in the current context of architecture) is ironically the open area, the volume, between the structural elements. A negative between the positive solids. What is seen visually is not the space itself, but the defined boundaries. The walls, ceilings, floors, shadows beams of light, textures of the fabrics. These all define the boundaries rather than the space. 

The nature of the human eye and perspective can result in optical illusions which change the understanding of spatial boundaries and the space within – but this stretches beyond the purpose of this article.  

So how do we experience the space itself? 

Movement through a space, and socio-cultural concepts are discussed by R. Suvanajata (in her doctoral thesis Relations in architectural spacedesigns and effects in space of the traditional Thai houses and temples, 2001) as the two primary means of experiencing spaceBut at a more fundamental level space is and can be experienced at a sensory level. 

‘When asking about the experiences people have from being in architecture, they usually describe spaces according to their movement…’ (R.Suvanajata, 2001, p.47). The nature – or function – of the space frequently dictates the nature of the movement. A long, narrow corridor will facilitate passage through but limited encouragement to linger whereas a large hall offers much more variation in movement or stasis. Movement from one space to another can equally affect experience – movement from a small space to a large space can inspire sensations or awe or freedom while movement from a large to a small space could be either comforting or threatening.  

Sounds fill the space and can provide just as important an experience of the space as visual aids. Sound waves reflect off surfaces, defining the hardness of the boundary while the amount of reverberation – the echo – indicates the volume of the space. Noise within the space – the sound of a cash registers, the babble of conversation, the trickle of water – provides indications of the spaces purpose and can be used as navigational aids. 

Scent is a frequently overlooked aspect of design but can be another important element to the experience of space. Scent can be used to identify the purpose of the space – the scent of freshly baked bread or freshly poured coffee define the kitchen and associated shop or dining area; the scent of flowers enhances the understanding of a garden. 

Touch may seem less relevant for experiencing space – as opposed to the boundaries. However, the temperature of a space is a primary factor in the experience of space. Air movements can often be identified and used to enhance or detract from the space and can be utilised by visually impaired users as navigational aids. 

Of course, spatial experiences won’t all be positive: room acoustics can provide inappropriate volumes (most of us have at some time experienced the stress of trying to engage in conversation with friends in a bar or restaurant with poor acoustic design) or confusing noises that hinder conversation for all users and impair navigational clarity for occupiers who cannot rely entirely on their vision. Extreme lighting can provide glare that restricts the ability of those who rely on vision to effectively move about or carry out their work. Very intense scents can be unpleasant; temperature extremes equally so. 

How people with disabilities experience spaces adds another dimension to architectural design. There are many different degrees of visual impairment: some people are truly blind and rely on other senses, some have a greater or lesser degree of clarity, others have a limited field of vision and others can be highly sensitive to light and glare. Wheelchair users will perceive the space from a lower perspective than their mobile counterparts. Occupiers with hearing impairments will likewise experience the aural environment to a greater or a lesser degree, or even not at all. 

Within a larger space, smaller areas or spaces can be identified by changes in boundary conditions – different colours or textures, or by the introduction of level changes in the floor or ceiling. These variations are keenly visible to occupiers who are able to see but are much harder to perceive by occupiers who rely on their other senses. 

As with just about everything in life, how we experience architectural space is an incredibly personal thing, and frequently something we are not aware of. Changes in climatic conditions, daylight, sunlight, night-time, even our own moods can influence our perceptions and experiences. 

Dr Raymond LucasHead of Architecture at Manchester University, adds: ‘Building design is complex, and it is impossible to predict everything about a space before it is built.’  

Architects however are, over time and with experience, able to visualise the effects of the spaces they create for their clients and it is this ‘inner knowledge and understanding’ that informs their designs as they create new spaces for living, working and socialising in.


Further References:  

‘Architects Data’, Ernst and Peter Neufert, 2002, Blackwell Science 

‘Building sight: a handbook of building and interior design solutions to include the needs of visually impaired people’, P. Barker, J. Barrick, R. Wilson; RNIB, London (1995) (p.132) 


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