Section 1 ︎︎︎ Space as Place

“In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. ‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes
place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.”

— Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

The dance of place and space is one of perpetual motion, each pushing and pulling the other to create a new meaning for the individual. In a conceptual sense, space is more abstract than the idea of place.1 Space is what we occupy. The three-dimensional world we know and exist in is our space, this space can be divided into smaller chucks infinitely, but is ultimately all part of the same “space.” Place, in a broad sense, is a physical space with an applied idea attached to it. This idea is not limited to any specific form—visual relation, architectural style, physical barriers, memory, historical context, activities, geographical feature, etc. Under this assumption, place is defined by the application of meaning to the space that the “place” describes. Places can also be a variable range of scales, from a store to an entire metropolitan region, the concept of place is only limited by the range of similar ideas that unite them.
    A “space” lacks the human connection and ownership Deficient in any invitation to fill or use the space, spaces tend to be abstract voids in our environment, waiting to be filled or left vacant to ignore.2 Space can be best described through apathetic and generalized language: lot, plot, field, city, town, box, room, etc. Humans transform space into place through their interaction or mediation in the specific environment. Attaching the human experience to a space makes it become a place, and generally gives it more specific language to describe it: Boston, bedroom, home, my yard, Yellow Stone National Park, etc.But not all environments become places due to intervention and use, some fall in the space between.
    There are environments that do not classify as place but lack the vague abstract notions of space. Dubbed non-places by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist, he specifically focuses on spaces designed for transience that encourage the anonymity of the people passing through and lack significance to the individual.4 A few examples he references include highways, airports, and hotel rooms, all of which are designed for temporary use and exist between the world of space and place. FIGURE 1 Graham Coreil-Allen, a Baltimore based artists working in the public realm, created a collection of un-named urban spaces that included some of these non-places. His work The Typology New Public Sites gives an idea to these non-places and builds an association that brings an awareness to lack of significance they hold.5  He points out the voids, the vacuums, and the in-betweens found in our urban environments. Examples include the space between two parking garages FIGURE 2 or grassy space inside a highway ramp.
    Some individuals may argue that some buildings are non-places due to the lack of relationship with the individual. For this reason, brutalist architecture is often criticized for this by the everyday person. Boston City Hall, FIGURE 3 & 4 designed by Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, is often considered one of Boston’s ugliest and most hated buildings because of its brutalist style.6 The foundation of the style offers little for people to identify with; brutalist buildings, to the non-architect, seem cold from the excessive imposing concrete and offer no invitation to spend time or gather in a space. The nature of the resulting design in the brutalist style is simultaneously a place and non-place because it lacks the encouragement for the individual to want to form a relationship with the space. Whether put into the bucket of non-places, or given a specific name, these environments remind us that not every space can or will become a place.
    What successfully turns a space into a place? Place exists without bounds of space or time. Each individual defines what the bounds of place can be, while things such as architecture, monuments and history ground place in a non-linear timeline through their associations in the collective memory. Defining place that exists in many contexts and interpretations then becomes a difficult task. Edward Relph, a prolific researcher on the idea of place, describes this concept using the term “identity”, which he breaks down into three aspects: Forms, Activities, and Meanings.7 Forms include anything physical and visual: typographic features, buildings, spaces, and other physical items. Activities are the social aspects of place, anything that occurs there, or the people using the space. Meanings are the individual values attributed to place through memories, opinions, traditions, and histories. These three attributes together help create the narrative of place, something that an individual item from this list could not achieve on its own. It is the layering of these attributes together that build up place.
    The aspects of identity of place laid out by Relph illustrate the idea that place is the overlap of the physical and social aspects of society in combination with space. This makes place an interesting, while intangible, representation of the people and culture of an area. Place then becomes a case study in design; how the designer can pull from the many aspects of life to create something that is as representative of its people as place can be.

1. Tuan, Yi-Fu.. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. 1977

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Auge, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. 1992

5. Coreil-Allen, Graham. The Typology of New Public Sites. 2010

6. Flint, Anthony. Learning to love the world’s ugliest building, Boston Globe. 2019

7. Relph, Edward. Identity of and with Place. 2021

© Michael Rosenberg