The Spirit of Space


By Noushin Ehsan, AIA



Our cities with their squares and plazas, our towns, our villages, our homes, gardens, and even the materials used in them are some of the primary ways we express ourselves and our values as individuals, societies, and cultures. Ideally, such environments not only reflect the more pragmatic considerations of zoning, financial investments, and the logistics of urban and rural infrastructure, but also integrate specific landscapes, traditions, climates, and the overall interrelationships of human beings with architectural, cultural, ecological, and ethical considerations.


Lewis Mumford, the great planner-sociologist, said that “As is the environment, so is the man.” One would also like to believe the opposite—that man controls the shaping of his environment and thus the expression of his image, the images of his higher values, and, ultimately, future lives and the perceptions of subsequent generations.


One of the primary ways that man and the built environment merge as one is through the design and use of space. This needs no elaboration. Anyone who takes a stroll through St. Mark’s Square in Venice and the equally renowned spaces of Rome, Siena, Lucca, Paris, London, or Tiananmen Square in Beijing—and even the joyously chaotic and confused space of New York’s Times Square—knows and feels this. Space has the ability to uplift, inspire, refresh, and relax the spirit of each individual experiencing that space and can leave almost meditational, inspirational, and spiritual auras that endure long after the individual has moved on.   


A Japanese writer once said, “Some spaces are silent, others speak. Some which are more rare, sing.” The silent spaces are almost never noticeable, while the ones that speak invariably provoke human attention. In this case, whether we like them or not, we cannot avoid seeing them. But once in a while we find ourselves in spaces that induce pure enchantment. These are the ones that sing and send the spirit soaring! This article will explore the elements that might increase the creation and appreciation of these rare spaces.



What we perceive in a built environment is the spirit of space that affects our feelings and has a direct impact on our behavior.


The spirit of space has no direct relationship to the historical period, style, location, or size of a built environment. However, spaces are usually designed, and the results reflect the cultural background of the designer and his or her sensitivity to landscape, history, and culturally relevant issues. Designers have a responsibility to not only understand the significance of the spaces they design but also to consciously shape them to uplift the spirit of others.


The spirit of a given space is experienced through the following key criteria that produce either positive or negative feelings:


Positive Feelings                               Negative Feelings

Aura                                         vs.     Suppression

Airy Atmosphere                   vs.     Clutter

Order                                       vs.     Chaos

Joy & Exhilaration                       vs.     Depression

Warmth & Coziness                 vs.     Coldness

Friendliness                                vs.     Hostile


In order to design a space with a “positive,” human-enhancing spirit, one has to be responsive to its function, setting, environmental context, climate, cultural values and symbolism.


To create a space with the attributes of an aura, one should attempt to design a simple, unified, proportionate space using a harmonic and cohesive “holistic” form.  For example:


The Parthenon is an ancient Greek building in Athens where the golden proportion was discovered and applied for the first time. It provokes feelings of aura, and for centuries designers tried to copy the elements of this majestic building, hoping to recapture the same feelings. What most failed to realize was that the mere reproduction of the column form or its grand stairs could not capture the essence of this masterpiece and could not create a building that projected the same aura. Without being able to bring to life the historic moment that inspired the construction of the Parthenon, subsequent replicas of builders’ attempts to imitate its aesthetic characteristics have resulted in countless Greek Revival structures that possess none of the original aura.


Ronchamp is a chapel in France, designed by the maverick French architect Le Corbusier, with no Doric columns but with a unified and proportioned form. Despite its somewhat unique contemporary shape, the chapel effectively projects a sense of aura.


The holistic form of the Bahá'í House of Worship in India also projects a sense of aura and continues to inspire more than 40,000 people per day from all cultural and educational backgrounds. Its structure is technologically advanced, and its form in the shape of a lotus symbolizes purity and spirituality, key essences of all religions and cultures.


In general these spaces as well as others where the design is holistic, generate a sense of aura and avoid sensory confusion caused by complex, scattered, disproportionate, and fragmented forms.



To create a space with the attributes of an Airy Atmosphere one might consider the use of natural light, open floor design, natural ventilation and lightness of structural form.The following examples illuminate these characteristics:

The design of the Tokyo International Forum by Rafael Viñoly. Through clarity of thought, delicacy of structure, and dramatic natural light, Viñoly has created spaces that feel airy and, in spite of the enormous scale of the Forum, provide dramatic vistas and uplifting sensations.


Many designers tend to conceive of museums and concert halls as dark and heavy spaces. Yet architects who have creatively incorporated natural light and garden vistas into these built environments have created an airy atmosphere that energizes and uplifts the spirit of those who visit these buildings.


Even in modest spaces—such as the lobby of an apartment building—open flooring, where the furniture is carefully selected and placed, will create an airy atmosphere.



These airy spaces contribute to one’s sense of well-being. The absence of natural lighting and open flooring in any space can cause claustrophobic and uncomfortable experiences.



To create a space where Order is achieved, the designer should provide easy access to and effective utilization of the space, while emphasizing its user-friendly functionality. For example:


The Belem Cultural Center in Lisbon, Portugal is a contemporary and well-organized building with an entrance that is easily visible, which has become a key element of this particular design. Minimum effort is required for access, and the whole building appears to be an invitation to enter and enjoy the vast array of facilities inside.


On Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel the terraces connecting the Shrine of the Báb (the forerunner of the prophet of the Bahá’í Faith) to the main street at the bottom of the mountain possess a majestic order. Although its form is monumental, the repeated rhythm of its 19 terraces encourages one to climb almost exuberantly.


Order, however, can occasionally take on aggressive architectural expressions, as are often found in countries with highly centralized governments.



In order to create Joy and Exhilaration in a spatial environment, one might consider conceptual lightness, harmony in style, and flair in the use of material and color. Whereas many may consider Disneyworld and Las Vegas to possibly be the world’s most exuberant expressions of these criteria, effective examples can be found in far less exhibitionistic environments such as:


The soothingly harmonious materials, as well as the vivacious colors, of vernacular Tibetan houses on the hill of Lijiang or in an Arequipa complex in Peru. Both create environments that emanate joy and exhilaration in life.


Also, in a large modern urban complex in Tehran one can sense joy where the materials, details, and general forms of the buildings are similar, but the shape of housing clusters, the heights, and the enclosed landscapes are varied. While the style celebrates the traditional intimacy of Iranian villages, it also reflects the harmony of contemporary materials and individualized design within a holistic unity.


The unified form and harmony of color and materials in these places create feelings of peace and joy. In contrast, buildings that contain uncoordinated elements with diverse styles and insensitive color schemes can generate confusion and even a sense of depression.



A Warm and Cozy space can be created with specific inviting shapes and proportions.


A pleasantly proportioned space, no matter what size, can create a warm and cozy atmosphere. This feeling can be manifested in a restaurant with a few tables, or a patio with a small fountain, and even in a courtyard, which, through its archways, celebrates new spaces beyond.


While far more enormous in scale, the Palau Sant Jordi sports arena in Barcelona and Pudong International Airport in Shanghai possess inviting forms and proportions that engender secure and comfortable feelings.


In contrast, space that lacks balance in its dimensions (e.g., long corridors with low ceilings or confined spaces with high ceilings) can convey a feeling of coldness and cause discomfort.



Friendly space is an informal setting where familiar objects are often used in order to create a sense of recognition and personal identification.


An example of this can be seen in a family room where treasured objects are displayed. This kind of space can encourage openness and relaxation. 


In contrast, any space where strange and discordant elements are exhibited can be perceived as disconcerting and even hostile.



Careful use of symbolism in the built environment can stimulate feelings that uplift the human spirit. The Chinese are masters of this art.


For example, a carved dragon on a ramp, where emperors once passed, suggests power, continuity, and divine authority.


Differently shaped archways can be used to express different symbolic meanings, and each shape can stimulate a range of thoughts and feelings.


The use of birds and animals, symbolizing power, longevity, happiness and prosperity, is very popular as decorative elements and sculptures.


Also, the lotus flower, that symbolizes purity and projects spirituality, has been utilized in many religious settings.



Form has a powerful message, and different shapes project different feelings. 


For example, squares may represent strength, and circles suggest unity. Shapes, therefore, can be used not only as symbolically expressive elements but also as conscious mood-shifting devices. 


This can be illustrated by one specific garden wall punctuated by differently shaped apertures—squares, circles, triangles, diamonds, etc—through which the garden is viewed sequentially. What could be a boringly predictable series of identical vistas is thus turned into symbolic, interesting interpretations of the natural scene.


Gentle curves in a path can enhance the walker’s inner feelings and promote relaxation. Even a slight bend in a path can be the best inviting form to the entrance of a building.




Recognizing the importance of these criteria and capturing their essence can help us architect to create spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing and functionally relaxing, but also spiritually stimulating. These spaces provide a meaningful and an enduring impact in our behavior.


One of the most effective ways to enrich our inner being is to recognize and utilize the elements that create positive feelings within us, either consciously or subconsciously.


A Chinese philosopher has noted that “The architect is not a creator of life but a creator of built environment.” Architects, therefore, must be conscious of that responsibility and remember that the value of their work lies in a spirit of service to humanity. However, we must also remember the ancient Swiss proverb that “a good spectator also creates.” So the responsibility in both the design and appreciation of space is a mutual collaboration of designer and user. Without such collaborations, our spaces become mere empty showcases of architectural egos, which, as we know, can grow to excessive size! 


With this in mind, let us go on to explore the collaborative possibilities of the future.




Into The Future…….     



Our global future is—predictably—a contradiction of wonderful new possibilities and unexpected pitfalls. There are enormous potentials for new forms of expression in our designed and built environments. Such potentials would use a vast array of new materials and computer-aided design systems and manufactured components, along with new, highly imaginative, and liberating architectural freedoms such as those inspired by Frank Gehry!

However, although such potentials may excite and stimulate designers into frenzied fantasies of self-expression, we must also watch out for such pitfalls as chaotic and disharmonic utilization of materials, the “design for design’s sake” trend. This trend celebrates a lack of restraint and discipline, as well as a general tendency to forget that spaces are primarily built for people.


One of America’s most iconoclastic architects, John M. Johansen, suggests that, even in today’s sensational, fast-paced, fashion-conscious world, most work by architects is faithful to that old tradition of “the tasteful arrangement of compositional elements.” Instead of perpetuating that old tradition, we might bring a new perspective to designing spaces for our future—a perspective that is less concerned with gestural form and masterworks of architectural ego and more concerned with processes, action, and the behavioral patterns and preferences of people. Our future cities and spaces may begin to look like one huge interconnected structure—something fluid, flexible, evolving, and truly fantastic in every sense of the word. All it takes is faith in the future and a willingness to experiment with new options of design, expression, and utilization.


Alvin Toffler, in his masterpiece of futuristic thinking, Future Shock, suggests that technology is the common heritage of the human race. As such, let us celebrate the bold and the unfamiliar in the use of our technology. Let us trust in ourselves and our expressive abilities to craft spaces that, while unusual in style and design, resonate with an evolving human spirit capable of ever-expanding options and new forms of personal and social expression.


The human species is not static. We are constantly evolving toward higher levels of consciousness, and our urban areas need to increasingly reflect the expanding, transformative nature of our spirit. Our spaces can even be seen as theaters of human evolution, where architects no longer focus on irrelevancies of postmodernism and other stylistic trappings. Their responsibility is to seek and communicate the deeper possibilities of their audiences and, to a larger extent, the whole human race.


Such luminaries as C. G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Thomas Merton have enhanced our understanding of the human psyche and have inspired design solutions that reflect the psychological needs of our time and the interacting process of our evolution from holistic, ecological, and spiritual perspectives.


New theories of quantum physics, cybernetics, systems dynamics, ecological interrelationships, chaos theory, and non-linear concepts are exciting. But they are even more exciting when combined with emerging structural and spatial potentials for biomorphic buildings, bubble structures, levitation, web-frame engineering, and endlessly flexible and fluid forms. Buildings and spaces no longer need be static formalities but, rather, dynamic accommodations for human evolution, which reflect the mutual participation of designer and designee in the creation and utilization of new and constantly evolving environments.


Such fluidity and innovation reflect similar trends in society as a whole and in business and organizational systems where the old-style pyramidal power structures and hierarchies are evolving into far more open and flexible networks of shared communication and mutual responsibility.


So goes architecture—hopefully! Let us emerge into this amazing serendipitous future, celebrating all the new freedoms, forms, and functions of human interaction and the spaces that reflect these remarkable new dynamics. Such freedoms allow—and actively encourage—a creativity that is far more expressive of individual, collective, and cultural characteristics. There is no longer any need for bland international styles of architecture that tend to ignore and homogenize human experiences. We can now seek both diversity and unity simultaneously. That old cry of the Three Musketeers rings truer now than ever, “One for all and all for one.” We are all in this process of mutual growth and expression together, and the sooner we realize and rejoice in this, the sooner our built environments will not only reflect our current characteristics but also shape our future growth and possibilities in a great soaring spiral of creativity and excellence.