Monday, April 9, 2012


Positive space, negative space.  They sound like some kind of flaky New Age terms.  But actually, they’re one of the oldest and most basic concepts in design.  Nothing could be more deeply-rooted in the human psyche--yet both amateurs and architects routinely ignore their implications.

Simply put, positive space represents space that we want, while negative space is what’s left over.  To draw a simple analogy, imagine cutting out cookies from dough.  The cookies represent the positive space, and the pointy scraps left over are the negative space.  In architecture as in baking, the idea is to maximize the number of cookies and minimize the leftover scraps.  

As it happens, maximizing positive space is even more important in architecture than in baking, since you can’t ball up the leftover scraps and roll more dough out of them.  You’ve pretty much got to cut things out right the first time. To stretch the analogy even further, it also happens that architectural forms that are roughly circular--like cookies--provide a much stronger sense of comforting enclosure than do those nasty angular scraps left over from cutting them out.

As basic as this principle seems, you’d be surprised how often architects violate it.  Acute angles, with their jagged, knife-like shape, are inherently dramatic, and we architects are nothing if not suckers for drama.  But there’s a price to pay for this kind of cheap effect.  Acute angles inside buildings can’t be comfortably inhabited by anything other than gnats and spiders, and it’s not too much to say that they also have an unsettling effect on the human psyche.  Deep in our primitive brains, converging angles still give us an uneasy sense of walls closing in, of entrapment--not exactly the ambience you want for your living room.  

The Chinese design principles known as Feng Shui have long warned against acute angles--”secret daggers”--which are thought to generate malevolent forces.  It’s just another way of saying that sharp angles creep people out.
For their part, Western psychologists might allude to the womb to explain why humans gravitate toward rounded spaces and shun angular ones.  To be sure, more-or-less circular shapes are one of nature’s favorite forms, appearing in practically every living thing from the cell on up.  

Now, none of this implies that rooms should be literally round--a pretty impractical idea, what with all our relentlessly linear building materials.  But it does suggest that rooms shouldn’t contain wall or ceiling angles sharper than ninety degrees, and that they shouldn’t be more than half again as long as they are wide.  Nor should they have sharp angles intruding into them, or far-flung, dead corners with no through traffic.  This applies to outdoor rooms as well, except that here, you can use landscaping to produce a pleasingly positive space for people to inhabit.  

In short, the closer you come to approximating a circular shape--whether using architectural features, furniture arrangements, or planting--the more comfortable your rooms will be.  Whether we call the result intimate, auspicious, secure, or just plain cozy--we all know positive space when we feel it.

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