8. Space or Place?

“Space is the opportunity; place is the understood reality” Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems Steve Harrison & Paul Dourish, Xerox Research 1996


I hesitated a long time over whether to head this section Space or Place.

Place it seems to me is so much a marker for the human, a more natural way to begin this next important discussion. But I have chosen Space. Because it has an Imprecise vibration to it, an annoying, niggling way of just being. Of course I am going to be attracted more to place, it is more Comfortable, it is the way we make Space less scary, less destabilizing, more distant from our experience, mediated. Our battle with this discomfort, this irritation with Space, motivates us continually to define a place within it. And this section will meander across the definitions as my developing Imprecision battles with the desire to make Space a more precise reality and so more bearable to live with, more Comfortable.

Space is a fact, place is an invention, merely bounded space. Space cannot be held in permanent fixed and measured intervals nor in regular geometries. For the Imprecise space is a much more promising dimension, signalling potential expectancy value. Our earlier analyses of landscape only hinted at the space-place nexus but I think this is the main dilemma at the heart of the entire Imprecise continent. The distinction between the two words is hard to make and many theorists grappling with two difficult definitions tend to set up an opposition between place and space to cut through the dilemma, mistakenly preferring the former over the latter in describing the difficulty humans have in relating to the emptiness of space. In many ways the two concepts are unalike yet there is one occasion for the Imprecise when space is all the place you need.

To paraphrase the epigraph that heads this part of our deliberations, the Imprecise create opportunity by challenging reality as it is understood. For by space I do not mean place. Harrison and Dourish in the article from which the header quote is taken spend a lot of time building higher claims for place over space; it won’t surprise you to know that the Imprecise tend to do the opposite. Simply distinguished, space is the extent of an area on the earth’s surface, whereas place [2] is a particular point on that surface. Just as our brief overview of landscape revealed the moral aspects of our interaction with it, this disarmingly simple interpretation of why space and place are present in the landscape works a similar trick and the choice of term reveals a whole series of value judgements.

From an Imprecise point of view, space is much more exciting than place. Place is pre-determined for so many of us as a fixed point which has been taken out of circulation from the surrounding space and given definition, often not by ourselves. Many of the physical and social structures of place become rigid and difficult to re-interpret by the succeeding occupants and the current ones end up defending their rights to that place by no more positive value than precedence. Thus space loses its neutrality and genocide can be the result. The transformation of space into place takes place (I use the term advisedly) when humans give a random space such definition that even other non-users, although they may be denied access that place, are in no doubt that its meanings have been constructed by the interactions of other humans.[3] The strength of some of these interactions or meanings may be such that the “owners” of these places are held responsible for them and this responsibility for place has given rise to recent theories that the development of society occurs as and when the more active citizens become responsible for creating places.[4]

More prosaically people’s experience of place is defined in our culture as somewhere of which one has a defined “sense”; indeed “a sense of place” is considered a social virtue. Place can be termed appropriate and full of expectation, somewhere where we can move and have a more stable being as opposed to the sometimes excruciating if mainly social discomforts of being “out of place”. Making sense of space in this way converts it into place; much more under our control, much more like it, place becoming that part of space that we have loaded with values.

Our language is cluttered with these value references to place. Some of these usages are positive: we like to be in the right place at the right time or have friends in high places and are delighted when things fall into place; we like to change or trade places go places and give something pride of place; we are proud not to have a hair out of place and we take pride of place when it is offered; we express surprise on meeting someone “here of all places” and somehow we learn that there is a time and a place for everything. But many usages of place are negative: we talk about someone being all over the place or barging in as if they owned the place; we express anguish about finding ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time between a rock and a hard place; we expect people to know their place and we will put another sharply in their place; we want people to put themselves in our place and we don’t like them to scream the place down.

What now of space? From Space[5] derives the term spatial, and spatial relationships are at the heart of human interaction. It is important to distinguish between absolute space which refers to clearly distinct real and objective space, and relative space which is space as perceived by a person or society concerned with the relationship between events and between aspects of events. Space cannot be held in permanent, fixed, and measured intervals, or in regular geometries; this is particularly paradoxical when you consider that quantum physics has shown that space is time. The word has many fewer idiomatic uses in everyday speech: we speak of someone being a waste of space; we call on people to watch this space when we are hoping for change and it is of course the final frontier;[6] yet to speak of someone being a space cadet is less than complimentary.

Since his rediscovery in the 1990s Henri Lefebvre[7] is viewed as the person to have written in the most interesting way about space and place. In our crowded world the respect of our personal space no place is an endless negotiation between cultures yet we offer to make space not place for someone; not place perhaps all in deference to the impact people will have upon the space if settled. It may be that all human beings have the same perception of space at the biological level of perception but certainly every society uses its space differently both artistically and technologically. Perception of space is determined by culture and particularly by language; the European notion of time and space not being a universal given. Lefebvre however in my view confuses space and place, substituting space for place many a time. The major part of the argument amongst geographers occurs at the level of the meaning of place, which is seen as a part of space occupied by the human. Space is a fact, place is an invention and the most useful phrase to keep from Lefebvre if you keep only one is that place is bounded space, a description in keeping with other Imprecise notions in these pages.

Yet you do not make space as it happens as Einstein has shown us although we still find it hard to understand because we cannot go there and see it. Space is time: that must mean that it is a continuum on a curved journey which we encounter and with which we may interact yes but that is there before us and afterwards. Place I would see as space seized from time, fixed for a while until time overwhelms us and our places revert to space once again, just as archaeology is constantly revealing to us. These raids on space occur by order or by accident but either way the open dynamics of space need to be shut down for place to occur. The dynamic of the Enclosures of the 18th Century or the rape of Native lands may be the best metaphor for what I mean here: open space seized to become bounded place. There is no need here to emphasise how the introduction of the concept of ownership effected this transfer nor how that has led to the private over-exploitation of the resources of our owned spaces.

Do you feel like me a gradual drift here towards some Precise Comfort where space is paradoxically devalued in this way? The need to convert space into place is motivated by kenophobia, the fear of emptiness. Where does this tendency in me come from, this desire to fill the void? The human and quite excusable side of this dilemma may be found in my imperfect desire to want to give others a margin rather than create a vacuum; yet another position of Comfort that closes many options. Space is empty, neutral, poorly defined; and therefore means hope and potential value to the Imprecise. What can one say about a culture that fears these qualities?


Pythagoras is mostly known as the founder of the famous geometrical theorem but he held considerably wider views than just on mathematics, including transmigration of the soul and the need for vegetarianism. His school is supposed to have split into two, between those who worked on the maths, and those who delved into the mystical implications that such numeric order supposedly revealed. Amongst these is the concept of “apeiron”, perhaps the most influential to emerge, which sought to name the final state of boundlessness. Paradoxically this boundlessness could only be ascertained through limitation, the “peiron”. Pythagoras was from the oral tradition, but pupils subsequently recorded his theory that space was in fact a series of limited spaces separated by voids, the whole of which made up the boundless.

It is in this play between emptiness and form that number occurs, none of which would be possible without an organising spirit that Pythagoras termed Harmony, that old chestnut. For such an observably ordered universe to exist, things must be held together and it is harmony that so locks them together. As we saw earlier, this harmony has been variously interpreted though we might see it now as demonstrating the divine Watchmaker analogy[9].

Time for a story…


In the fifties last century, the architect Eric Lyons decided for one awkward housing development in the South of England that some immediate profit from the square footage of housing on the plot could be more efficiently raised by the provision not of dwelling places but of planted areas. These would also have the advantage of making the plot more agreeable, not to say attractive.

Lyons diverted post-war housing grants into building for the middle classes. Through the consequent constraint of having to build only in bourgeois places, in shorter supply than the bomb-sites in working-class areas for which the money was intended, he was often stuck with odd-shaped plots in curious places. Dealing with such gaps in these places through landscaping had definite commercial potential, not only for enhancing the initial value of the properties built by marrying his problem to a solution worked through fail-safe bourgeois taste, but also assisting the maintenance of value at a proportionately higher level above that of the local market for similar properties.

The profitable relation between direct and indirect value is a difficult sum to calculate in these circumstances but it was done many times by the Span builders. Larger gaps were left on site than might be warranted by the planning laws, concerned as they were with housing density rates light health fire access requirements and so forth; or by the empty gaps forced upon the team by the quirks of the terrain. Ivor Cunningham was Lyon’s landscape architect and he lived with a permanent angst: what was the true dynamic he was faced with? Was Lyons leaving room or creating a void? It was an important distinction.

The hope informed by their current values would have been that room was being left. All notion of creating a void had to be avoided (excuse the pun but funny how language somehow adds its own commentary). Apart from being a major human anxiety, all London was only just emerging from the results of heavy bombardment which had resulted in an overwhelming mass of voids in the landscape, the housing stock and the family. Everyone could enunciate a gap: emerging from the shelter one night to find the house gone and all contents, all proof of living, irredeemably blown away; the father who never returned home from fire duty; the familiar high street landmark destroyed; the school a pile of rubble under which lay the neighbour’s children.

To be continued…

[1] Tuan (Space and Place 54) writes that ‘Space lies open…it is like a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed. Enclosed and humanised space is place.’

[2] Reported from http://www.answers.com/topic/place-14

[3] ‘In the course of generating new meanings…people construct spaces, places, landscapes, regions and environments. In short, they construct geographies’ (P. Anderson and M. Gale 1992). Also see: D. Massey (Geography 87) emphasising the importance of place as ‘one of the arenas where people…learn to negotiate with others…to form this thing called society’.

[4] Needs a reference

[5] Reported from http://www.answers.com/topic/space-2013

[6] From the first line of the opening voiceover in the Star Trek television series. The following introductory text was spoken at the beginning of many Star Trek television episodes and films: “Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its 5 year mission: To explore strange new worlds; To seek out new life and new civilizations; To boldly go where no man has gone before”.

[7] See his book The Production of Space. By Henri Lefebvre (1974) Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, 454 pp

[8] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoreanism

[9] The teleological argument as first propounded by the utilitarian philosopher Rev William Paley DD (1743-1805) in his work Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature 1802