The Spirit of Space


By Noushin Ehsan, AIA



Our designed and built environments – our cities with their squares and plazas, our towns, our villages, our own homes, gardens, and even the materials used in them – are some of the primary ways we express ourselves and our values, as individuals, as societies, and as cultures generally.   Ideally, such environments should 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, spatial, cultural, ecological, and even ethical considerations.


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


One of the primary ways in which man and the built environment meld as one is through the design and use of space.  This needs no elaboration.  Anyone who takes a stroll through St. Marks Square in Venice, and the equally renowned spaces of Rome, Siena, Lucca, Paris, London, or Tiananmen Square in Beijing and even – although a joyously chaotic and confused space – New York’s Times Square, knows and feels this.  Any sensible (in the true meaning of the word) person realizes that 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.   


As a Japanese writer once said: “Some spaces are silent, others speak.  Some which are more rare, sing.”  The silent spaces are rarely noticeable while the ones that speak invariably provoke human attention.  In this case, whether we like them or not, we cannot avoid seeing them.  And once in a while, we find ourselves in spaces that induce utter enchantment.  These are the ones that “sing” and send the spirit soaring!   My goal in this paper is to discus the elements that might increase the creation and appreciation of these rare spaces.



What we feel in a built environment is “The Spirit of Space” that influences our emotional attitudes and has a direct impact on our sensibilities, and our behaviors.


The Spirit of Space has no direct relationship to historical period, style, location, or size of a built-environment.  However, obviously spaces are usually “designed”, and the results reflect the cultural background of the designer and his/her sensitivity to landscape, history and culturally relevant issues.   It is thus immediately apparent that designers have a great responsibility not only to understand the significance of the spaces they design but also to consciously shape them to reflect human responses to the desired Spirit of Space.


The spirit of a given space is experienced through certain key criteria of which these are the most important and can produce the following positive and negative feelings.


Positive                                              Negative

Aura                                         vs.     Suppression

Airy                                          vs.     Clutter

Order                                       vs.     Chaos

Joy (exhilaration)                       vs.     Depression

Warmth & Coziness                 vs.     Coldness

Friendly                                    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 those 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 feeling of aura primarily because they ignored the structure’s basic holistic proportions.  Without these, the imitative use of its aesthetic characteristics has resulted in countless Greek Revival structures which possess little or none of the aura of the original.


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


The Baha’i House of Worship in India is another great example in that its holistic form also projects a sense of aura and continues to inspire more than 40,000 people per day from all cultural and educational backgrounds.  Although its structure is technologically advanced, its lotus form 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 should consider the use of natural light, open floor design, natural ventilation and lightness of structural form.  Examples of these characteristics can be found in:

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


The Swathmore College Auditorium, in Pennsylvania, is another example where natural light and garden vistas create an airy atmosphere even in a concert hall, which many designers tend to conceive as dark and heavy spaces.


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


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



To create a space where Order is achieved, the designer should provide easy access to and effective utilization of the space and emphasize its ”user-friendly” functionality.


The European Cultural Center in Lisbon, Portugal, is a contemporary and well-organized building with an entrance that is easily visible and has been made 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.


The terraces connecting the Shrine of the Bab, (the forerunner of the prophet of the Baha’i Faith), on Mount Carmel 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 can occasionally take on unnaturally aggressive architectural expressions as often found in countries with highly centralized governments (otherwise known as the “Stalin-syndrome”!).  However, clarity of design and subtle indications of flow and direction not only create convenient environments for users but also stimulate sensations of trust, confidence and non-stressful involvement with unfamiliar spaces.



In order to create Joy and Exhilaration in a spatial environment, one should consider conceptual lightness and enticing rhythm of design, harmony in style, flair in the use of material and stimulating colors.  Whereas many may consider Disneyworld and Las Vegas to be possibly 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 exude 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 cause 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 Isozaki Sport Arena in Barcelona, or Podan Airport in Shanghai, possess inviting forms and proportions that engender secure and comfortable feelings.


In contrast, space that lacks balance in its dimensions (i.e. long corridors with low ceiling or confined spaces with high ceilings), can create 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 intimate objects are displayed.  A room, which has a casual mood, can encourage openness and relaxation. 


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



Careful utilization 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 the emperors use to pass, suggests power, continuity and divine authority.


Differently shaped archways can be used to express different symbolic meanings or socio- ethical implications and each shape, therefore, can stimulate a range 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 Chinese 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 more symbolic and mood-changing interpretations of the natural scene.


Gentle curves in a path can enhance the walker’s inner feelings and promote relaxation.  A well-designed pathway can also be the best inviting form to an entrance of a building , and even a slight bend in a path can either increase or diminish the impact of a building.  




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


Recognition of the importance of spatial criteria and a capturing of their essence through sensitive, empathetic and informed designs can lead to the creation of spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing and functionally relaxing, but also spiritually stimulating, meaningful, and of enduring impact and significance.


A Chinese philosopher said “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 the 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 all know, can grow to excessive size!) 


This now brings us to the very important matter of future possibilities of such empathetic collaborations.




Into The Future…….     



Our global future is – predictably – a contradiction of wonderful new possibilities and unexpected pitfalls.  In terms of our designed and built spatial environments, there are enormous potentials for new forms of expression utilizing a vast array of new materials, computer-based (CAD) design systems and manufactured components and new, highly imaginative and liberating (Frank Gehry – inspired!) architectural freedoms.

However, while 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 which celebrates lack of restraint and discipline, and a general tendency to forget what and  for whom spaces are primarily built for ---people.


In terms of designing “spaces for our future”, one of America’s most iconoclastic architects, John M. Johansen, suggests that, even in today’s whiz-bang, fashion-conscious, flavor-of-the-month world, most work by architects is faithful to that old tradition of “the tasteful arrangement of compositional elements”.  This obviously is a waste of new possibilities and suggests that our updated approach to spatial design should be less concerned with gestural form and with masterworks of architectural ego, but rather with processes, with action, with the behavioral patterns and preferences of people and how all these might be effectively expressed.  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 spatial 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.  So we should celebrate the bold and the unfamiliar and trust in ourselves and our expressive abilities to craft spaces that, while unusual in ‘style’ and ‘design’, still resonate in the human spirit ---an evolving human spirit capable of greater and greater appreciation of options and new forms of personal and societal expression.”


The human species is not a static species.  We are constantly evolving toward a higher plane of consciousness, and our urban areas and spaces need to increasingly reflect this evolution and sophistication as users and celebrators of new spatial experiences.


Our spaces can even be seen as ‘theaters of human evolution’, and architects can no longer focus on ego-based expressions or mannerisms or cute irrelevancies of ‘postmodernism’ and other stylistic trappings.  Their responsibility is to seek, express and communicate the deeper possibilities of their audiences – the people; the whole human race.


Such contemporary philosophers as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Thomas Merton have helped reveal the workings of the human psyche and have stimulated better and more empathetic design solutions reflecting the psychological needs of our time and our new understandings of the interacting process of our evolution in organic, holistic and ecological terms.


Just imagine the possibilities when we learn to combine new theories of quantum physics, cybernetics, systems dynamics, ecological interrelationships, chaos theory and non – linear concepts with emerging new 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 exciting and 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 reflects 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 vast diversity of forms far more expressive of individual, collective and cultural characteristics.  There is no longer any need for bland “international” styles of architecture which 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 now in this process of mutual growth and expression together, and the faster we realize and rejoice in this, the faster our built environments will not only reflect our current characteristics but also, as they should, help shape our future growth and possibilities in a great soaring spiral of creativity and excellence in design.