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How spaces are shaped affects how we feel about them, whether we know it or not

When you were growing up, did you ever climb up into the neighbor kid’s tree house? Wasn’t it neat to be way up there in your own hideout where no one could see you – but you could see everyone? Didn’t you feel powerful, and a bit mischievous, as though you could dream of just about anything?

Contrast that feeling of seeing to one of being seen. Picture yourself standing on the field of a football stadium or on stage in a grand auditorium. What a sense of exposure that is, looking up at all those seats and thinking of so many eye, all on you.

Let me offer another contrast, and then I’ll tell you the point I’m trying to make.

Imagine hiking through a sandy-floored slot canyon near Lake Powell, Utah. Walls of swirling, water-carved sandstone tower above you on either side. You’re really nestled in, You have to squeeze through sideways in some areas as the canyon walls press close. Your eyes tend to stay straight ahead, focused on the goal of passing through.

Compare that sensation to one when you are in a wide-open space, such as out on a prairie or a desert, and there is nothing but blowing grass or sand as far a you can see. Your eyes sweep the scene in broad strokes, and you feel small in a great big world.
These examples all have one significant thing in common, and that is a very clear expression of space. Space is the volume between all the “stuff” we normally think of as being “there.” While we perceive tangible things directly with our five senses, space, we do not.

Space, or a sense of place, is the mind’s composite sum of all the data gathered by the senses into one perceived whole. For instance, most of us focus on the four wall, floor and ceiling surrounding us. But the part we inhabit is between all that. How the stuff is arranged, ordered and sequenced manipulate and expresses the volume of the space within it.

We respond emotionally to our unconscious perception of the space in between. Clients may ask us for sticks and bricks, but what they are really entrusting us to design is their experience of a place. The more thoughtfully one choreographs the spatial qualities of a design to affect the experience as one moves through it, the more exciting it will be.

To understand spatial design, you need to grasp one thing first: The observer perceives space by moving through it three dimensionally. As a person passes through, new things come into the picture and are revealed as other things fade out of sight and are concealed.

Designers direct the order in which people will experience an environment, planning what observers will see, hear, smell and touch as they reach different vantage points. It’s very much like the way a movie director controls the camera and lighting conditions in a scene to produce a desired emotional effect and sequence.

As people move through space, three characteristics of the environment are always changing: scale, enclosure and visibility. Designers manipulate these scene attributes differently, depending on how the space will be used.

On a human scale

When we talk about scale in architecture, we are usually referring to human scale – the size of an object relative to the observer. Is it overpowering because it’s too big? Is it too small to make an impact? Or is it just right?

Designers can choose to articulate scale, or to create mystery by hiding it. It isn’t only a matter of making something big or small, but also whether to offer the details a viewer needs to perceive its true size. This involves breaking up an imponderable expanse into equally sized, human-scale modules.

A skyscraper hundreds of feet tall, for example, can be more easily understood if each of its floors is demarcated on its surface. That way you can walk up to the building, see that the second story window is 4 feet above your head, assume that each floor is 10 feet tall, and then figure that if it’s got 40 floors’ worth of windows, the building is about 400 feet tall. Intuitively, the building is understood.

A place that I noticed recently that illustrates the mysterious side of the spectrum is the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Most of the buildings in Vegas have their floors and windows articulated visibly on their facade, but the Luxor is simply a huge black glass pyramid with no discernible segmentation. The building is huge, 350 feet tall at its peak, but you can’t really understand its size while standing at its base because there are no increments to help you break it down. Your gazing point, the tip, could be 50 feet or 450 feet away.

Now let’s apply the idea of scale to the backyard. Sometimes a space can be so large that it’s too much – you feel like you’re out in the open, unprotected and unsheltered. If you can break it into bite-size pieces, people can relate to it better.

But how? I once designed a corridor that was 100 feet long by 8 feet wide. I had the choice of creating a sea of one material, like a parking lot. Instead, I broke it lengthwise into 10 foot increments. The surface was exposed aggregate, but I introduced 16-inch-wide bands of cantera stone to create the segments. With the expanse broken down, the perception of depth was enhanced – a person could tell without even thinking about it that the corridor was 100 feet long.

How cozy

Enclosure affects the perception of space in one of two ways. Close spaces bring a sense of tension to an environment, spurring you to move ahead. Openness does the opposite, inviting you to stay right where you are. Think of water flowing in a wide, deep channel vs. a tight, narrow channel. In an open area, water is free to move about at a slower pace, while in a tighter area, the compression forces it to move along more rapidly.

You can use enclosure as a device to create a sense of anticipation. When designing a path toward a garden’s climactic vantage point, for example, you can compress the space gradually as the path approaches your visual centerpiece. Progressively narrow the path, lower the ceiling or tree canopy, or elevate the floor plane with stairs or a ramp. The moment signifying that you have arrived happens when the space opens up into a wider view.

Techniques such as this make a project more interactive and tangible. For instance, spaces that are meant to be intimate and private can be nestled in by lower ceilings, umbrellas or low tree canopies. paces that are more public and open have higher ceilings or more exposure to the sky, and feel expanded.

An offshoot of enclosure is the introduction of items designed to attract a visitor to reach out and make contact. The sense of touch offers a cozy feeling, such as when you can reach up to an occasional 7-foot ceiling, where most are beyond reach at 8 feet.

Some water-features are designed to be touched, such as wet walls. Locate benches nearby so that guests can sit and touch it – even within the pool – and you have a fun, meaningful interaction with the environment.

What you see

The final component in sculpting space is the visibility factor whether something is revealed or concealed, and when it comes into view.

A waterfall serves as a visual cue when placed across the pool from visitors, providing a focal point for the garden. But I like to build suspense upon entrance to a space by concealing the waterfall until visitors pass the front door or foyer. This provokes the visitors’ curiosity. They hear a waterfall as they step into the backyard, but they can’t immediately see it. I’m making them look for it. The same works with other senses, such as catching the scent of a fragrant garden that you can’t see from the door.

I often see the cliche of placing the water-feature so it’s visible from the foyer of the home. I object to this. It’s necessary to draw people into the backyard with some kind of focal point, but I like to save the best for last. They don’t have to see it until they are finally drawn into the backyard.

By saving the best for last, you give the visitor a reward for journeying down the path you have laid.

Getting there

Scale, enclosure and visibility serve the designer as tools, but the designer uses them to create spaces of specific functionality. Three kinds of space key to any design are areas of circulation, destination and rest.

Circulation areas
Footpaths, hallways – any space designed to connect points of interest – serve as a circulation area. Sidewalks, stepping stones, stairways and even lawns (think of a fairway) come to mind.

Circulation spaces vary widely, but they share several attributes in common.

Their shape is usually stretched, elongated and narrow. The ceilings might be lower than normal, as though trying to squeeze you out into the next open area. This encourages people to move from one place to another.

Circulation spaces tend to block your view to the sides and focus your attention straight ahead. It’s like putting blinders on a horse: Stay focused.Straight ahead. Keep it moving.

They often feature rhythmic, repeating forms such as colonnades or trees, hedges or stepping stones placed in consistent intervals. This echoes the rhythmic footsteps of pedestrians, encouraging them to step, step, step along.

Finally, the most effective circulation spaces end with a focal point to give the pedestrian a goal. This serves as a magnet, attracting visitors’ attention and drawing them through the space toward the object.

Resting areas
If the journey through the circulation space gets long, or there is a point of interest to be called out, one may create a resting space. The designer can do this by enlarging the width or height of an area of the circulation path, and by providing places to perch such as benches, a small table or other focal point to anchor the space.

Circulation paths intersect in areas called nodes. This intermediate place serves as a decision point in the journey. To call attention to such a space, place a fountain, bench or sculpture in its center. This will encourage visitors to pause and consider the scene and their next step in the journey.

Destination spaces
These ‘happenin’ places in the composition are where visitors want to end up – where groups will visit, dinner will be served and the band will play.

Destination spaces may be public, where larger groups can congregate and be entertained, or private, as in a secluded courtyard off to the side.

The most important trait of a destination space is its focal point – an object of interest that lures visitors from resting spaces and through circulation spaces. Designers can use a specimen tree, fireplace, fountain, sculpture, shade structure or swimming pool.

Even something as subtle as a change of floor material or elevation can call an area out as special. A sunken space uses enclosure to make an area feel more intimate and nestled in. An elevated area uses visibility to put the visitor “on stage” and give those who gather there a feeling of importance.

Destination spaces are often larger or more open than the areas surrounding them. Their shape suggests a stable, static feel. Circular, elliptical, square, or slightly rectangular proportions emphasize that this is a common area where people should congregate. The shapes themselves create the stability – squares and circles have easily identified centers. When you elongate a square into a rectangle of more than a 2:1 ratio, however, the shape takes on movement and length, suggesting
motion.

These spaces are often set off by a clearly defined perimeter such as walls, columns, a grove of trees, hedges or benches. This central focus turns the attention of those who have gathered there inward, toward each other, rather than outward. If the designer intends visitors to appreciate a certain vi ta or focal point, most everything else will be blocked from view by the perimeter elements.