March 2023

‘PLACES’ to ‘SPACES’- the paradoxical shift

Maria Akhtar is an Architect, Academician, Researcher and passionate Artist. She has com- pleted her B-Arch from Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur in 2014 and M-Arch in Architecture education from Smt. Manoramabai Mundle College of Architecture, Nagpur in 2017. Currently she is working as an Assistant Professor at Dayananda Sagar College of Architecture, Bangalore and a Research Consultant at Innovature Research and Design Studio (IRDS), Bangalore. Her research interest lies in the study of meaning of form in historic buildings, oral history and man-environment interaction. She has presented papers at various national and international confer- ences.

Manuel Castells in the ‘Rise of the Network Society’ 1996, states that the overall majority of people in advanced or traditional societies, alike live in places, so they perceive their place as space based. In history, this perception of space was a product of the socio-cultural beliefs of society. It was the symbolic content that translated the physical into the virtual realm, and places into space. This translation of ‘place’ into ‘space’, witnessed various paradoxes arising from changing philosophical and cultural contexts of the society, becoming paradigm on acceptance, and manifesting itself in the built environment.

This paper attempts to study the journey of such paradoxes into paradigms, through introspection of the architecture of the ancient world. The research shall chronologically reinterpret ancient architecture (particularly ancient Egypt), through the timeline, as a material expression of its culture. The paper shall conclude by identifying various cultural parameters, responsive in shaping the architectural expression of the past and hence proposing a scheme for reading architectural history in a cultural context.

This introspection of the journey of paradox to paradigm through history, shall impart humane perspectives for understanding the architecture of the Information Age, and also open fresh avenues towards historical interpretations and hence architecture education.

The Information Age is characterized by digitalization, computerization, and the rise of networks. This revolution has not just impacted jobs, the economy, and infrastructure but also changed the conception of human existence. Today we have more Facebook friends than real, conversations occur on social networks rather than cafes. In this backdrop of changing conception of human existence from real to virtual, how do we redefine architecture? How do we perceive physical space, when our existence is more virtual than physical? How do we design to address this duality of existence?

The paper attempts to address this duality of existence, through introspection of the past. This introspection is done in three layers, which can also be stated as the contributions of the paper. The first attempt to understand the past is deriving parameters for interpreting architectural history in a cultural context. Secondly, this learning is used to critically analyze the
manifestation of cultural beliefs into architectural form. It is this belief and value system that translate profane into sacred and ‘place ’into ‘space’. Thirdly, an introspection of spatial qualities of space for timelessness is used to propose versatile places in the network society. Therefore, the paper is an introspection of the meanings and interpretation of historic architecture, to solve the challenges of the present.

What makes historic architecture awe-inspiring. Why are historic buildings still a major landmark of the built fabric, and an essence of the society? Why do people still visit such places, despite it being functionally obsolete? What is that after centuries of its construction and use, it still leaves a mark on the heart of the visitor. What inspired the people back then, was to
put their sweat and blood into the creation of such monumental structures. What makes such structures constant in this exponentially dynamic world?

The answer lies in the quality of space that has rendered historic architecture timeless. This timelessness is achieved through the design and meaning of the built form, which still makes them relevant and vital to the people. This timeless quality can only be understood, when architecture is seen as a cultural artifact, and architectural history as a manifestation of its culture.

Architecture is not just about beautiful buildings, but it is a social act. The major objective of architecture remains to reflect the socio-cultural belief of the society through symbolism in form. Hence it can be said that appreciating architecture is not just about admiring the beauty, aesthetics, geometry, or monumentality, but it is about absorbing the emotions it conveys, in its experience and expression. One of the major objectives of this paper is to change the perception of architecture from a built form of enduring value to a container of human emotions.

Human existence is a product of time and space, and its essence lies in the chemistry between body and mind. The body exists in the physical realm i.e. “place”. The ‘place’ can be defined as the physical envelope surrounding a person, the behavioral space, in which he exists and acts. Whereas the intangible mind exists in a virtual envelope, perceived in the mind of a person, i.e. the virtual realm or ‘space’. Hence the notion of existence rests on this duality. We are physically present in a place, but also virtually exist in space, where our existence is representational and not literal. A devotee on the gate of the Golden temple, Amritsar does connect to the beauty of the gold tomb and lake but the glory of the tomb transports
him on a more divine platform, close to the religious leader buried inside. Hence, the physical realm (place), is transported into the sacred realm (space), through the layer of cultural values, which are manifested through the symbolism of the built form. Architectural history provides rich evidence, of this interconnection of ‘place’ and ‘space’. The spatial design of historic monuments provides a strong sense of place, yet artfully transports the viewer to the desired ‘space’.

Sense of ‘Place’
The conventional parameters of studying architectural history mainly rely on physical parameters like geography, geology, climate, site, material, construction technique, etc. These factors contribute to the built form in terms of material, construction, profile, and detail. Hence, they mark the nature of the existence of the structure on the urban fabric, in the most
appropriate way possible. The details of the built form, governed by these parameters, impart it a unique character, embedding a ‘sense of place’, in the eyes of the visitor.

The visitor undoubtedly and very promptly relates to the physical realm or ‘place’ around him by responding to its structure and character. We still admire the monumentality of the pyramids, the unraveling scale of the structure, and the materiality of the stone blocks, profoundly sitting on the sands of Egypt. The mystery behind the geometrical excellence of the monument is still unsolved. They are admired and acknowledged as one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Sense of ‘Space’
What did Pyramids mean to the kings buried within? Why did hundreds of workers selflessly invest their lives in constructing a tomb as monumental as the pyramids? Pyramids, in the contemporary context, are regarded as ‘architectural marvels’. But back then, in 3000 BCE, they meant much more to the people, than just a ‘marvel’ or a ‘monumental tomb’.

As discussed in the earlier section, the pyramids are appreciated for their exactness, massive size and scale, their building skills, refinement in the sculpture of the sphinx, the dedication of workers lifting so many heavy sites on the construction site, and so on. However, this material excellence is guarded by a strong belief system. The smooth transition of the king’s spirit ‘ka’ to the afterlife to meet ‘Ra’, assured prosperity and fertility in Egypt. The pyramids were built the way they were, only to facilitate the safe journey of ‘Ka’ to ‘Ra’.The spirit of the king after death would transcend up, to meet ‘Ra’, through the convergent tip of the pyramid. ‘Ka’ and ‘Ra’ would become one whole, at the gold apexof the pyramid. The prosperous after life of the king assured the afterlife of the entire kingdom. It was this urge for eternity that inspired people to put their heart and soul into the construction of the pyramid. They were metaphorically constructing their own afterlife. The dual existence of an individual is a factor of time and space, which overlaps with people and beliefs. The physical realm ‘place’, where the visitor exists relates him to the monumentality, scale, and beauty of the pyramid. Whereas its spatial quality transports the visitor into a sacred realm i.e. ‘space’, where he relates to the beholding of the eternity. It is this duality of space, which results in a complete architectural experience, and renders a structure timeless.

As discussed earlier, reading architectural history in view of physical determinants, only helps in mapping the ‘place’, whereas understanding the same place in a backdrop of the socio-cultural and philosophical context of the people and society, helps to perceive the ‘space’ in ‘place’. ‘Place’, then becomes the physical realm, which can be seen, felt, and experienced. Whereas ‘space’ depends upon the individual’s cognition of the place.

Historic architecture can be holistically understood as an interplay of space and time, and a product of people and belief. It is the interplay of these factors, which gives meaning and expression to the built environment.

Quest for Timelessness
History stands as a witness, to the duality of existence, and hence duality in built form. The journey of ‘place’ to ‘space’, and profane to sacred can be clearly traced from historical perceptions and interpretations. History should be admired not just for its monumentality and scale, but for the cultural value and ideas it manifests in its expression. The objective of proposing a fresh perspective towards looking at the architecture of the past is to capture the essence of the place and hence the concept of space in the present context. Therefore, the approaches to study and interpret architecture history, to understand its timelessness is as follows –

1. Characters of architecture
Architecture is like a theatre, which stages different socio-cultural activities of its time. Like theatre, the architectural language so developed depends upon the nature of its characters. The characters in architectural history, which shape the built environment may be stated as Geography, Art of Writing, Sculpture, Image of the god, Role of the king, Conception of death, and Cosmogony. Architecture is a representation of the spirit of these characters. It is these characters that majorly influenced the architecture of the past and shaped the total setting of
architectural production. Apart from specialized talent and technology, architecture is an outcome of the teamwork of these characters, which function as a family.

2. Expression of architecture
The tangible presence of a building is an expression of the intangible culture. The physical integrity of a building ensured by its structure, construction, material, technology, stands witness to the culture and belief system of the society. The physical form of a building not only conveys expertise in technology, material, and skill, but also functions as a narrative of the society, and symbolizes conceptions of its time. The basic purpose of architecture is to house a function, but its beauty lies in how well the meaning of function (ritual) is conveyed to
the observer.

For ex., as discussed earlier the pyramids are still appreciated for their design excellence. However, this excellence is guarded by a strong belief system. The hope of smooth transition of the spirit of the dead king to Ra, the faith that king and Ra together would bless people with prosperity, the aspiration to maintain the continuity as perceived in cosmogony (ma ’at). Without understanding the real meaning of the pyramid as an assurance of a good afterlife for the people, study of the pyramid would be equivalent to the study of any other royal tomb.

The expression of architecture lies in its meaning. Architecture is a cultural artifact, a reflection of society, and a container of human values. Architecture is given meaning through visual imagery and symbolism, where signs symbolize these ideas. The true meaning of architecture can only be understood by the people of the time, who have held their worldview in the
value system. Therefore, the primary step in understanding architectural history is seeing the monuments of the past, as symbols of their time, reflecting and strengthening the cultural beliefs of the society.

3. Democratic view towards architectural history
a. History of architecture is often imagined as the study of great monuments of the past, which speak about architectural innovation and excellence. Indeed, great monuments were ordered to be built by the rulers, royal treasury drained in construction, architects, and builders hired, to create monuments of grandeur. But humble structures like public buildings,
domestic architecture, bazaars, gardens, and granaries also are a representation of the architecture of its time, where users were the designers. In fact, local and indigenous architecture portray honest cultural reflections. through design and use. The great monuments are shaped by the influence of humble structures surrounding them. For ex., a worker’s tomb at Deir –el-Medina, says as much of the conception of death as the great pyramids of Giza. Therefore, while studying architectural history structures of all scales and nature should be given equal importance.

b. The world is dotted with pieces of architecture, small and big, built by man. But while studying architectural history, it is only the style that contributed towards the development of world architecture, often termed as formal style, is noted worthy of study. Other styles i.e. non-formal style of architecture are left untouched. This approach deprives us of reading several such styles, which were marvels in themselves, and was a just representation of their culture. Therefore, while studying architectural history, all architecture of the world should be appreciated, and not just the ones capable of standing out through monumentality of its scale and fashion. We must have genuine respect for the architectural achievements of all cultures, irrespective of their origin. Architecture should be appreciated for its quality of being an expression of the cultures.

Architecture is a social act and a result of complex cultural interplay which resides in the physical form. Physical constraints like geography, climate, economy, technology, etc. are modifiers of architectural form. Whereas the socio-cultural factors stated as characters of architecture, are determinants of the built form.

‘Place’ and ‘Space’- Paradoxical Shifts

Times have changed, but man hasn’t, rituals have changed but faith hasn’t, ‘place’ has changed but the quest for ‘space’ hasn’t. Hence, even in today’s context, all we need is a place, that caters to this duality of existence and hence to pluralisms in meanings.

Indian manifestation of such a versatile space is the courtyard being bounded, yet open to the vast sky. A place having a singular identity, standard design, conveying a sense of uniformity. It strongly marks the sense of place yet being so open-ended to adapt depending upon personal belief and value system. This versatility in design imparts a sense of personalized ‘space’, where an individual would exist as a part of the whole. Therefore, physical settings designed with such versatile and unique projections of ‘space’, provide the ‘place’
rich diversity and timelessness. Such places were meaningful in the past and are still relevant in the present. Loss of identity and human interaction in the Information Age, governed by virtual rather than physical presence, defines the need for such versatile places even more. Such versatile places are capable of touching the human heart in divine ways, hence bringing back peace in dual existence.

Universal qualities of built form

Architecture has the power to communicate through spatial tools. It is this quality of space that decides its emotional impact on the visitor. A visitor may just pass by a structure, in the most neutral way, without realizing its existence, or may stop for a moment feeling connected to the place. Furthermore, the structure may touch the visitor emotionally, forcing him to stop, observe, contemplate and experience the space. Such is the power of architecture to evoke emotions and convey meaning through its spatial configuration.

In the context of the Information Age, where priceless conversations occur over social media rather than coffee, where we have more Facebook friends than real, all we need are spaces capable of touching the visitors emotionally. The most important spaces today, are the places where human interaction occurs. Such places should have the universal qualities to evoke the lost emotions amongst people, just by their spatial experience. The paper proposes the need for such humane and culture-centric perception towards the built form. Such timeless qualities of the built form shall render them appropriate in all ages and all contexts.

All we need is a fresh perspective towards looking at the Information Age. A human-centric approach exploring the power of architecture to communicate, evoke emotions, and touch lives. With passing time and dynamism in function, technology, material, ornamentation the architectural character and style of the building will evolve. But the spatial experience of a
‘place’, will always remain the key, irrespective of the time and context because ‘space’ operates on a human plane.


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