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In architectural design, space is a critical element that can impact a building’s function, atmosphere, and overall aesthetic. Architects use space to create a sense of flow and movement (function) within a building, and to control the amount of light and air that enters.

They also use space to create a sense of hierarchy and order, to separate public and private areas, and to define different functions within a building.

Form and space are complementary

Form creates space. And since the space must be used for particular functions, form must follow function.


Form refers to the physical structure or shape of an object, including its size, mass, and volume. Form can be organic or geometric and can convey emotions and ideas through its design. Space refers to the area around, between, and within objects.

It can be positive or negative, and it affects the perception of form. Positive space refers to the occupied space of an object, while negative space refers to the unoccupied space around it.

1) Formation of Space in Architecture

  • The spaces created by a building include both interior space and exterior space, which may interweave or influence each other.
  • Architectural elements like columns, walls, floors and ceilings are physical elements that shape a space.
  • Form contains functional spaces and spaces offers particular experiences.
  • Parameters controlling form and space include shape, degree of enclosure, dimensions, proportions, materials, colours and textures.
  1. In plan, columns at four ‘points’ of a square grid define a rectangular space in between. In elevation, they are seen as vertical linear elements of the space.
  2. In plan, a row of columns creates a ‘line’ that separates two spaces. At the same time, it creates a vertical ‘plane’ — walls are vertical planes, and floors and ceilings are horizontal planes. They create the ‘volume’ of spaces for our daily activities.
  3. Buildings in a city can be regarded as large-scale ‘volumes’. The elevations of the buildings create external spaces between their vertical planes. These spaces may be narrow streets or wide plazas. 

2) Relationship of Form and Space

The relationship between form and space is central to the principles of design and art. Form refers to the physical structure, shape, and appearance of an object or composition, while space refers to the area or volume around, between, and within objects.

  • The relationship between form and space is dynamic, as the form can define and shape space, while space can influence and alter the form. For example, a tall building creates a sense of vertical space, while a wide-open park creates a sense of horizontal space.
  • In design, the relationship between form and space is used to create visual interest, convey mood and emotions, and communicate ideas. Positive space refers to the occupied space of an object, while negative space refers to the unoccupied space around it. The balance between positive and negative space can create a sense of harmony, stability, and visual interest in a composition.
  • In design, form and space are used to create balance, harmony, and visual interest. The relationship between form and space can convey a sense of depth, movement, and scale. Designers consider the use of form and space to create compositions that are aesthetically pleasing and communicate their intended message.

3) Form and Space (unity of opposites)

Our visual field normally consists of various elements that differ in shape, size, color, or orientation. To better comprehend the structure of a visual field, we tend to organize its elements into two opposing groups.

  • Positive elements, which are perceived as figures and Negative elements, which provide a background for the figures.
  • Our perception and understanding of a composition depend on how we interpret the visual interaction between the positive and negative elements within its field.
  • Our visual field normally consists of heterogeneous elements that differ in shape, size, colour, or orientation.
  • Architectural form occurs at the juncture between mass and space. In executing and reading design drawings, we should be concerned with both the form of the mass containing a volume of space as well as the form of the spatial volume itself.
  • The interdependent relationship of the forms of mass and space in architecture can be examined and found to exist at several different scales.
  • At each level, we should be concerned not only with the form of a building but also its impact on the space around it.
  • At an urban scale, we should carefully consider whether the role of a building is to continue the existing fabric of a place, form a backdrop for other buildings, or define a positive urban space, or whether it might be appropriate for it to stand free as a significant object in space.
  • At the scale of a building site, there are various strategies for relating the form of a building to the space around it.
  1. A building can form a wall along an edge of its site and begin to define a positive outdoor space.
  2. Merge its interior space with the private outdoor space of a walled site.
  3. Enclose a portion of its site as an outdoor room and shelter it from undesirable climatic conditions.
  4. Surround and enclose a courtyard or atrium space within its volume—an introverted scheme.
  5. Stand as a distinct object in space and dominate its site through its form and topographical positioning—an extroverted scheme.
  6. Stretch out and present a broad face to address a view, terminate an axis, or define an edge of an urban space.
  7. Stand free within its site but extend its interior spaces to merge with private exterior spaces.
  8. Stand as a positive form in negative space.
  • At the scale of a building, we tend to read the configurations of walls as the positive elements of a plan. The white space in between, however, should not be seen simply as background for the walls, but also as figures in the drawing that have shape and form.
  • Even at the scale of a room, articles of furnishings can either stand as forms within a field of space or serve to define the form of a spatial field.
  • The form and enclosure of each space in a building either determines, or is determined by, the form of the spaces around it.
  • When we place a two-dimensional figure on a piece of paper, it influences the shape of the white space around it. In a similar manner, any three-dimensional form naturally articulates the volume of space surrounding it and generates a field of influence or territory which it claims as its own.

4) Horizontal and vertical elements of form defining space

Horizontal and vertical elements of form play an important role in defining space in design and art. Horizontal elements, such as horizontal lines and flat surfaces, create a sense of stability and calm, while vertical elements, such as vertical lines and tall structures, create a sense of height and drama.

  • In architecture, the use of horizontal and vertical elements can influence the perception of space. For example, a room with high ceilings and tall windows creates a sense of spaciousness, while a room with low ceilings and small windows creates a sense of intimacy.
  • In design, the combination of horizontal and vertical elements can be used to generate and define specific types of space. The choice and arrangement of these elements will depend on the intended message and overall design concept of the project.

By considering the relationship between form and space, designers and artists can create compositions that are aesthetically pleasing and effectively communicate their intended message.

5) Horizontal elements defining space

i) Base Plane

  • A horizontal plane laying as a figure on a contrasting background defines a simple field of space.
  • For a horizontal plane to be seen as a figure, there must be a perceptible change in color, tone, or texture between its surface and that of the surrounding area.
  • The stronger the edge definition of a horizontal plane is, the more distinct will be its field. Although there is a continuous flow of space across it, the field nevertheless generates a spatial zone or realm within its boundaries.

ii) Elevated plane

  • A horizontal plane elevated above the ground plane establishes vertical surfaces along its edges that reinforce the visual separation between its field and the surrounding ground.
  • Elevating a portion of the base plane creates a specific domain within a larger spatial context. The changes in level that occur along the edges of the elevated plane define the boundaries of its field and interrupt the flow of space across its surface. If the surface characteristics of the base plane continues up and across the elevated plane, then the field of the elevated plane will appear to be very much a part of the surrounding space.
  • If, however, the edge condition is articulated by a change in form, color, or texture, then the field will become a plateau that is separate and distinct from its surroundings. degree to which spatial and visual continuity is maintained between an elevated space and its surroundings depends on the scale of the level change.
  1. The edge of the field is well-defined; visual and spatial continuity is maintained; physical access is easily accommodated.
  2. Visual continuity is maintained; spatial continuity is interrupted; physical access requires the use of stairs or ramps.
  3. Visual and spatial continuity is interrupted; the field of the elevated plane is isolated from the ground or floor plane; the elevated plane is transformed into a sheltering element for the space below.
  • Elevating a portion of the ground plane establishes a platform or podium that structurally and visually supports the form and mass of a building. The elevated ground plane can be a preexisting site condition, or it can be artificially constructed to deliberately raise a building above the surrounding context or enhance its image in the landscape.
  • The examples on these two pages illustrate how these techniques have been used to venerate sacred and honorific buildings.
  • An elevated plane can define a transitional space between the interior of a building and the outdoor environment. Combined with a roof plane, it develops into the semiprivate realm of a porch or veranda. A section of the floor plane can be elevated to establish a singular zone of space within a larger room or hall.
  • This raised space can serve as a retreat from the activity around it or be a platform for viewing the surrounding space. Within a religious structure, it can demarcate a sacred, holy, or consecrated place.

iii) Depressed base plane

  • A horizontal plane depressed into the ground plane utilizes the vertical surfaces of the lowered area to define a volume of space.
  • Lowering a portion of the base plane isolates a field of space from a larger context.  The vertical surfaces of the depression establish the boundaries of the field. These boundaries are not implied as in the case of an elevated plane, but visible edges that begin to form the walls of the space. The field of space can be further articulated by contrasting the surface treatment of the lowered area and that of the surrounding base plane. A contrast in form, geometry, or orientation can also visually reinforce the identity and independence of the sunken field from its larger spatial context.
  • The degree of spatial continuity between a depressed field and the raised area surrounding it depends on the scale of the level change.
  1. The depressed field can be an interruption of the ground or floor plane and remain an integral part of the surrounding space.
  2. Increasing the depth of the depressed field weakens its visual relationship with the surrounding space and strengthens its definition as a distinct volume of space.
  3. Once the original base plane is above our eyelevel, the depressed field becomes a separate and distinct room in itself. Creating a stepped, terraced, or ramped transition from one level to the next helps promote continuity between a sunken space.
  • Depressed areas in the topography of a site can serve as stages for outdoor arenas and amphitheatres. The natural change in level benefits both the sightlines and the acoustical quality of these spaces.

iv) Overhead Plane

  • A horizontal plane located overhead defines a volume of space between itself and the ground plane.
  • Similar to the manner in which a shade tree offers a sense of enclosure beneath its umbrella structure, an overhead plane defines a field of space between itself and the ground plane. Since the edges of the overhead plane establish the boundaries of this field, its shape, size, and height above the ground plane determines the formal qualities of the space.
  • While the previous manipulations of the ground or floor plane defined fields of space whose upper limits were established by their context, an overhead plane has the ability to define a discrete volume of space virtually by itself. If vertical linear elements such as columns or posts are used to support the overhead plane, they will aid in visually establishing the limits of the defined space without disrupting the flow of space through the field.
  • Similarly, if the edges of the overhead plane are turned downward, or if the base plane beneath it is articulated by a change in level, the boundaries of the defined volume of space will be visually reinforced.
  • The major overhead element of a building is its roof plane. It not only shelters the interior spaces of a building from sun, rain, and snow, but also has a major impact on the overall form of a building and the shaping of its spaces. The form of the roof plane, in turn, is determined by the material, geometry, and proportions of its structural system and the manner in which it transfers its loads across space to its supports.

6) Vertical elements defining space

  • In the previous section, horizontal planes defined fields of space in which the vertical boundaries were implied rather than explicitly described. Also, discusses the critical role vertical elements of form play in firmly establishing the visual limits of a spatial field.
  • Vertical forms have a greater presence in our visual field than horizontal planes and are therefore more instrumental in defining a discrete volume of space and providing a sense of enclosure and privacy for those within it. In addition, they serve to separate one space from another and establish a common boundary between the interior and exterior environments.
  • Vertical elements of form also play important roles in the construction of architectural forms and spaces. They serve as structural supports for floor and roof planes. They provide shelter and protection from the climatic elements and aid in controlling the flow of air, heat, and sound into and through the interior spaces of a building.
  1. Vertical linear elements define the perpendicular edges of a volume of space.
  2. Single vertical plane articulates the space on which it fronts.
  3. L-shaped configuration of vertical planes generates a field of space from its corner outward along a diagonal axis.
  4. Two parallel vertical planes define a volume of space between them that is oriented axially toward both open ends of the configuration.
  5. U-shaped configuration of vertical planes defines a volume of space that is oriented primarily toward the open end of the configuration.
  6. Closure: Four vertical planes establish the boundaries of an introverted space and influence the field of space around the enclosure.

i) Vertical linear element

  • A column, obelisk, or tower establishes a point on the ground plane and makes it visible in space. Standing upright and alone, a slender linear element is nondirectional except for the path that would lead us to it’s position in space.
  • When cantered in a space, a column will assert itself as the center of the field and define equivalent zones of space between itself and the surrounding wall planes. When offset, the column will define hierarchical zones of space differentiated by size, form, and location.
  • Two columns establish a transparent spatial membrane by the visual tension between their shafts and Three or more columns can be arranged to define the corners of a volume of space. This space does not require a larger spatial context for its definition but relates freely to it. The edges of the volume of space can be visually reinforced by articulating its base plane and establishing its upper limits with beams spanning between the columns or with an overhead plane.
  • Le Corbusier believed to be the “Five Points of the New Architecture.” His observations were to a great extent the result of the development of reinforced concrete construction that began in the late nineteenth century. This type of construction, in particular the use of concrete columns to support floor and roof slabs, afforded new possibilities for the definition and enclosure of spaces within a building.
  • Concrete slabs could cantilever beyond their column supports and enable the “free facade” of the building to be “light membranes” of “screen walls and windows.” Within the building, a “free plan” was possible since the enclosure and layout of spaces were not determined or restricted by the pattern of heavy load-bearing walls.
  • Interior spaces could be defined with non-load-bearing partitions, and their layout could respond freely to programmatic requirements.
  • On the facing page, two contrasting examples of the use of a column grid are illustrated:
  1. A column grid establishes a fixed, neutral field of space in which interior spaces are freely formed and distributed.
  2. A grid of columns or posts corresponds closely to the layout of the interior spaces; there is a close fit between structure and space.

ii) Single Vertical Plane

  • A single vertical plane, standing alone in space, has visual qualities uniquely different from those of a freestanding column. A round column has no preferred direction except for its vertical axis. A square column has two equivalent sets of faces and therefore two identical axes. A rectangular column also has two axes, but they differ in their effect. As the rectangular column becomes more like a wall, it can appear to be merely a fragment of an infinitely larger or longer plane, slicing through and dividing a volume of space.
  • A vertical plane has frontal qualities. Its two surfaces or faces front on and establish the edges of two separate and distinct spatial fields. These two faces of a plane can be equivalent and front similar spaces. Or they can be differentiated in form, color, or texture, in order to respond to or articulate different spatial conditions. A vertical plane can therefore have either two fronts or a front and a back. The field of space on which a single vertical plane fronts is not well-defined. The plane by itself can establish only a single edge of the field. To define a three-dimensional volume of space, the plane must interact with other elements of form.
  • The height of a vertical plane relative to our body height and eye level is the critical factor that affects the ability of the plane to visually describe space. When two-feet high, a plane defines the edge of a spatial field but provides little or no sense of enclosure.
  • When waist-high, it begins to provide a sense of enclosure while allowing for visual continuity with the adjoining space. When it approaches our eye level in height, it begins to separate one space from another. Above our height, a plane interrupts the visual and spatial continuity between two fields and provides a strong sense of enclosure.
  • The surface color, texture, and pattern of a plane affect our perception of its visual weight, scale, and proportion. When related to a defined volume of space, a vertical plane can be the primary face of the space and give it a specific orientation. It can front the space and define a plane of entry into it. It can be a freestanding element within a space and divide the volume into two separate but related areas.

iii) L-shaped configuration of planes

  • An L-shaped configuration of vertical planes defines a field of space along a diagonal from its corner outward. While this field is strongly defined and enclosed at the corner of the configuration, it dissipates rapidly as it moves away from the corner.
  • The introverted field at the interior corner becomes extroverted along its outer edges. While two edges of the field are clearly defined by the two planes of the configuration, its other edges remain ambiguous unless further articulated by additional vertical elements, manipulations of the base plane, or an overhead plane. If a void is introduced to one side of the corner of the configuration, the definition of the field will be weakened. The two planes will be isolated from each other and one will appear to slide by and visually dominate the other.
  • If neither plane extends to the corner, the field will become more dynamic and organize itself along the diagonal of the configuration.
  • Building form can have an L-shaped configuration and be subject to the following readings. One of the arms of the configuration can be a linear form that incorporates the corner within its boundaries while the other arm is seen as an appendage to it. Or the corner can be articulated as an independent element that joins two linear forms together. A building can have an L-shaped configuration to establish a corner of its site, enclose a field of outdoor space to which its interior spaces relate, or shelter a portion of outdoor space from undesirable conditions around it.
  • L-shaped configurations of planes are stable and self-supporting and can stand alone in space. Because they are open-ended, they are flexible space-defining elements. They can be used in combination with one another or with other elements of form to define a rich variety of spaces.

iv) Parallel Vertical Planes

  • A pair of parallel vertical planes defines a field of space between them. The open ends of the field, established by the vertical edges of the planes, give the space a strong directional quality. Its primary orientation is along the axis about which the planes are symmetrical. Since the parallel planes do not meet to form corners and fully enclose the field, the space is extroverted in nature.
  • The definition of the spatial field along the open ends of the configuration can be visually reinforced by manipulating the base plane or adding overhead elements to the composition.
  • The spatial field can be expanded by extending the base plane beyond the open ends of the configuration. This expanded field can, in turn, be terminated by a vertical plane whose width and height is equal to that of the field. If one of the parallel planes is differentiated from the other by a change in form, color, or texture, a secondary axis, perpendicular to the flow of the space, will be established within the field. Openings in one or both of the planes can also introduce secondary axes to the field and modulate the directional quality of the space.
  1. a pair of parallel interior walls within a building
  2. a street space formed by the facades of two facing buildings
  3. a colonnaded arbor or pergola
  4. a natural topographical form in the landscape

v) U-Shaped planes

  • A U-shaped configuration of vertical planes defines a field of space that has an inward focus as well as an outward orientation. At the closed end of the configuration, the field is well defined. Toward the open end of the configuration, the field becomes extroverted in nature.
  • The open end is the primary aspect of the configuration by virtue of its uniqueness relative to the other three planes. It allows the field to have visual and spatial continuity with the adjoining space. The extension of the spatial field into the adjoining space can be visually reinforced by continuing the base plane beyond the open end of the configuration.
  • If openings are introduced at the corners of the configuration, secondary zones will be created within a multidirectional and dynamic field.
  • If the field is entered through the open end of the configuration, the rear plane, or a form placed in front of it, will terminate our view of the space.
  • If the field is entered through an opening in one of the planes, the view of what lies beyond the open end will draw our attention and terminate the sequence.
  • If the end of a long, narrow field is open, the space will encourage movement and induce a progression or sequence of events.
  • If the field is square, or nearly square, the space will be static and have the character of a place to be in, rather than a space to move through. If the side of a long, narrow field is open, the space will be susceptible to a subdivision into a number of zones.
  • U-shaped configurations of building forms and organizations have the inherent ability to capture and define outdoor space. Their composition can be seen to consist essentially of linear forms. The corners of the configuration can be articulated as independent elements or can be incorporated into the body of the linear forms.

vi) Four planes: closure

  • Four vertical planes encompassing a field of space is probably the most typical, and certainly the strongest, type of spatial definition in architecture. Since the field is completely enclosed, its space is naturally introverted.
  • To achieve visual dominance within a space or become its primary face, one of the enclosing planes can be differentiated from the others by its size, form, surface articulation, or by the nature of the openings within it. Well-defined, enclosed fields of space can be found in architecture at various scales, from a large urban square, to a courtyard or atrium space, to a single hall or room within a building complex. The examples on this and the following pages illustrate enclosed spatial fields in both urban and building-scale situations.
  • Historically, four planes have often been used to define a visual and spatial field for a sacred or significant building that stands as an object within the enclosure.

vii) Openings in Space-Defining Elements

  • No spatial or visual continuity is possible with adjacent spaces without openings in the enclosing planes of a spatial field. Doors offer entry into a room and influence the patterns of movement and use within it. Windows allow light to penetrate the space and illuminate the surfaces of a room, offer views from the room to the exterior, establish visual relationships between the room and adjacent spaces, and provide for the natural ventilation of the space. While these openings provide continuity with adjacent spaces, they can, depending on their size, number, and location, also begin to weaken the enclosure of the space.
  • An opening located wholly within a wall or ceiling plane often appears as a bright figure on a contrasting field or background. If centered within the plane, the opening will appear stable and visually organize the surface around it. Moving the opening off-center will create a degree of visual tension between the opening and the edges of the plane toward which it is moved.
  • Multiple openings may be clustered to form a unified composition within a plane or be staggered or dispersed to create visual movement along the surface of the plane.

7) Qualities of Architectural Space

The qualities of an architectural space, however, are much richer than what the diagrams are able to portray. The spatial qualities of form, proportion, scale, texture, light, and sound ultimately depend on the properties of the enclosure of a space. Our perception of these qualities is often a response to the combined effects of the properties encountered and is conditioned by culture, prior experiences, and personal interest or inclination.

i) Qualities of Space

  • Form
  • Color
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Sound
  • Proportion
  • Scale
  • Definition
  • Degree of Enclosure
  • View or outlook
  • Light

ii) Properties of Enclosure

  • Shape
  • Surface
  • Edges
  • Dimensions
  • Configuration
  • Openings

iii) Degree of Enclosure

The degree of enclosure of a space, as determined by the configuration of its defining elements and the pattern of its openings, has a significant impact on our perception of its form and orientation. From within a space, we see only the surface of a wall. It is this thin layer of material that forms the vertical boundary of the space. The actual thickness of a wall plane can be revealed only along the edges of door and window openings.

  • Openings lying wholly within the enclosing planes of a space do not weaken the edge definition nor the sense of closure of the space. The form of the space remains intact and perceptible.
  • Openings located along the edges of the enclosing planes of a space visually weaken the corner boundaries of the volume. While these openings erode the overall form of a space, they also promote its visual continuity and interaction with adjacent spaces.
  • Openings between the enclosing planes of a space visually isolate the planes and articulate their individuality. As these openings increase in number and size, the space loses its sense of enclosure, becomes more diffuse, and begins to merge with adjacent spaces. The visual emphasis is on the enclosing planes rather than the volume of space defined by the planes.

iv) Light

‘Le Corbusier’ Comments on Light

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms . . .”

  • Penetrating a space through windows in a wall plane, or through skylights in the overhead roof plane, the radiant energy of the sun falls upon the surfaces within the room, brightens their colors, and reveals their textures.
  • With the shifting patterns of light, shade, and shadows that it creates, the sun animates the space of the room, and articulates the forms within it. By its intensity and dispersion within the room, the luminous energy of the sun can clarify the form of the space or distort it.
  • The color and brilliance of sunlight can create a festive atmosphere within the room, or a more diffuse daylight can in still within it a sober mood. Since the intensity and direction of the light the sun radiates is fairly predictable, its visual impact on the surfaces, forms, and space of a room can be predicated on the size, location, and orientation of windows and skylights within the enclosure.
  • The size of a window or skylight controls the amount of daylight a room receives. The size of an opening in a wall or roof plane, however, is also regulated by factors other than light, such as the materials and construction of the wall or roof plane; requirements for views, visual privacy, and ventilation; the desired degree of enclosure for the space; and the effect of openings on the exterior form of a building.
  • The location and orientation of a window or skylight, therefore, can be more important than its size in determining the quality of daylight a room receives.
  • An opening can be oriented to receive direct sunlight during certain portions of the day. Direct sunlight provides a high degree of illumination that is especially intense during midday hours. It creates sharp patterns of light and dark on the surfaces of a room and crisply articulates the forms within the space. Possible detrimental effects of direct sunlight, such as glare and excessive heat gain, can be controlled by shading devices built into the form of the opening or provided by the foliage of nearby trees or adjacent structures.
  • An opening can also be oriented away from direct sunlight and receive instead the diffuse, ambient light from the sky vault overhead. The sky vault is a beneficial source of daylight since it remains fairly constant, even on cloudy days, and can help to soften the harshness of direct sunlight and balance the light level within a space.
  • Location of an opening affects the manner in which natural light enters a room and illuminates its forms and surfaces. When located entirely within a wall plane, an opening can appear as a bright spot of light on a darker surface.
  • When an opening is located along the edge of a wall or at the corner of a room, the daylight entering through it will wash the surface of the wall adjacent and perpendicular to the plane of the opening. This illuminated surface itself becomes a source of light and enhances the light level within the space.
  • Additional factors influence the quality of light within a room. The shape and articulation of an opening is reflected in the shadow pattern cast by sunlight on the forms and surfaces of the room. The color and texture of these forms and surfaces, in turn, affect their reflectivity and the ambient light level within the space.

v) View

  • Another quality of space that must be considered in establishing openings in the enclosure of a room is its focus and orientation. While some rooms have an internal focus, such as a fireplace, others have an outward orientation given to them by a view to the outdoors or an adjacent space. Window and skylight openings provide this view and establish a visual relationship between a room and its surroundings. The size and location of these openings determine, of course, the nature of the outlook as well as the degree of visual privacy for an interior space.
  • A small opening can reveal a close-up detail or frame a view so that we see it as a painting on a wall.
  • A long, narrow opening, whether vertical or horizontal, can not only separate two planes but also hint at what lies beyond.
  • A group of windows can be sequenced to fragment a scene and encourage movement within a space. As an opening expands, it opens a room up to a broad vista. The large scene can dominate a space or serve as a backdrop for the activities within it.

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