From Space to Place

The first article I posted on this website was dedicated to the revised transcription of the paper that I presented on Friday, the 5th of September 2014, at the ‘5th Global Conference, Space and Place: Exploring Critical Issues’, held at the Mansfield College, Oxford (UK). The conference was organized by A Global Network Association for Dynamic Research and Publishing. You can also find the original .pdf version of that paper – ‘From Space to Place. A Necessary Paradigm Shift in Architecture as a Way to Handle the Increasing Complexity and Connectivity of Real-World Systems’ – at the following link:

I introduced that talk with a short video clip: From Space To Place: Introductory Video.


Architecture is historically regarded as the art and science of space-making: to build a structure is to unfold it throughout space, so it can accommodate human-related affairs and functions. However architecture, giving shape to space, also modifies place. Like any other material entity from quark to cosmos, architecture, before being space-interacting, is necessarily place-based. A long philosophical tradition spanning from Aristotle to Heidegger offers place ontological primacy over space; nevertheless, the majority of architects mainly focus on space, leaving a deepened insight into questions of place to the attention of geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, environmental psychologists, landscape architects or ecologists. Only current ecological trends are making architects slightly more sensitive about questions of place. In order to appreciate differences and understand the consequences between space-related and place-related approaches to architecture, I maintain that architects should develop a global systemic perspective, conceiving the physical reality as a whole of interacting physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic systems. If a systemic perspective is adopted, architecture, which is often considered an autonomous symbolic system, will have to acknowledge its interdependence towards the physicochemical, biological and social environment conceived of as an encompassing whole. Consequently, a paradigm shift from space to place is inescapable for architecture, since space is an abstract concept, which mainly carries self-referent symbolic values, while place is a more pragmatic concept, which also carries physicochemical, biological and social values. Focusing earlier on place rather than on space, architecture could be more integrated within physical reality, hence would be more responsive to environmental, social and economic dynamics. In order to accommodate this change, a systemic definition of place – place as system – is given. An introductory inquiry into concepts of place and space is also given, in addition to ontological and epistemological considerations.

1. Historical inquiry into concepts of place and space

Before introducing any specific arguments related to questions of place and space, I believe it essential to focus on the meaning of the two concepts.
According to the Dutch historian of Philosophy, Professor Keimpe Algra, there is a consensus in considering space a more general term than place: this implies using place in relational settings (place being the place of something) and space as background frame of reference, which may contain places and objects.[1] This idea of ‘space as container’ is anchored to the classical Newtonian concept of absolute space.[2] This view is in contrast to Einstein’s idea of relative space, which is intended ‘as positional quality of the world of material objects’.[3] There is ontological distance between the two concepts of space: absolute space remains as a sheer unprescindable residuum if we remove any material entity; relative space is inconceivable without matter. The idea that space is not a substance in itself, but is related to time and matter, will lead to modern field theories and will bring into question the very notion of space.[4]
In the foreword to Jammer’s book ‘Concepts of space’, Einstein says that the concept of space seems to have been ‘preceded by the psychologically simpler concept of place’.[5] In order to verify this hypothesis, I will consider some passages from Casey’s well-known historical inquiry into concepts of place and space – The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History.[6]
Casey begins his description presenting some Cosmogonies. Those stories have the following schemata in common: creation is considered a reaction against the abhorrent void, a response to the immanent human sense of horror vacui, which means total absence of any place. The idea of the void is rejected by ancient people; thereafter, almost any Cosmogony begins from an initial state of Chaos – a material matrix – which is the first place where any subsequent genealogy of places is created. Within cosmogonic narratives, the existence of matter goes along with a process of implacement: matter and place cannot be separated.
If the void is psychologically rejected by ancient people, with the birth of abstract thinking, logical reasoning begins to accept the void as a basic underlying framework for the physical reality. The early Atomists believed in indivisible forms of matter – atoms – and used the Greek term to kenon, the void, to define a spatial reality devoid of matter, but where matter could ‘move and have its being’.[7] The cosmological model of the early Atomists consisted basically of interactions between material entities moving through the void.[8]
Against this view, Aristotle proposed a theory of place (topos) denying the existence of the void. To him, any substance had its ‘natural place’ and moved according to it. He rejected the homogeneous medium of the Atomists – the void – since it offered no discernment to local movement of matter. Aristotle’s basic cosmological model was based on material interactions occurring in place. Having been assigned the power to make things be somewhere, place definitely acquired an ontological status and primacy.[9]
According to Cosmogonies and the first cosmologies, the void and place offered matter the possibility for being and moving; there is no trace of space. Einstein’s hypothesis is confirmed: place is prior to space. Then, we can ask:

How did the illusion of the steel framework as an external fact come to be imposed upon common sense? If the infinite extent of three-dimensional space is no more than a construction of the human brain, and only one of many possible alternatives, all equally agreeable to nature, when and by whom was it constructed? [10]

Francis Cornford

According to the classical Greek scholar Francis M. Cornford, it took more than three centuries to concoct the concept of space: that time was necessary for the concept to be ‘constructed by the reasoning of the Greek geometers and imposed by the Atomists’.[11]
I side with Cornford: space is a concocted concept, a form of symbolic representation, a fiction of the human imagination. However, I would also mention Plato’s idea of the receptacle, which I consider to be the most remarkable creative leap leading to the concept of space. Plato explains his theory in the Timaeus.[12] In Plato’s model, it is possible to find traces of the concept of space as we see it today. Space belongs to a cognitive ideal world (the receptacle is a cognitive artifice) capable of accepting and explaining, in simplified symbolic terms, the somewhat complicated appearing movements, changing of state and perishing of matter that occur in real places.
Plato’s model and Aristotle’s theory of place gave origin to speculations about the true nature of space and place, which occupied many different thinkers for over two-and-a-half millennia. This story is brilliantly narrated by authors like Casey, Jammer, and others.[13]
The crucial moment for those speculations was reached when Newton proposed the notion of ‘absolute space [which] in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable’ and the notion of ‘place [which] is a part of space that a body takes up’.[14] Space acquired a precise ontological status (a physical status), while place was dispersed within absolute space in the form of simple location. This is the way the two concepts are commonly understood at present.
However, during the first decades of the twentieth century, new discoveries in the field of Physics changed the knowledge of the physical world, sweeping away past certainties about space: Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory revised and extended Einstein’s spatial conceptions; concepts of time, void and matter were revised too [15] The concept of field was introduced as a new physical fundamental entity, while the concept of place kept its bare locatory status.

2. On place and space: considerations and perspectives

Some important considerations can be drawn:
1. Concepts of place and space are correlated and cannot be understood if separated from each other, or if their sense is severed from a global understanding of physical reality.
2. Space is an abstract cognitive structure, which has no real existence in the domain of physical phenomena.
3. The physical universe is the only concrete reality, the only place to be.
4. Space, which exists in the domain of descriptions, or representations, is a helpful abstract tool for understanding and dealing with the physical reality made of complex processes that happen in and constitute places.
5. Plato’s ambiguous cosmological model eventually led to overturning space into a substantial entity. The final passage for that overturning has to be entirely attributed to Newton (or, better, to the interpretations of Newton’s model).
6. The ontological primacy that space has gained in the recent past (the modern era) to the detriment of place should now be reconsidered.
7. Many philosophical arguments pave the way to the restoration of place: authors like Whitehead, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have considered the importance of place and its tie with the human body.[16] While Heidegger unveiled the basic ontological connection between Being and place. Even in light of these arguments, space becomes secondary to place.[17]
8. The recovery of the concept of place in Philosophy goes hand in hand with the dismantling of the traditional concept of space in Physics. Space becomes an obsolete concept with Einstein; now, the concept of field links within a mathematical equation spacetime and matter.[18] This is a way towards a new cosmological model.
9. Einstein’s theoretical model is confirmed fundamentally by experimental data and new experiments, which eventually led to Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theories (QFT); the concept of field, which, I dare to say, has an inherent placial structure, is triumphant. The fundamental picture of QFT says that ‘the essential reality is a set of fields (…); all else is derived as a consequence of the quantum dynamics of these fields’ [19].
10. Can concepts of place and field converge into a single view?

3. Physical fields are places

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, many scientific certainties faded away, because of discoveries in the disciplines of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Now, the old mechanistic paradigm and the vision of the universe like a perfect clock seems inappropriate to describe the complicated interconnections between events and processes of life and matter.[20] A convergence between physical and biological sciences began and similarities between processes in living, non-living and social systems were noted. This led to hypothesize the existence of similar physical laws behind processes from different systems; these conditions led to postulate a new science: General System Theory – GST.[21]
According to GST, the Universe has a vertically structured hierarchy of levels, conceived of as a global system composed of different subsystems: physicochemical biological, social and symbolic systems (Table 1).

Table 1: (Adapted from K. Boulding and L. von Bertalanffy). Physical Reality Conceived of as Place of Interacting Systems.

This fourfold hierarchy of systems is exhaustive: no aspect of reality is left out.[23] Then, reality is a whole of concrete and abstract aspects: the four subsystems are the interacting parts. I call this whole: place. Reality is a place and we are agents because of the matter and energy we exchange with the environment at any level: at physicochemical and biological levels to survive as individuals; at social and symbolic levels to improve our conditions of survival, both as individuals and societies. Fluxes of energy and matter between systems, tie anything and anybody in a seamless way within the cosmos.

The fourfold hierarchy of systems (physicochemical, biological, social, symbolic) is exhaustive: no aspect of reality is left out.

If we adopt a systemic perspective, the field-concept of Physics, and the concept of place I’m arguing for may correspond. In the Thirties, physicists showed that material particles could be conceived of as the quanta of fields, and the Universe with its inhabitants could be conceived of as a set of fields.[24] I argue that those fields appear to our perceiving bodies under multifarious forms of place; we usually call them: objects, things, bodies, or landscapes.[25] There are other fields that we are not able to perceive, or whose effects we feel, but we are not able to see or explain: their apparent inexplicability constituted what our ancestors used to call ‘the spirit of place’.

4. Place as System

When physical fields concretize into structures with stable material boundaries, places appear: place is a phenomenon.[26] Then fields, places and the physical reality coincide; therefore, place could be defined as a phenomenon emerging from physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes. This means that matter, organized on the basis of physicochemical processes, forms the substrate where, at first biological processes, then social processes and finally symbolic processes, compose the encompassing whole – a system – that we call physical reality. That sequence describes the way the places we are embedded in were formed, and are continually transformed by means of matter and energy flows. However, even if places continually transform and evolve, just like persons, they continually remain themselves; their character is almost stable.
The ontological structure of the concept of place we are outlining suggests that place is the ultimate reality; existence and place correspond: there is no physical existence without implacement. Place as system has its ontological foundation in becoming other than in being: place is a processual reality. This means that place is not exclusively a human-centred structure: place has multiple existential focuses and universal capacity.
Place as system addresses epistemological questions, bypassing the unsolved classical dualism of object/subject, by tying the two in a seamless continuity. The grasp we have of the physical universe depends on the interaction between the perceiver and the perceived: that interaction is a function of physicochemical, biological (physiological and psychological), social and symbolic processes, which are all dynamically entangled in place.
Then, place as system is a conceptual framework that integrates any dimensions of reality: from physical to symbolic; a framework to understand the clash of (abstract and concrete) forces in today’s world.

5. Architecture and the paradigm shift from space to place

The change of values brought about by scientific discoveries is slowly diffusing throughout society. The new paradigm acknowledges the fundamental interconnection between systems by means of matter, energy and information flow. This wave of change has reached architecture quite recently, because of the diffusion of ecological principles. Nonetheless, architecture is still at the beginning of its transformation, because the on-going paradigm shift is not yet fully translated into the vocabulary of architects: space, place and matter.
Architecture is a highly symbolic discipline, traditionally associated with space;[27] I argue that until space is considered the main focus, architecture will never complete its transformation towards the adoption of new values.
There are two reasons for this difficult transition: first, architecture is considered a symbolic system, having its own life, rules and processes; this means that architecture is a self-consistent system, conveying autonomous aesthetical and intellectual values. Because of this conviction, anchored to an old mindset, the community of architects hardly understands that any system depends on the interactions with other systems for its own survival. Not only is architecture directly related to its social environment – this should be quite obvious; but fluxes of matter and energy also tie architecture with the physicochemical and biological environment. The fundamental truth behind the laws of Thermodynamics and their connections with the physical reality of systems is not yet acknowledged by many.[28]
Moreover, the legacy architects have with space prevents them from realizing a global vision of physical reality. This is precisely because space, being inherently abstract, does not facilitate a direct contact with the real entities of the world, fostering the development of self-referential languages. The long sequence of -isms to which space has always been able to offer new images or styles for architecture, is an evidence of its proficiency in always being able to propose new aesthetical values.
However, space alone, being abstract, cannot cope with the pragmatic complexities of the real world; while the concept of place as system of processes we have briefly outlined, would be ideal to allow architecture to complete its transformation into a discipline sympathetic with the contemporary necessities, where complex environmental, social and economic dynamics are the outcome of interacting physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic systems. Focusing earlier on place rather than on space, architecture could be more integrated within the whole reality: still autonomous as a discipline, yet more connected with other disciplines and systems; also more resilient and responsive to contemporary interrelated environmental, social and economic dynamics.
The concept of place as system is inclusive of space since it is the concretization of all systems, including symbolic systems to which space belongs to as a symbolic form of knowledge. Since place as system is an inclusive concept, it would permit architecture to acknowledge both ‘the sheltering power of place and the indefinite promise of open space’.[29]
The architectural design methodology, which would acknowledge the paradigm shift from space to place, could be summed up as follows (Image 1):
1. Global understanding of the phenomenon-place, by analyzing the combination of local processes related to the four systems.
2. Translation into space of the previous bundle of experimental data and of the functional requirements of the project, by means of traditional architectural tools: diagrams, drawings, models, renders, etc.
3. Return to place by verifying that the spatial design (or the architectural realization) has coped with each of the physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic systems.

Image 1: Methodology for Architecture of Place and Space.

The overall analysis of the four systems results from (a) physicochemical processes: study of analytical data from Geology and Physical Geography with particular interest for Hydrology, Geomorphology, Pedology and Climatology, or Meteorology; (b) biological processes: study of analytical data from Botany, Zoology and Ecology; influence of physical processes on human Physiology and Psychology; (c) social processes: study of analytical data from Ecology, or Landscape Ecology, Anthropology, Sociology and Human Geography; (d) symbolic processes: study of analytical data from Urban planning, Landscape Architecture, Architecture.
In this integrative model, other disciplines may find a position according to that fourfold division: especially important for architects is the influence that highly symbolic disciplines like Sculpture, Painting, Photography, Cinema, Literature, Music, etc. have on Architecture.
This methodology has been developed and adopted by the author for the architectural competition Badel Block Redevelopment in Zagreb, Croatia [30].

6. Aesthetical, ethical and functional Values of architecture

The paradigm shift, which is changing values within our society, will soon be completely transferred to architecture. The concept of place as system is a tool to speed up that process, by shifting the focus of architecture from space to place. Place as system absorbs into one concept questions of place, space and matter (consequently of energy too). By adopting the methodology we have briefly outlined, architecture could answer Giedion’s call for an architecture that is able to interpret the way of life of each historical period.[31] It could also help us to find the way in a disorienting world and help people to articulate a common ethos: a return to the ethical function of architecture is desirable and necessary.[32]
Architecture must be able to transform space into place, by a thoughtful synthesis of aesthetical, ethical and functional values, conveyed by the two concepts.
In the future, architects will need to speak both languages: space and place.

7. Conclusions

Concepts shift their meanings according to the evolution of knowledge. The overcoming of the common concept of space is due to Einstein and to subsequent Quantum Field Theories. I have tried to illustrate that veiled under the concept of field (as intended in physics) we find the concept of place, provided that place is considered a phenomenon emerging from physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic processes. This is a radical extension of the traditional concept of place: the concept of place as system addresses and extends previous ontological and epistemological unresolved questions.
Place as system puts focus on the increasing complexity and interconnectivity of processes in the physical world.
That everything is interconnected within physical reality constitutes a new paradigm, which is percolating through any sector of science and society and is slowly extending to architecture. Yet there is a resistance to win before new values associated to the emergent paradigm are completely transferred into common architectural practice: this is due to the fact that architecture is universally acknowledged as the art and science of space-making, where space is a highly abstract concept, which mainly conveys self-referent semantics and images; this commonly shared understanding of architecture that considers place little more than a physical background, weakens the bond architecture has with physical reality, conceived of as an encompassing whole. The concept of place as system clearly states that besides physical values, there are chemical, biological, ecological, socio-cultural and symbolic values that should be considered as well.


[1] Keimpe Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 20.
[2] The expression ‘space as container‘ is taken from Albert Einstein’s foreword to Max Jammer’s book Concepts of Space: Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (New York: Dover publications, 1993), xv.
[3] Ibid., xv.
[4] Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (New York: Dover publications, 1993), 198.
[5] Einstein’s foreword to Max Jammer, Concepts of Space, xv.
[6] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
[7] Cyril Bailey, “Matter and the void according to Leucippus, in The Concepts of Space and Time: Their Structure and Their Development, ed. Milic Capek (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1976), 18.
[8] I use the expression ‘cosmological model’ to refer to the basic structural composition of the cosmos, deriving from a relation of binary oppositions forming a whole: void-matter (the Atomist’s model), place-matter (Cosmogonies and Aristotle’s model) or space-matter (I maintain that this model was introduced by Plato).
[9] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 71. The reference is to the following quotation: ‘without place, things would not only fail to be located; they would not even be things: they would have no place to be the things they are. The loss would be ontological and not only cosmological.
[10] Francis M. Cornford, The Invention of Space”, in The Concepts of Space and Time: Their Structure and Their Development, ed. Milic Capek (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1976), 3-4.
[11] Ibid., 6.
[12] Francis M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 177-217.
[13] see Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Edward S. Casey, “Smooth Spaces and Rough-Edged Places: The Hidden History of Place”, Review of Metaphysics, 51, 1997; Max Jammer, Concepts of Space; Keimpe Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought; Milic Capek, The Concepts of Space and Time: Their Structure and Their Development; Nick Huggett, Space from Zeno to Einstein: Classic Readings with a Contemporary Commentary (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999); Samuel Sambursky,  The Concept of Place in Late Neoplatonism (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1982).
[14] Newton, Isaac. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. A. Motte. (New York: D. Adee, 1846), 77-78.
[15] For a brief account on the history of Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory, see Steven Weinberg, “The Search for Unity: Notes for a History of Quantum Field Theories”, Daedalus, vol. 106, 1977, 17-35.
[16] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, 211-242.
[17] I explicitly refer to Heidegger’s quotation according to which space is no more than a consequence of a pre-existing place: ‘What the word for space, Raum, designates is said by its ancient meaning. Raum, Rum, means a place that is freed for settlement and lodging… Accordingly, spaces receive their essential being from locales and not from space.’ See Martin Heidegger, “Building Thinking Dwelling, Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. Farrell Krell (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1993), 356.
[18] I refer to the concept of spacetime and to Einstein field equations.
[19] Seven Weinberg, The Search for Unity: Notes for a History of Quantum Field Theories, 23.
[20] For an extended account about the meaning of ‘paradigm’ in the context of scientific revolutions, see Thomas Khun, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 1996). Interesting accounts on the paradigm shift between classical and modern worldviews, and the clash between cultures can be found in: Erich Jantsch, The self-organizing universe: Scientific and human implications of the emerging paradigm of evolution (New York: Pergamon, 1980); Fritjof Capra, The turning point (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1982).
[21] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory: Essays on its Foundation and Development (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 3-12.
[22] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General system theory: Essays on its foundation and development, 28-29. See also: Kenneth Boulding, The image: Knowledge in life and society (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1956).
[23] The American philosopher and novelist Robert Pirsig has set up his Metaphysics of Quality on this fourfold hierarchy of systems: Robert Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (New York: Bentam Books, 1991).
[24] Steven Weinberg, The Search for Unity: Notes for a History of Quantum Theories, 23. This is the extended quotation: ‘Material particles could be understood as the quanta of various fields, in just the same way that the photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field. There was supposed to be one field for each type of elementary particle. Thus, the inhabitants of the universe were conceived to be a set of fields – an electron field, a proton field, an electromagnetic field – and particles were reduced in status to mere epiphenomena. In its essentials, this point of view has survived to the present day, and forms the central dogma of quantum field theory: the essential reality is a set of fields’.
[25] Instances of place considered as bodies or objects, can be found in authors like Husserl, Heidegger, Irigaray, Merleau-Ponty, Yi-Fu, Relph, Rapoport and in the Timaeus of Plato (see Casey’s third stage of ‘topogenesis’). In Leibniz’s essay On The Principle of Indiscernibles and in Descartes’s concept of ‘locus internus’ we also find hints at place considered as a physical substance.
[26] The term phenomenon comes from the Greek root ‘phaìnomai‘, a verb which signifies ‘to show itself’; thus, the substantive – phenomenon – ‘means that which shows itself, the manifest.’ See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 51.
[27] The tradition which considers architecture a space-based discipline, began at the end of the nineteenth century in Germany, with critics like August Schmarsow and Alois Riegl and continued with eminent figures like Sigfried Giedion and Bruno Zevi in the past century. A fresh interesting account on the historical relation between Space and Architecture is given by Lars Markussen.
[28] For an interesting account about this issue, see Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy: A New World View (New York: Bentam Books, 1981).
[29] Karsten Harries, “Space, Place, and Ethos: Reflection on the Ethical Function of Architecture, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 5, No. 9, 1984, 164.
[30] Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto in collaboration with Ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic. More references here: Badel Block Redevelopment
[31] Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), xxxiii.
[32] Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), 4.

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—. The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

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—. “Smooth Spaces and Rough-Edged Places: The Hidden History of PlaceReview of Metaphysics, vol. 51, 1997.

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—. Le Tre Concezioni dello Spazio in Architettura. Palermo: Dario Flaccovio Editore, 1998.

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—. The Ethical Function of Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

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Image Credits

Featured Image (source) by Majid Rangraz on

All other images by Alessandro Calvi Rollino, CC BY-NC-SA

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