The embrace of place
Although each place, be it a shack, a palace, a forest clearing, a garden, an alley or a room, offers us its unique range of potential dialogic relationships, one core relationship of being embraced by the place occurs in all places: the place is holding you and at the same time offers you options of disengaging from its embrace.
The tight holding of a hotel room and the limited option of disengagement offered by the narrow, heavily curtained window,
The tight holding of a narrow street and the options of disengagement offered by its elongated space provide you with access to other places, ultimately to the whole of the settlement,
The fluctuating holding of a group of people and the options of disengagement offered by the space in between and around them,
The loose holding of a valley and the options of disengagement offered by its wide space and open sky.
Each place involves you in whatever is present and whatever occurs within its boundaries. Each supports your movements and postures, supplies you with air, light, colors, textures, sounds and scents. As you enter a place it opens up and offers its content: a bed, a group of trees, a window, a passing car, a stretch of flooring, as well as its ambiance and the space between the entities that inhabit it.
As long as you are within a place you become part of it. It limits your world to whatever is within it and whatever can be accessed from it by your senses. It also mediates between you and the world outside it. As long as you are within the shack, the palace, the forest clearing, the garden, the alley, the room, etc., you are to a certain degree "the man in the shack/palace/ forest/ clearing/ garden/ alley / room". Your staying in any of these places becomes part of your identity.
The place has power over you: It is by definition larger than you. It only makes available a limited amount of space. Here and now you can interact with only those entities that share it with you. You are dependant on the spatial conditions provided by the place. Your movements are constrained by its terrain and your postures by the various supports it provides. The place also modulates and structures your access to what lies beyond it. All these relationships add up to what can be defined as a place's holding.
At the same time, places can also provide means of disengagement from their holding: openings, a large empty space and temporary or movable furniture, fixtures and boundaries.
The balance between a place's holding and the options of disengagement it makes available, is perceived as the place's embrace. When holding is predominant, a place's embrace is perceived as tight. When disengagement is predominant, a place's embrace is perceived as loose.
In order to enable us to fully live the existential quantum of here and now, each place, within the limits of its spatial conditions, should offer both components of holding and disengagement.
A place embraces you tightly,
• When it is small in size;
• When it has firmly enclosed boundaries;
• When it has an abundance of components that provide support, and impose order and constancy on all its features and participants;
• When it has a warm saturated ambience, warm colors, and soft textures;
• When it is made of durable materials;
• When its boundaries are firm and closed and allow direct access only to places that also embrace one tightly.
The holding of a place is loose:
• When it is large,
• When it has open boundaries that allow direct access to a public domain, natural landscape and the open sky,
• When it has few components that provide support;
• When it lacks order and constancy in the positioning and movement of its components and participants,
• When it has a cold empty ambience, cold colors, hard textures
• When it is made of impermanent materials.
Attempts to impose a unified spatial and formal order on a place are life denying, as are all attempts at completeness and perfection. Instead one should attempt to create a whole, in which the parts complement and accept one another.
For a place to enable us to live fully, it should offer elements of both a tight embrace and a loose one.
Places in which the spatial holding is predominantly tight should also offer certain options of disengagement.
A place that mainly offers options of spatial disengagement should also offer some components of holding:
To be in as place is to be immersed in a web of relationships: with people, space, objects and, at times also vegetation and animals. In all of these relationships one can discern various degrees of holding and disengagement. For example, being part of a group and keeping one's individuality, taking care of a plant and letting it grow wild, sitting on a hard chair or sinking into the soft body of an armchair.
The humanist designer attempts to create places that offer a balanced embrace - a full range of the spatial relationships each place can offer, and to keep spatial coercion at the minimum necessary for the sheer existence the place. A few examples:
a. The birth of a window:
Let us assume that your room on the third floor of a condominium overlooks this landscape:
If a window's design is to fully elaborate and celebrate its role as facilitator of choice, the designer has to respond to two phenomena:
1. The perpendicular and horizontal directions of the place in which we are, of the landscape outside and of our own body.
2. The limitations imposed by the size, directions and loco-motor abilities of our body on our ability to enact the spatial freedom of choice made available by the window.
When a window's shape does not relate to these directions and dimensions (for example one of Libeskind's windows), it becomes alienated from its potential for dialogic relationships and encounters us detachedly as an object that has aesthetic, technical or symbolic qualities and as a means of access to outside air, light and information.
A window's designer should however consider the limitations imposed by the need to protect from excessive radiation and from falling, while at the same time transforming these very limitations into an experientially enriching and balanced spatial situation.
The process of elaborating and celebrating a window as facilitator of choice is fully accomplished when the window region becomes a place in its own right: A balcony to which the room opens up through an "air screen"(a), a bay window (b) or a deep window (c). Spatial choice is than emphasized and disengaging options become a permanent and elaborated part of the room.
The windows that eventually emerged in the process described above elaborate and celebrate their role as facilitators of spatial choice, as well as fully enacting the potential of spatial dialogic relationships inherent to the room and the street viewed from it. Following are examples of traditional windows that elaborate and enrich the facilitation of spatial choice in a similar way:
* In this traditional Japanese house the opening is celebrated by becoming a place in itself, thus making spatial choice a powerful, expressive component of the house. The floor of the house extends into this area, the roof of the house shelters it and an upper strip of dense, semi-permeable lattice protects it from the harsh glare of the skies. The place is fully exposed to a garden that sends one of its rocks into it. The opening has been transformed into a well defined, comfortable and elaborated place that allows the choices it makes available to play an important role in the room to which it is adjacent.
* Henry Matisse's painting, "open window" depicts a traditional window the wings of which open inwards, leaving a clear if limited opening. This window provides a reasonable facilitation of choice, except for its narrowness, which does not make it possible to fully scan the outside landscape, which is inherently longitudinal; and for the height of its parapet, which restricts spatial choice to those regions of the place that are far from the window.
* A "French window", again depicted in a Matisse painting, elaborates choice by creating a hybrid of two spatially liberating openings – the virtual disengagement of the gaze offered by a window and the actual disengagement of exit offered by a door. Each in its way provides the dweller with a sense of being spatially free and combined into a "French window" they create the ultimate facilitator of choice.
When, as in this Parisian building, the whole street elevation consists of French windows, the spatial holding generated by the continuous mass of the building is balanced by their magnificent display of spatial freedom. This balance enhances the fullness of life and well-being of whoever happens to be in its presence.
* The opening becoming a place in itself, occurs also in bay windows.
Instead of just being an opening through which you may scan outside possibilities, the window has become a place. The freedom provided by the option of looking outwards has become a permanent fixture within the room. This involves a double process: on the one hand, the window is elaborated and the state of choice becomes more complex and rich, while on the other hand, the area of increased choice becomes differentiated from other areas in the room. The window has become a place in its own right. The lower the windowsill the more accessible is the outside landscape to the inner parts of the place, the more elaborated the spatial choice offered by the window.
b. In the Nof Haemeq neighborhood designed by Arie Peled and Illan Lahav, within the budget constrains and the procedural limits of public housing in the 1980’s, several elements were created that reduced the coerciveness of buildings and public domains.
1. Options were created for each apartment to evolve its own unique presence and the intermediacy between apartments was kept to the minimum necessary in condominium buildings (which were part of the client's brief). No co-shared places were created so as to avoid conflicts over ownership and use that are liable to occur in places of this kind.
To this end, condominiums were designed so as to follow the shape of the adjacent public domain and in a way that does not emphasize spatial holding.
In a society such as ours relationships between neighbors that may enrich their lives, do not occur in the context of co-shared places but spontaneously in places such as sidewalks, supermarkets, public gardens and educational facilities where people meet one another as part of their daily activities.
2. Within each square, cars, pedestrians and vegetation are blended into an integrated public domain similar to the Woonerf - the residential street developed by Dutch planners. This integration minimizes place coerciveness resulting from traditional separation and clear definition of the regions allocated to each of these three in public domains. To farther minimize place coerciveness, Daniela Amitay, the landscape architect of the project, planted only local vegetation, and we provided her with a layout that tried not to disturb the existing configuration of the ground in between the buildings as well as using a minimum of supporting walls and paving.
3. Staircases are open to public domains, thus minimizing intermediacy between public and privately owned places.
4. We provided the dwellers of each floor with options of making changes and extending their apartments:
The dwellers of ground floors can use the plot of land adjacent to their apartment (that is an extension of the apartment and not co-owned by the all dwellers of the condominium).For the dwellers of first floors, we provided options of extension on the roofs of air-raid shelters located at the back of each staircase. Second floor dwellers can add rooms inside their roof space.
5. We endorsed building permits for residents to make changes and extend their apartments as they saw fit, as long as they do not infringe on ownership rights of others, invade public domains and endanger the stability of buildings.
c. A Family Home designed by Arie Peled that was built on half of a plot for two families at 39 Hague street in Haifa. To spatially empower its dwellers, while keeping within the limits of budget and building by-laws, several design decisions were taken:
1. The plot was longitudinally divided, so that each family sub-plot will have direct access to the public domain of the street at the plot's southern side and a direct view of the Carmel nature reserve. Direct access to a place that belongs to the public and to a private or institutional owner and to a place that is under only partial human control, have a spatially liberating effect on dwellers of the building. The home was to be built on section 1, while the design of the second sub-plot was assigned to another architect, so as to enhance the autonomy of each of the homes by the dissimilarity of their shape and spatial configuration.
2. Direct access to ground and vegetation enhances the disengagement and spatial freedom offered by a place. Since the slope of the site was steep, in order to provide direct access to the adjacent ground from all parts of the building, four levels had to be created, each with its own courtyard. To make sure that one could stay in each of them without being exposed to the gaze of strangers, each of the courtyards is separated by a wall from street and neighbors.
3. The southern elevation stretches flat along all four floors, both providing direct views of street and nature reserve from most parts of the building and creating a tall upright entity that projects autonomy and self sufficiency.
d. A Family Home designed by Guy Tzur B.Arch. deploys its rooms on the two sides of a living room that opens up wide its other two sides to the surrounding garden. By creating a shallow hierarchy of places and a low intermediacy towards earth and sky, the coerciveness of the building is minimized and its dwellers empowered.
e. The redesign of an apartment for a young P.R. executive by Arie Peled, (described in the [I-place] procedure web page).
Her [I-Place] procedure indicated that her residence should have clearly demarcated boundaries and large windows [freedom] that do not over-expose her [clear boundaries]. The home-space should not be cluttered [order]. Furniture should be sparse, lightweight but soft, the flooring should have a wooden texture [cozy], and the walls and ceiling should be painted in warm, pale colors. Spatial conditions of a loose embrace that includes a minor component of holding.
The apartment was situated at the front of the second floor of an 8-flat condominium. The floor area was small and limited (85sq.m). Its spatial conditions created a tight embrace.
Based on the insights gained in the [I-place] procedure, we made the following decisions:
1. The apartment should be as spacious as possible so that spatial constrains are mineralized, since the larger a space, the more open options there are for entities to be in it and for actions to take place.
2. The apartment should have elaborated views of the street, offering options of visual disengagement to other places as well as to the vast expanse of the sky.
3. There should be no direct exposure to the building's backyard and the intrusive gazes of those living around it.
4. There should be plants, which by being, at least partially, not under human control, offer a certain degree of independence and freedom.
5. Furniture should be sparse so that the space remains relatively empty and uncluttered, maintaining a high degree of open options for entities to be in it and for actions to take place.
6. Furniture should be soft and lightweight and colors should be warm, pale, and unsaturated so that they provide gentle and loose inclusion.
The redesign of the apartment achieved maximum spaciousness by leaving it mostly empty and sparsely furnished. This spaciousness was further emphasized by dividing the apartment into only two main regions: A front open plan region comprising living room, kitchen, and dining area, and a back region with a bedroom, bathroom, and WC.
Further options of disengagement were provided by opening a large corner window in the living room. This window offered a more extensive/longer view down the street, in addition to an immediate view of the part of the street adjacent to the window.
Since a window in the back wall would have exposed the bedroom to the unwelcome gaze of neighbors, we opened the room up by means of an "air curtain" onto a deep, side balcony, which was then populated with an abundance of plants that acted as filters, providing an indirect and veiled view of the outdoors and of the sky. The very presence of plants enhances the disengaging potential of the room. Plants in the round bathroom window had the same filtering effect and prevented exposure to the gaze of neighbors.
f. Proposal for a high rise building by Arie Peled.
Even in this type of building where spatial control and over intermediacy are at their most extreme, it is possible to create spatial conditions that reduce the control of the spatial system over its inhabitants and provide them a less mediated contact with nature.
The spatial control that high rise buildings have over their inhabitants is generated by:
O The detachment of most of their component places from any ground,
O The complexity of systems necessary to their construction and performance,
O The many places one has to pass through to get from the main entrance to any of the apartments.
This basic coerciveness can however be ameliorated by:
1. Direct access from street to elevator (and emergency stairs) that will dispense with the intermediary places one has to pass through to get from the main entrance to any of the apartments. Checking of incomers will depend on security codes and surveillance cameras.
2. Location of elevator outside the building that, like direct access from the street, will increase the disengagement and autonomy of inhabitants.
3. Opening up of the parking "underworld" to the ground level through a wide, landscaped set of terraces that will detract from the coerciveness generated by the separation and total enclosure usually encountered in subterranean parking.
4. Limiting the depth of the building to 10m of acclimatized space (hence enabling direct contact with outside space from all its regions), flanked on both its sides by 3 m. deep strips of a variety of balconies and gardens.
5. Constructing the building so that it enables the residents of each floor to design their apartment as they wish.