When I was a small child I had two favorite places in our house. One was the cupboard under the stairs, a small, dark place filled with junk, cardboard boxes, and the vacuum cleaner. The other was a place I had made myself by pushing a big old arm chair against some shelves, thus making a little nook for myself between the end of the shelves and the adjacent wall. By climbing over the back of the chair I was hidden to the world, and in my very own, very special place.

Like most children I had a highly developed relationship to space, and in my case the smaller the space the better. Unfortunately as children grow up they lose this spatial acuity and since nothing in our culture puts value on educating this sense, it is lost by young adulthood, to such a degree that most people don’t even know they are missing anything.

As an architect, and as someone with a spatial sense that helps me earn my living, I am very much aware of how we are affected by the spatial character of our surroundings, and through lecturing and writing, attempt to help people reawaken their spatial senses. I’ve come to think of spatial sensing as similar to musical appreciation. As with music, some people have an inherent understanding of what spatial experiences feel good to them, and what feel uncomfortable and disturbing. Others have no interest, and their surroundings don’t seem to affect them greatly no matter where they are.

To give you some notion of what spatial sensing is all about, let me give you a couple of examples. You walk into a large restaurant, where most of the tables are empty. The hostess starts to seat you at one of the tables in the center of the room. You ask her if instead you might be seated at that corner table over there. If you are like most people, you prefer the shelter of the corner to the exposure of the center. When you sit in the corner your back is protected. No one can sneak up and surprise you and you can survey all that is happening in the room from this protected vantage point.

Another example — you are visiting a friend’s house, and you ask to use their powder room. The house has tall ceilings throughout, and the powder room is no exception. Unfortunately, while the high ceilings are a most delightful feature of the larger rooms in the house, here in this smallest of rooms, it makes you feel as though you are in an elevator shaft. There is a sense of vulnerability brought about by the proportions of the room. The act of sitting down is such an ill-proportioned room only makes the discomfort worse. For the spatially sensitive, this is not a pleasant experience, however tasteful the decor!

So what is spatial sensitivity anyway, and why don’t we have any words to describe it? I believe that it is composed of a number of senses such as hearing and sight that we do have names for; but there are other constituent parts that might fall under the broad new words invented to describe them. The following is a dissection of what I understand to be the j component parts of spatial sensing:

Sight
For me, peripheral vision is an important contributor. If, for example, I am sitting in a large, high room, I feel greatly more comfortable if I can sit in a part of the room that has a lowered ceiling. Although as I sit, the lowered ceiling is not directly in my view, it is a presence in my peripheral vision, and this makes a big difference to my comfort level. Like the desirability of the corner table at the restaurant, the lowered ceiling is a corner in the vertical dimension. I know intuitively that nothing will “come at me” from above if I am able to perceive the ceiling in my peripheral vision.

Hearing
Our sense of hearing informs us about shape and surface texture in ways that we are not usually aware of, but from which we draw conclusion about how comfortable or otherwise we feel. If you think yourself into some of the civic buildings of the turn of the century, such as a county courthouse, perhaps, or a bank, you will probably recall a feeling of awe, and of individual insignificance in the presence of this great institution. How does a building give you this sense? In these old structures, the architect typically used materials such as marble and stone that was polished and smooth, giving the whole building an aliveness and echoiness with respect to sound. Coupled with the great size of most of the public spaces in such buildings, a sense of awe is the typical response. This is not an environment, however, in which one would feel comfortable settling in to read a good book. You’d have to either change the surface material, or buy a pair of ear plugs if you wanted to read in comfort.

Feeling space without eyes or ears

Even without these two well-known senses to rely on however, there is still something that we can learn to perceive spatially. For me there is a definite “feeling” about being in a large space, or about being in a very small space, and it is this sense more than any other that I use to make the places I design comfortable for the people that will inhabit them. An exercise you can perform to discover this sense in yourself is to find a very quiet place to sit for perhaps half an hour. Close your eyes, and let yourself feel the place. Its proportions and boundaries will gradually be clear to you.

My own unscientific explanation for this is that we human beings must also radiate some sort of energy that we feel returning to us, just like bats use sonar to “feel” their way. I wouldn’t want to depend on this sense to find my way through a forest, but I am quite certain that most of us use it to find the places in our environments that allow us to feel comfortable and safe.

Reawakening your spatial sensing ability is not a hard thing to do, but it does require that you listen to all your senses as you move through the spaces you encounter each day. The quality of one’s spatial environment can have a significant effect on one’s quality of life. It is my belief that the more we educate ourselves and our culture in spatial perceptiveness, the better and more nurturing of our spirits our homes, work places, and cities will become – because people aware of their spatial sense will insist upon it.

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Sarah Susanka, AIA, is a principal with the firm Mulfinger, Susanka & Mahady Architects in Minneapolis, a firm specializing in residential architecture. She has lectured, written, and been published widely about her work and about making architecture intelligible to the general public.

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