Place: the relationship between space and time

Place: the relationship between space and time.


“The power of place will be remarkable.”

Aristotle, Physics


“Place, too, not less than time, pervades everything; for everything that happens is in a place.”

Simplicius, Aristotelis categorias commentarium


In western cultures, the concept of time is linear and measurable and the concept of space is physical and three-dimensional.  In contrast, in some other cultures, there is no concept of linear time and no tangible aspect to space.

For the traditional owners of the Wadjak boodjar (Perth land), the same breezes visit as visited ancestors, the water and birds provide the same soundtrack and the rocks, trees and earth which sheltered ancestors still provide shelter.  In this way, the past is always present. A continuity of knowledge and communication invokes a sense of timelessness rather than a few fleeting moments in time.  Similarly, in Japanese culture, space was not traditionally seen as inhabiting the physical realm but, rather, an imaginative or spiritual one.

With this in mind, it may be said that place has a consciousness.  But what is place and what is architecture’s role in the perception of place? Expanding on the analogy of the vessel suggested by Aristotle in Physics, is place that which surrounds (the built form) or that which is surrounded (by the built form)?  For Aristotle the essence of a thing precedes its existence. In the same way that a vessel contains water or air, place is what holds a thing.  It is the first unchangeable boundary of that which it surrounds and can be seen as both how it is in itself and how it is relative to other things.

In Japanese culture, the concept of ma (negative space) contemplates place as experiential and subjective rather than physical and objective.  Place is a synchronous recognition or perception of the built form and that which it surrounds together with an individual’s subjective experience. Place is not created merely by physical compositional elements, but is instead an internalised feeling within a person.

Although most architecture focuses on a visual response, the way in which we experience and perceive architecture is multi-sensory. Architecture can borrow, once again from Japanese culture, the concept of shitsukan, “a sense of material quality” or “material perception” which describes our perception as working through multi-sensory recognition.  This is echoed by Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa who notes that “architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.”[1] He writes further that “spaces, places, and buildings are undoubtedly encountered as multisensory lived experiences. Instead of registering architecture merely as visual images, we scan our settings by the ears, skin, nose, and tongue.”[2]

In Place and Placelessness, phenomenologist Edward Relph sees places as fusions “of human and natural order” and the “significant centres of our immediate experiences of the world.”[3] Space becomes place when it attracts human experience.

Christian Norberg-Shulz writes that changing a space to place is the existential purpose of architecture.[4]  However, space making and the physical manifestation of the built form alone do not define our experience of architecture.  Indeed, they are just factors which form our consciousness of place and shape our experience of architecture as physical, mental, visual … or even visceral.



[1] Pallasmaa, Juhani. 1996. The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the senses (Polemics). London: Academy Editions: 50.

[2] Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2000. Hapticity and time: Notes on fragile architecture. Architectural Review 207: 78–84: 78.

[3] Relph, Edward. 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion: 141.

[4] Norberg-Schulz, Christian. 1985.The Concept of Dwelling: On the Way to Figurative Architecture. New York: Rizzoli.