Beyond Architectural Realities: Place, Space, and the In-Between

The Structure of the World, László Moholy-Nagy, c. 1925 (Photo: © 2021 Artists Rights Society, ARS, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn).

Concerning the last issue on the ambiguity of spatial language and its specific application to the domain of architecture — see the article On the Ambiguous Language of Space — I want to make a further digression, which, I hope, can extend the limits of our architectural discussion, and enlarge the overall sense of the spatial and/or placial question with respect to man’s understanding of reality. Moreover, with this digression, I also want to return to the reasons that lead me to call into question the traditional presuppositions on the concepts of space and place.

In architecture, the ambiguous relationship between volume (the container) and space (the contained) can also be seen under the following perspective: is space matter-sensitive or not?  Is space determined by the presence of matter (walls, floor, ceiling, windows…) or can we still speak about space as a tangible presence disregarding the value of the material surfaces that circumscribe, delimit or stand in space? In this latter case, we should say that the nature of space is not contained, delimited or influenced by an external agent — matter —, but is self-contained, having its own limits extended to the infinite. Let me say the first case (the nature of space determined by the presence of matter) is a type of relativist position, of the kind Mach and Einstein argued for. The second case is a type of absolutist position, of the kind Newton argued for. Alternatively, if we believe in the fundamentally abstract value of space, those diverging positions could also be termed relational, in a Leibnizian sense, or ideal, mental or even cognitive in a Kantian sense. My position is that space is an abstract entity, a conceptual entity precisely, which may assume an infinity of shapes in the range between Leibnizian and Kantian positions, and according to the intent of the user. Then, space cannot be literally (and physically) influenced by matter, given that matter stays on a physicochemical level of reality, to begin with; while space stays on a symbolic level, that is, a representational level. If matter influences space (or vice versa, if space influences matter)  that influence is indirect and mediated by other levels in between the physicochemical and symbolic levels, that is biological (physiological,  and psychological), ecological and socio-cultural levels. Therefore, the mathematician or the physicist will work with mathematical spaces, the sculptor and the painter with sculptural and pictorial spaces, the musician with musical spaces, the poet with poetic spaces, the novelist or writer with literary spaces and so forth. The architect works with architectural space. All of those spaces have in common the characteristic of containing entities, but, whatever the entity contained by each typology of space is, that entity or those entities are abstract entities. And if those entities acquire a physical status (as when the idea of the sculptor turns into an actual sculpture or a project imagined by the architect reaches the final stage of its physical construction) it means the status of that abstract entity has acquired a new placial dimension or state, that is, a concretization into place as an actual entity, which simultaneously presents physical and temporal extensions, other than a determined location (‘what’ ‘when’ ‘where’).

Concerning the abstract/concrete relationship and, more in detail, the relationship between space and place with respect to our understanding of reality, I would say the function of space, compared to place, is that of a map compared to the real territory; two things that stand on different grounds: one symbolic, the other physical (continuing the analogy I’ve imagined above, the map is the ideal sculpture existing in the mind or even in the sketches of the sculptor — the careful reader may object that some epistemological problems may arise concerning the abstract/concrete value of the sketches —, while the territory is that idea after it has turned into the real environment where the physical sculpture is situated). I accept as logical and coherent the possibility that space (the abstract) can be understood as a dimensionality that is intrinsic to any place (the concrete), but I say the overall dimension of a place is far more complex than the spatial dimension alone (as a mere extension), which is the very essence of space. So, from a logical point of view, it is highly questionable for me to say that we live in space, as we often say, when this space is a place, actually,  which has many more dimensions than space has (conscious as we are of this logical inconsistency we find acceptable to use space as a metaphorical notion in expressions like ‘physical space’, ‘place is a humanized space’, ‘the space around us’, etc., but I’m also a bit sceptical concerning this possibility since, for me, in many cases, this is a just a shortcut to avoid questioning the more profound placial and/or spatial nature of reality). This is especially true with respect to the conception of place I’m arguing for in this website — see the article What is Place? What Is Space?  — which is not simply considered in its usual or traditional physical, geographical dimension (place as a ‘physical setting’ or ‘simple location’) or in its social dimension (place as a socially constructed notion to be contrasted with the more neutral space — this is a conception elaborated by the social scientist especially, in the second part of the past century, and taken up by the architect), but is a systemic notion, encompassing all of the dimensions of reality: physical, chemical, biological, ecological, social, cultural, symbolic, etc. Therefore, while we could say that space may belong to  place as one of its dimensions (albeit a reductive dimension, in the sense of a vacuous dimension — mere extension — abstracted from the characters of physicality, temporality and locality that are intrinsic to any actual entity that exists in any concrete situation or place), the reverse is not true: we cannot think of space as a term/concept that exhausts the complex systemic value of whatever place-as-environment, which is structured on many levels of complexity, because space, according to its etymology and history (see the articles Back to the Origins of Space and Place, Place and Space: A Philosophical History , Space and Place: A Scientific History – Part One and Part Two), ultimately rejects that complexity, even if in modern times, at first Newton and Einstein (from a physical point of view) then, different  phenomenologists (from a psychological and physiological point of view), and finally social scientists  (from a sociocultural point of view), have tried to attribute space a much more complex structure than it originally had. Despite those admirable efforts, I say space remains a too vague and ambiguous notion to address the systemic complexity of the happenings and events of any real environment: that complexity is more likely conveyed by (the concept of) place, as a systemic notion in the sense I argue for in this website, rather than by (the concept of) space. It is as if the primal character of space, which originally emerged and developed as an abstract conceptualization — a linear distance or interval, a gap, a unit of measurement, etc. — makes vane the numerous historical attempts to transform it into a more concrete entity, even if, especially in our contemporary epoch, the reverse may appear true: today, any concrete thing seems to be understood in spatial terms, or as a portion of the cosmic space — shops, schools, buildings, parks, streets, squares, cities…  see the photographic report The Feeling for Space and Place.  As a matter of fact, ever since the spatial/placial question was systematically questioned by Aristotle in Physics – Book IV, it was ‘place’ (topos) which had a more profound physical meaning, not space, which, between the ancient Greeks, did not even exist as a term or concept similar to our void background continuum for physical, or even mathematical, entities;[1] that physical connotation is a prerequisite for any spatial/placial notion to come to term successfully with the different processes and phenomena of reality (by the expression ‘to come to terms with’ I mean the human ability to observe, understand, explain, communicate and positively engage with the phenomena of reality). The sign of those modern ‘spatial failures’, or the logical impossibility to address the systemic complexity of actual events and happenings in terms of space only, is attested by man’s entrance into a new critical epoch for mankind — the Anthropocene — [2], which, I argue,  marks the fatal missing correspondence between man’s abstract plans conceived in (terms of) space, and reality, which is a systemic place where physical, chemical, biological, ecological, socio-cultural and symbolic processes should be accounted for simultaneously. It is because of that missed correspondence between (abstract) plans and (concrete) reality that indiscriminate models of organization and development of the modern societies, relying on highly questionable policies and economical systems, took us to the present situation, characterized by an unprecedented environmental crisis, caused by anthropic factors; a crisis which has repercussion on every sector of society and the life of people. What really counts, for our spatial/placial argument is that the aforementioned missed correspondence between man’s abstract plans (economic, political, industrial, technological, etc.) and the reality of facts is inherently structured on the logical fallacy that reality is understood and acted upon by the modern man as a fundamentally neutral container of events running in parallel without intersecting each other at any level of reality (physicochemical, biological, ecological, etc.); fundamentally, this is a mechanistic and deterministic vision of reality. What is this ‘fundamentally neutral container’ if not the original, non-detachable abstract sense of space? In modern times, the concept of space developed as a mechanical notion, in the Newtonian sense:[3] that was a powerful theoretical trigger necessary for the mechanistic vision of the world to become true. Subsequent admirable attempts to change that notion (in physical/Einsteinian sense, or even in a phenomenological sense and, finally, in the social sense) didn’t reverse the ultimately mechanical and abstract connotation of ‘modern space’, and the original mechanistic project attached to and facilitated by that concept. That’s why we need a more radical revision of our understanding of reality in spatial and or placial sense, as I’m arguing for at : the new spatial/placial conceptualization on which to rebuild the society (and the architecture) of the present and of the future, in the epoch of the Anthropocene, wants place to be understood and used as the complementary part of space, so that a truly systemic understanding of the phenomena and processes of reality becomes possible employing those two complementary concepts, in between the concrete placial physicochemical and biological contingencies of the planet earth with its inhabitants, from plants to mankind (reality as the place of physicochemical, biological, ecological and social processes), and the abstract spatial possibilities of human plans, projected into an indeterminate future (reality as the space of cultural and symbolic processes, which are specific of mankind). Now, it should be clear that I do not simply consider place and space in the guise of common concepts or even technical concepts in architectural, physical, philosophical, artistic, literary, social, political, or whatever sense; much more relevant to the complete understanding and attribution of sense to the human (and non-human) presence in this World, I consider place and space two of the most fundamental concepts through which understanding, explaining and communicating the happenings within and without ourselves. Those concepts (and what they represent) offer entities (both physical and ideal) the possibility to exist! Without place, no concrete thing can exist (things are places themselves). Without space, no thought, idea or property detached from — this is abstraction properly —  any concrete thing can exist. One concept (place), particularly apt and adaptable to come to terms with the concrete/actual side of the World, which preexisted mankind and will survive to it; the other (space), particularly apt and adaptable to come to terms with the other side of the World, its abstract, ideal or potential side, which is the exclusive domain of mankind and its related socio-cultural and symbolic phenomena.

This takes me back to the specific architectural argument of the previous article, making a more explicit pronouncement on the sense of the term ‘ambiguous’ I’ve used in the opening title with regard to ‘space’: On the Ambiguous Language of Space, I’ve said. For about the last three hundred years (since the formalization of Newton’s vision), in the light of the abovementioned failures of ‘space’ in minimizing the gap between the abstract mechanistic and deterministic plans of mankind (plans to transform the world and societies – plans conceived in ‘space’), and the concrete processes of nature, which relentlessly happen in place, I tend to consider the term space ‘ambiguous’ in the negative sense of the term ambiguity (as that which generates confusion, lack of clarity, and ultimately human failures on a planetary scale, as we are experiencing in the present time of a global environmental crisis)  and not in the proactive and positive meaning of that which can be understood in two senses, as a third kind of reality, specifically, in-between the two senses that make the concrete and the abstract domains complementary parts of one and the same encompassing reality. With respect to this complementary understanding of reality, I consider place and space two concepts that more than others can embody and sustain the essential complementary of factors – concrete and abstract, physical and ideal, actual and potential, bodily and mental – that constitute the fundamental structure of reality: place, on the one hand, is that which keeps together and ordered — in physical, temporal and locational terms — the range of actualized processes spanning from physicochemical to symbolic, passing through biological, ecological and sociocultural processes (then, to begin with, place defines the concrete and actual reality of facts, happenings, events and phenomena); space, on the other hand, is that which offers those processes the possibility to exist as potential entities and/or to be analyzed in abstraction from the contingences of place, that is, in abstraction from the actual reality of facts, happenings and phenomena (then, space defines the abstract, ideal or potential domain for those processes: it is the blank paper where the architect draws a line to  represent a wall, or even the mental substratum that allows a wall to be imagined before being erected, or, again, the substratum that allows a physicist to hypothesize thoughts experiments, and so on). As I briefly explained above, with respect to our new condition of inhabitants of the Anthropocene, and with respect to the belief that concepts of space and place, more than other concepts, may convey a complete sense to understand and communicate the experiences of the real world, I believe the concept of ‘space’ failed the task of conveying a complete sense and understanding of the phenomena of reality (both concrete and abstract or concrete ⇌ abstract), because space, due to its fundamental abstract nature, couldn’t take account of the intrinsically ambiguous structure of reality, in-between the concrete and the abstract; the pictorial expression place( )space, which I sometimes use,  is a way to represent the unity of reality understood in complementary placial and spatial modes or terms. Then, the supposed ambiguity of space, which is so characteristic of its use in metaphorical expressions, is only apparent, more formal than substantial, and, again, this is in accord with the fundamental abstract nature of space; so, in the end, we could consider space as a powerful,  very useful notion to let us imagine an infinity of abstract possibilities (space offers ‘room’ to those possibilities, space is the abstract realm where possibilities exist), but its ultimate success or usefulness when it had to come to terms with the contingencies of the concrete side of the world is highly debatable. So according to this perspective, space is not that ‘ambiguous’ as it should be, that is it is not a ‘two sided’ concept or a concept that can take care of, sustain,  nurture and give room to both abstract possibilities and concrete facts at the same time, as it may superficially appear from its metaphorical use (in Platonic sense, this double function of taking care, sustaining, nurturing and giving room to both concrete facts and abstract possibilities is absolved by the concept ‘chōra’ as an in-between reality that let actual and potential, physical and ideal, concrete and abstract modes of existence meet); on the contrary, I believe space is a ‘one sided’ concept: the side of space is merely ‘abstract’ (merely ‘ideal’, in the Platonic sense) and whenever we use it in situations that require us to consider both concrete facts and abstract possibilities,  we are prone to failure or superficial thinking, which, ironically, is due to the intrinsic epistemological limitations of that concept (here, the logical error known as ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ — the tendency to misplace the abstract for the concrete — originates). My proposal to look at place as a more reliable concept with respect to the possibility of taking care of, sustaining,  nurturing and giving room and voice to both concrete and abstract sides of the world (that’s why I’ve said in the past that the concept of place I’m presenting here is very close to the Platonic ‘chōra’, as a reality which can sustain both physical and ideal modes of reality), and, even more, the possibility to consider place and space as complementary concepts — place( )space — to come to terms with the encompassing nature of reality is a possible solution to the quagmire of (spatial) ambiguity, which is inherent to reality and its understanding in both placial and spatial modes of existence.

Concerning the specific spatial and/or placial language of architecture and its procedures, after the architect has taken confidence with the actual reality of the rhythms, routines, and happenings of the place where he/she is requested to make a project, the initial creative stage of a project is necessarily an ideal or abstract phase, a synthetic phase where the architect thinks in terms of abstract space or spaces (literally, architects create new space or spaces)  making use of abstract thinking and strategies, memories, past experiences, abstract knowledge, imagination, making use of geometries and other symbolic or representational tools and techniques, through which he/she comes to terms with the complex and concrete reality of the specific place for which the project has been imagined and developed (here, the analogy map/territory is very powerful for the architect). Architecture is an inherently circular discipline that develops in-between the allure of infinite potential possibilities sustained by space, and the concrete contingencies, happenings or events sustained by place; whenever that circularity is interrupted or off-balance, architecture loses its specificity and its enormous potential. Conversely, in those cases where the architect is able of letting abstract and concrete domains integrate as One unique realm, inclusive of and sensitive with the different levels that simultaneously sustain the fundamental structure of reality (physical, chemical, biological — hence physiological and psychological in the human sense, and ecological in the global sense — sociocultural and symbolic levels) well, in those fortunate cases architecture becomes a successful enterprise, having a precise historical value. Architecture consists of creating spaces (space, the arena of thought: a mental or abstract domain — the domain of imagination and open possibilities) and modifying existing places for dwelling (place: to begin with, the actual realm of matter and energy, facts, events and phenomena). As a consequence, starting from the incipt of a famous definition of architecture given by Mies van der Rohe one century ago, and adapting it to the new era according to the placial and spatial understanding of reality I am pursuing at, this is what architecture might represent: the will of an epoch translated into space and place.[4]


[1] Among others, this is attested by Martin Heidegger  ‘the Greeks have no word for “space”. This is no accident, for they do not experience the spatial according to extensio but instead according to place (topos) as chōra, which means neither place nor space but what is taken up and occupied by what stands there’,  in Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), 69  and by the mathematician Salomon Bochner see the Introduction to the entry ‘Space’, in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume IV (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1973), 295. See also the note [18] in the article Place, Space, and the Fabric of Reality.

[2] The Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, declared the Anthropocene to be the dawn of a new human-influenced epoch following the Holocene. Current environmental changes of the Earth-system are deemed to be the direct effect of the human agency on this planet. There is scientific evidence for this: rising CO2 levels, airborne particulates from fossil fuel burning in sediments, unprecedented levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in soils, pushed extinction rates of animals and plants, dispersed radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests, etc. See  Paul J. Crutzen, “The Anthropocene“, in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene edited by Ehlers and Krafft  (New York: Springer, 2006).

[3] Man had in ‘space’ a powerful allied concept to reform the modern society in a mechanistic and deterministic sense, starting from its application in different domains of the human life beginning with astronomy and continuing with the engineering of industrial production, economy, politics, the management of the territory in a strict material sense, etc.

[4] This issue was addressed by Mies van der Rohe in the article ‘Baukunst und Zeitwille’ (Building Art and the Will of the Epoch) originally published in the magazine Der Querschnitt, 4, 1,(1924), pp. 32-32, and reproduced, in English, in Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991), 245-247. The incipit of the definition I have used here – ‘Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space’ -, which I have extended to place, is also traceable to a note of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) released on September 17, 1947, on the occasion of the presentation to the public of the retrospective exhibition of the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. Simultaneously with the opening of that exhibition, a book edited by Philip Johnson was also published containing the works and the writings of Mies van der Rohe. Concerning that note from the MoMA, reporting the writings of Mies van der Rohe, we read: ‘Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space. Until this simple truth is clearly recognized, the new architecture will be uncertain and tentative. Until then it must remain a chaos of undirected forces. The question as to the nature of architecture is of decisive importance. It must be understood that all architecture is bound up with its own time, that it can only be manifested in living tasks and in the medium of its epoch. In no age has it been otherwise.’ Again, a few definitions later we read: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space; living, changing, new.” The same concept is also attested in the Storia dell’ Architettura Moderna, by Kenneth Frampton (Bologna: Zanichelli Editore, 1993), 185. It is important to point out that Mies’s fundamental statement has an evident echo in the considerations made by the German historian and philosopher of history Oswald Spengler who, in his Decline of the West (1918), extended the analysis of space to the western culture as a whole, saying that ‘Every Culture stands in a deeply symbolical, almost in a mystical, relation to the Extended, the space, in which and through which it strives to actualize itself. ’ See, Cornelis van de Ven, Space in Architecture (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1978), Part Four, Chapter III, 166. Moreover, as it is stated by Simon Unwin and Christina Johnsson in the introduction to E.G. Asplund’s inaugural lecture ‘Our architectural conception of space’, held at Stockholm’s Tekniska Högskolan in 1931, and published in the journal ‘Architectural Research Quarterly‘, Volume 5, Issue 2, June 2001, 151-160, ‘maybe Spengler’s work had more influence on architects in Europe during the 1920s than is generally recognized. ’ In that lecture, Asplund made a lucid analysis of the intimate connection between architecture and the spatial values intrinsic to the modern Western society, giving the opportune credit to Spengler – ‘our philosophical mentor ’, Asplund says, in the final part of his lecture – for the philosophical foundation of that analysis, centred on the notion of infinite space, the signature of Western culture and modernity, especially.

Works Cited

Asplund, Erik Gunnar. ‘Our architectural conception of space’. In Architectural Research Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 2, 2001.

Bochner, Salomon. ‘Space’. In Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1973.

Frampton, Kenneth. Storia dell’Architettura Moderna. Bologna: Zanichelli Editore, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Museum of Modern Art. Museum of Modern Art Presents Retrospective Exhibition of the Architecture of Mies van der Rohe. New York: MoMA press-release, 1947.

Neumeyer, Fritz. The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991.

van de Ven, Cornelis. Space in Architecture. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1978.