The Art in Architecture - Space (Part I)

(As a disclaimer upfront: I am not a licensed architect in the State of North Carolina, nor do I practice architecture or offer to practice it. I am a licensed builder and design and build modern homes.  I employ the professional help of a licensed structural engineer on all my projects. The following is simply my personal reflection on art, architecture, and space)


It could arguably be said that the field of Astrophysics tries to understand the biggest and smallest unimaginable of our universe through mathematics. Religions the metaphysical of our existence through believed truths. And the arts?

I think that through art we in part try to search, to grope through, the unimaginable of ourselves. Our being. With art we guess. We wonder. We ask. We criticize. We briefly juxtapose synapses that ever so fleetingly make sense of it all. Creating it or consuming it. Senseless ideas and emotions are read by our senses. Art doesn’t explain. It gives sense. Sense through senses. And you engage because you have to. It is a ravenous and ambiguous beast.

Architecture at its best is all of that.

It is, for one, through the qualities of space. Space as in the sense of a defined inhabitable volume. We all know the feeling of such space well. As children we build blanket fortresses. As adults we pull chairs around a campfire and get lost in a few hours of comradery. With space there is a place, a function, a geometry.  And a sense about certain qualities. The metaphorical womb is a space with the qualities of warmth and protection. The space of a cathedral has the quality of hollowed grandeur reaching to the heavens, offering a distinctly different experience than that of a subway station. A mountain top to a forest. Each  instance engages us differently and tugs on our strings in a certain way. This sense of space is a fundamental part to our understanding of ourselves in the world. 

Good architecture plays on that. It finds just the right elements to create a space. From an enclosed cell to a simple marker on the ground. It finds the right textures, whether cold, warm, rough, liquid, smooth, or airy, out of millions of qualities. It finds the right play of light and shadow, brightly washed out, rippled by beams of light, or cast in darkness. All to play with your senses, to stir up emotions, to toy with desires, generate thoughts, awaken memories. Space can be big or small, cold or cozy, invigorating or calm, menacing or inspiring, happy or solemn.

Space also offers a sense of place. An idea of home, tying into the perceived and real history of its inhabitants, their commonality and shared story.

Picasso is known to have said that he never did "a painting as a work of art. All of them  are researches" and "when it is finished, [a picture] still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it."

For architecture the canvas is space.

Zaha Hadid once said that “architecture is how the person places herself in the space. Fashion is about how you place the object on the person.”

As the quality of space has an essential effect on our sense of ourselves, it is on architecture to work it carefully. The careful consideration and creation of that space is maybe the most important task of architecture. In it lies its art.

If the space you engage with does not stir your soul, it's not worth inhabiting.

Searching for those qualities is an act of trial and error, of skill and guesswork. Of taking two steps forward and one back. And in the end it has to be built with attention to every detail just to find out how one really might feel engaging with it.

As a designer and builder of modern homes I get to play with space on a daily basis. Both conceptually and in its built form. I can't imagine doing it in any other way. Since I get to shape and adjust the qualities of a space in our imagination and then get to ensure every, material, every detail, every color, every inch, is carried out and created as intended and fine-tuned in the field. And I get to test it out myself and see what the inhabitants experience.

modern contemporary schoenberg residence climbing library staircase stair charlotte nc

In between the rooms for three sisters in the Schoenberg Residence, for instance,  we created the space of a library that climbed as a stair over a set of cushioned platforms. To sit, play, and read, while being surrounded by books. The last platform at the very top of the space sticks out of the building in a box of windows amongst a group of tree tops in a cocoon like fashion. The acustics on the top are almost muffled. The mother of the girls told me after a few months of living in the house that she would find herself during sleepless nights curled up in a blanket at that spot, cuddled up among her children. The world at peace.

modern architecture charlotte nc cube black glass entry

For the entry at the Woung Residence we chose to provide an angled plane as a roof over an otherwise glassed in space. It separated two distinct volumes, the 2-story black cube on the left for the live-in suite of the son and the 1-story shed roof home of the handicapped parents on the right. The exterior sidings of each structure carry through the foyer and fold away for access to each part of the home. Both buidlings set in an angle, the space narrows the view to the end as you enter the house, taking you visually back outside. The space is rich with a sense of push and pull and views that change your orientation. It sucks you in and back out, providing a moment of pause and re-orientation before being guided either to your left or your right. A space like a white whater swirl of sorts.

And then …

Toby Witte