The language of space and place in terms of experience.

Brian Lawson’s main purpose in his overview, ‘The Language of Space’ is – as the title states – a study into the language of space as a form of communication that usually unbeknown to us we use more often throughout our lives. “When we walk into a room, others are reading this spatial language long before we speak” (Lawson, 2001). The book explores the different perceptions of space, in terms of human spatial behaviour; the relationships that develop through space, the rituals, attitudes and territories that inhabit our spaces and how these factors define a space as a place. It is the relationship that develops through the emotional responses to space that I shall concentrate my study on.

Throughout the book Lawson often refers to the statement;

“Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” (Aldo van Eyck, 1962)

It is the inhabitants of space that in turn create the idea of place, through their action, routine and experience of the space. Although we as designers can expand and develop these spaces in order to honour these behaviours.

Lawson goes onto explain that the experience of place isn’t always as easy to communicate as one may think. People no doubt are clear about how a space can make them feel – either good or bad – but the reasons for these feelings are harder to express. Often the easiest way to describe their emotions towards a place is by comparison to another similar atmospheric place.

To understand this emotional response to space Lawson suggests that we must recognize the characteristics of a space that people use to perceive and make an assessment of their surroundings. Asking this as a simple question – How does this space make you feel? How would you describe the space? – opens up the results to a vast number of feelings and emotions evoked from that particular place, failing to get a general atmospheric opinion from the space. To counteract this problem Lawson suggest the use of psychological method that is a simple way of recording these experiences we have with space. It is called semantic differentials. It involves asking a subject to rate their response of a space in relations to a scale that ranged from one description to its opposite meaning.

“For example a scale that ranged from hard to soft, one from open to closed and so on. Usually these scales are either five or seven points long; an odd number of points allow a respondent to choose a middle point in either direction.” (Lawson, 2001)

This method allows us to compare different groups on their experience of place and in terms of ‘externalising’ feeling in order to communicate between the client and the designer it is very successful in keeping them on same page basis.

This study then leads Lawson on the question of stimulus;

“Is it the overall proportions, the variation of colour or texture, variations in sizes of features, or their proportions or frequencies of occurrence?” (Lawson, 2001)

He makes reference to Lynch’s theory in order to make sense of what “features that most determine how people feel about and react to places.” (Lawson, 2001). Lynch (1960) suggests the perception of an environmental image is broken up into three components; structure, meaning and identity. Structure relates to the rules and order of place, meaning is the symbol and message that the place stands for and finally identity represents those identifiable elements that give a sense of exclusivity and distinctiveness to a place. These combined attributes to the stimuli we perceive work as they evoke feeling and emotions that we come to associate with the place we view.

Further study of this emotional response to the relationship we build with space led me to look at Sensory Design by Monice and Vodvarka. An initial quote from the book automatically creates a connection between the two pieces of writing;

“a good house… speaks not just of the materials from which it is made, but the intangible rhythms, sprits, and dreams of the people’s lives… In its parts it accommodates important human activities, yet in sum it expresses an attitude towards life.” (Moore, Allen Lyndon, 1974)

This reference the authors make to the quote points out how – previously explain – a space is not a place until it is inhabited and experienced.

The authors look at a sensory response to space and experience throughout the book, exploring the ideas of perception through our common senses and also our hidden senses. They refer to Geoffery Scott’s description of how “weight, pressure and resistance are part of our habitual body experience” (Scott, 1965) because of this we use them to identify the spaces we perceive.

“In any building three things may be distinguished: the bigness which it actually has (mechanical measurement), the bigness which it appears to have (visual measurement), and the feeling of bigness which it gives (bodily measurement).” (Scott, 1965)

This reference to Scott’s comment gives the impression that on top of the five common senses we use to perceive the world there are other less obvious senses concerning the experience of space. The authors use a reference to Paul Zucker in order to validate Scott’s statement about how we use many other senses to perceive space;

“Space is perceived by the visualization of its limits and by kinaesthetic experience, i.e., by the sensation of our movements. In the state of ‘visual tension,’ kinaesthetic sensation and visual perception fuse most intensely.” (Zucker, 1970)

Our visual perception of space is enhanced by the motion in which we experience the space adding to our sensory perception of the environment around us.

Referring back to the concept that space becomes place through experience the authors use a suggestion from Yi-Fu Taun, “What begins as undifferentiated spaces becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” (Taun, 1977) The authors interpret this ‘getting to know better’ concept as experiencing the space through our senses; judging perceiving and analysing the space in order to identify its place.

In both pieces of writing studied here the connection between the human presence and interpretation of space is clearly experience. Both portray similar concepts of how place is relative to the activity of space. The importance of the psychological study of human behaviour becomes clear to the relevance of successful interior and architectural design, in the way that we experience space emotionally and sensually. Understanding space is not just based on visual perception but also an experiential process we all go through when making the connection between space and place.


Lawson, B. 2001. The Language of Space. Oxford: Reed Educational and Professional Publishing.

Lynch, K. 1960. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Malnar,J, Vodvarka, F. 2004. Sensory Design. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Moore, C, Allen, G, Lyndon, D. 1974. The Place of Houses. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson.

Scott, G. 1965. The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste. Gloucester: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Tuan, Y. 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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