Monday, January 3, 2011


One of the simplest yet least understood concepts in architecture is that of positive versus negative space.  However esoteric it may sound, its applications to home and landscape design are immediate and tangible.

The basic idea is simple.  Imagine a rolled-out sheet of cookie dough.  Think of positive space as being the cookies cut out from the dough, and negative space as the pointy scraps left behind.  

In planning, just as in cookie-cutting, the name of the game is to minimize the sharp-angled or unusable scraps of negative space that are left over.  Alas, unlike baking, you can’t just gather them up and knead them into more dough--you have to figure out what to do with them ahead of time.  

The desirability of positive space is rooted in the fact that nature’s fundamental closed shape is the circle, or at least some approximation thereof.  And regardless of how far man removes himself from his primitive beginnings, circular shapes remain the most psychologically comforting for human habitation--a fact borne out by the widespread persistence of circular dwellings, from mud huts to yurts to igloos, despite the fact that they are not necessarily the simplest shapes to construct.   

We in the industrialized nations, however, live in a rectilinear world that’s chock full of negative space.  Outdoors, common examples would include those useless slivers of side yard that zoning ordinances insist on having between houses--the house, in this case, being the “cookie”.  Inside, negative space could include that dust-catching wedge of space under a stair, or that inaccessible corner of the living room that always seems to gather dust bunnies.  

There are a few simple ways to avoid negative space in architecture:

•  Avoid shapes having acute angles, both in plan and elevation.  Modern architects were (some still are) smitten with acute angles precisely because they’re rare in traditional architecture.  But while razor-sharp angles make for cheap drama, they don’t make for comfortable living--a fact vernacular builders have recognized for centuries.  Psychologically, converging surfaces are disconcerting, whether they’re in a sharp cornered room or a single-slope vaulted ceiling.  Physically, they’re just plain impractical.  Take a lesson from the past, and keep interior angles at ninety degrees or more.

•  Strive for areas with a circular sense of enclosure.  The closer a room arrangement approaches a circular shape, the more comfortable it’ll be.  This doesn’t mean the room itself should be rounded--just that the arrangement of the objects within it should be reasonably equidistant from a central focal point.  In a long, narrow living room, for example, a couple of more-or-less circular furniture arrangements would prove more comfortable for conversation than one long, stretched-out grouping.

•  Apply these concepts to exterior design as well.  Take a typical rectangular plot of land with an ell-shaped house in the middle:  the structure’s presence necessarily subdivides the outdoor area into smaller rectangular pieces, many of them awkwardly proportioned.  What to do with these negative leftovers?  

The best solution is to break down awkward negative spaces into a series of organically-shaped positive spaces--as many as are useful--and fill the leftover negative space with planting.   Note that size doesn’t determine whether the space is positive or negative;  even a triangular scrap of land a few yards on a side could be transformed into positive space by adding, say, a garden bench comfortably surrounded by a cloak of plants. 

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