How We Think About Space in Architecture

— 3 minute read

This text was submitted as part of a symposium organised by the Royal Academy. The symposium was part of the exhibition at the Royal Academy called Sensing Spaces – Architecture Reimagined.

The original text was called “The Personal Politics of Figure-Ground in Architecture – how we think about space with how we see ourselves within it.”

In writing this piece I started by looking at the relationship between void and solid as put forward by Siegfried Gideon, Bruno Zevi and Geroges Perec.

In order to talk about space we have to decide – do volumes and planes sit independent of the space they are in or do they define the space around them. Or, put another way: Is architectural space defined by objects and surfaces or do objects and surfaces sit within it but independent from it?

The recent history of the design of schools appears to chart a swing in emphasis in our view of the relationship between us, solids and the space around us. We are now seeing schools as tools to assist teachers rather than as objects to be admired in order to encourage learning. The school environment has become a backdrop as opposed to a focus.

The current Green and Big Society agendas are pushing us to regard ourselves and solids objects as integral parts of the space around us.  This encourages us to see all architecture as a backdrop for us and our activities, rather than an arrangement of heroic volumes that stand separate from everything around them.

Hackney Council’s “Playing Out” scheme appears to reinforce these conclusions about politics and our view of ourselves in our space. In the Playing Out scheme residents are encouraged to take over their street for an afternoon each month in order to provide a safe space for children to play. It involves a fair amount of paperwork but it results in inhabitants becoming more of a focus for those spaces. The strange thing here is that this shift in emphasis is being pushed by government policies, whereas in the past the push in this direcrtion has come about through rebellion against the state.

I believe that these simple examples show a very clear relationship between the design of our built environment and the state our political environment. We appear to see ourselves as players within our environment, but perhaps not entirely free to behave as we would like.