Published on the 28th of August, 2018
When our protagonist came to consciousness and started to become aware of the natural and manmade boundaries surrounding her, sooner or later she began to seek shelter. As she honed in on her instinctual architectural skills, she found herself building a small hut that would fit her body and the projection of her body around her personal bubble of space; any larger than that felt to be not as cozy and did not give her the feeling of shelter that she was craving. She created her first enclosure.
Throughout my experience as an architect, I have found that many – if not all – of my clients did not understand the concept of “enclosure”. Many see walls as a disruption, be it on an interior or urbanistic level, and my clients tended to prefer to keep things as open as possible. There could be many reasons for that; either it is a reaction against blanket building blocks on the urban level, or perhaps the need to feel free and open as walls would somehow remind my clients of feeling caged in. Of course, seeing images of open plan houses that have been flooding the internet over the past few years have not really helped the matter, as our clients implore us to recreate the camera friendly (but perhaps not human friendly) interior of the rooms with no boundaries.
While in many cases we at RiadArchitecture LOVE the idea of blurring and releasing the boundaries to allow for rooms or spaces to spill into one another, the issue that we have is that of “Awareness”; meaning, do we know why we have chosen to blur these boundaries and create a feeling of openness and intersection of spaces? Does it make sense for the philosophy of the project? What is the narrative behind this design choice? And, in some cases, how can the users reconfigure the space to create boundaries and enclosures as they please, should they choose to do that in the future?
We tend to find that in residential projects (starting small from the interior spaces of the bedrooms and living rooms and growing to a collective of residential blocks in urbanistic conversation with one another), designing to give a sense of enclosure is a rather important aspect that many take for granted. But why is “enclosure” so important? We took a step back a few weeks ago and asked our friends on our social media pages if they had ever built a blanket fort in their youths; if so, what did they use said fort for? This question resonated with many of our followers and their responses were quite revealing. Some built blanket forts to help focus at times in need of concentration, like studying for exams and such; others used blanket forts to play with their figurines, action figures, and dolls, feeling that the blanket fort allowed their imagination to run wild – as if it was a blank canvas where anything was possible; others used the blanket fort as a place to comfort them when they were scared, anxious or sad, feeling that this space gave them the opportunity to escape the real world and tend to their emotional wounds and needs.
We asked our followers about their experiences with blanket forts because we felt that this was the most rudimentary form of enclosure; feeling that the body is surrounding by boundaries on all fronts, allowing the human body and perception to feel that there is a bubble surrounding them and protecting them from the outside world, either physically, emotionally, or mentally. This bubble is rather important, as when we are in our bubble, we can feel that we are the only people on this plane of existence (sometimes people would need to feel that way in order to heal). We retreat to our bubble when we need some privacy, or when we need to concentrate, or go wild with our imagination, or just be alone with our thoughts for some time. We rarely think that someone else could be actually quite close to our bodies, perhaps only inches away, but are separated through a thick wall.
Blanket forts are forms of enclosure that are very intimate, people who join us in this enclosed bubble are those that we are comfortable with to let into our intimate space, like a lover, or a sibling, or a very close friend. These might be the most extreme example of a need for enclosure, but as we scale out we find that the need still exists but on different emotional scales. In his fascinated book, “The Hidden Dimension”, Anthropologist Edward T Hall goes through a series of human spatial bubbles which he termed “the Proxemics of Space”. Hall charted out a list of interpersonal distances between two or more human beings as the following:
Intimate Distance – or the distance between people that would facilitate, encourage and suggest interactions such as whispers, touching, embracing…etc. The close phase is listed at 1-2 cm, and the far phase is listed at 15-45 cm.
Personal Distance – for interactions between close friends and family. The close phase is listed at 45-75 cm, and the far phase is listed at 75-125cm
Social Distance – for interactions among acquaintances and casual friends, perfect for meeting someone for the first time. The close phase is listed at 125-210cm, and the far phase is listed at 210-375cm.
Public Distance – use for public speaking, or interactions between society that do not require socialization or getting to know people on a social level. The close phase is listed at 375-760 cm, and the far phase goes beyond that.
Understanding this concept of proxemics is an important tool for any designer, as it contextualizes the idea of distances in relationship to the human being – and thus starts to build an objective framework for that elusive idea that we in the design field called “human scale”.
In order tofully grasp what all this has to do with the concept of enclosure, I want you to think about all the places that you have visited in your life, hotel rooms, other people’s bedrooms, restaurants, bars, lounges, clubs, public arenas… etc. Think about how the sense of enclosure in one space encourages the human to social or interact with the others in the same enclosure. For example, the way most bars are set up encourages human beings to engage at an intimate distance more so than a personal distance, which is why many find the idea of going to places as bars and lounges to be quite exciting, as it allows them to connect to others on a more intimate level. Alternatively, bars and lounges that offer a larger space for people to move around may not allow for that, but it may encourage mingling with strangers instead. I was recently involved in a discussion with a restaurant owner who has been rather unsuccessful in attracting a certain archetype of client to his place (though who prefer the more dense bars that encourage intimacy), yet at the same time this owner was perplexed that his spot was able to attract a different archetype of client that is more prone to mingling with strangers, and this was because the way he set out the layout of the tables encouraged one social interaction over the other. In order for his business to thrive and become more successful, he should be more aware of how the sense of enclosure his place provides affects his clients and build on that, rather than try to turn it into something that it is not.
As we zoom out even more to the public arena, we find that urban spaces that are designed with a deep understand of enclosure tend to be more successful than those that or not. Renaissance Italy is a perfect example of using enclosure to the design’s benefit, as many of the piazzas in Rome, Florence, Venice, Verona, Naples and many other Italian cities are always full of life and energy. These piazzas are seen as extensions of the collective space, or a big urban room as opposed to leftover space. Each of these spaces has their unique charm to it, and each one of them encourages a different use of space than the other; one space is best used for restaurants, others for processional use, others perfect for social interaction, and some for meditation / contemplation, all based on the designer’s understanding of the scale of the space in relation to the human being and the proxemics of space.
Furthermore, if one looks at a Noli plan of any Italian city of the Renaissance era, they will quickly notice that urban or negative space is carved out within the positive blocks of architecture (which can take an irregular shape to serve the mastering urban space infront of it), which is the complete opposite of how many architects and town planners function today. In today’s world, urban space is the happenstance leftover space after the architect or urban planner as copy paste his prototype at will. This type of planning kills any hope for social interaction in both the social and public arena. Perhaps there are governmental officials in banana republic countries that understand this notion quite well and has instructed the town councils and planning officials to scrap any notion of introducing meaningful public spaces that would allow for urban public and social discourse, to allow the masses they govern, rule and control to only be aware of the notions of intimate and personal space in the sprawling suburban new towns that such governments seem to love so much, throwing in a vast large landscape area in the middle to masquerade as the “public arena” that is completely scaleless in relationship to the human being and thus unable to be an effective space for social and public congregation.
In Paul Spreirgen’s book “Urban Design: The Architecture of Towns and Cities”, he diagrams the effective distances of the space in relationship to the building surrounding it to allow man to perceive such a space as an enclosure or urban room; buildings that are too high in relationship to the space dwarf the space and allows the urban room to be quite scaleless and ineffective; by comparison, buildings that are too short for the space in front of it also kills any notion of enclosure and the perception of space is entirely lost. We designers must become more mindful when designing space, and have a deeper understanding of what an enclosure is and how it may affect human behavior in order to continue to allow architecture to have a role in human development and evolution.
See you next month :)
Mahmoud M M Riad
Director of RiadArchitecture