Tuan, Space and Place

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place (199 pages)

At the onset, Tuan proposes that a central theme of the book is to understand “how the human person, who is animal, fanatist, and computer combined, experiences and understands the world” (5). In his case, he specifically looks toward the ways people experience and make sense of their environment.

He offers two central terms to discuss this: space referring to “that which allows movement” and place referring to moments of pause, “each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place” (6). Movement—and experiencing space—is an embodied experience. We come to “know” a place through our movement and experiences within it.


  1. Experiential Perspective

A key concept of the book is experience: “what is the nature of experience and of the experiential perspective” (7)? As Tuan writes, experience “has a connotation of passivity; the word suggests what a person has undergone or suffered” (9). As such, it often “implies the ability to learn from what one has undergone. To experience is to learn; it means acting on the given and creating out of the given” (9). In this way, experience is a transformative process (it allows change to occur) and it is inventive. By venturing into unfamiliar territory, we are able to “experiment with the elusive and uncertain. To become an expert one must dare to confront the perils of the new” (9). Again, movement allows for transformation through experimentation with the uncertain.

Experiencing often involves our senses. Tuan focuses particularly on the senses that enable us to have feelings for space and spatial qualities: kinesthesia (ability to sense one’s limbs/body’s position), sight, and touch each allow us to experience space. Space, then, appears to refer to the inbetweeness among places: where objects are located and facilitating the movement between those objects. Place, itself, is a kind of object (12): “it is a concretion of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily; it is an object in which one can dwell” (12). Where space allows for movement, we also must note how movements are “directed toward, or repulsed by, objects and places. Hence space can be variously experienced as the relative location of objects or places, the distances and expanses that separate or link places, and—more abstractly—as the are defined by a network of places” (12).

The objects within a space, however, can often invite conventions of place; for example, the space may invite certain levels of voice depending on the spaciousness or volume of the room. Proximity, distance, etc, contribute to our movements and habits. As such, places and objects define space by giving it a geometric personality.


  1. Space, Place, and the Child

The infant is a particularly interesting subject when considering experience of movement in space and place: “the infant has no world. He cannot distinguish between self and an external environment. He feels, but his sensations are not localized in space” (20). Feelings, eventually, can attach to experiences (e.g. reactions to “empty”) and thus begin to develop metaphors rooted in experience with the physical world: “the infant uses his hands to explore the tactile and geometrical characteristics of his environment” (21). In other words, experience (which involves feelings) often begin tactilely.

In this way, an infant is limited in their experiences by their immobility: “a picture of a road leading to a distant cottage seems easy to interpret; yet the road makes full sense only to someone who has walked on it. An immobile infant can have no sense of distance as the expenditure of energy to overcome spatial barrier” (22). The adult, aside from their obvious necessity for the baby’ survival, also plays a large role in aiding in “developing [the baby’s] sense of an objective world. An infant a few weeks old has already learned to heed the human presence” (22).

As the child begins to crawl—thus becoming mobile—they have an attachment to mother-as-place. “Movement beyond the immediate vicinity of the mother or outside the crib entails risks with which the baby is not prepared to cope” (23). The infant latches onto the familiar and only gradually stretches toward the strange. In this way, we have to look at our definition of place: “a focus of value, of nurture and support” (29). This definition aligns very closely with the concept of mother thus allowing her to be the child’s primary place. As Tuan writes, “a man leaves his home or hometown to explore the world; a toddler leaves his mother’s side to explore the world. Places stay put. Their image is one of stability and permanence…Place, to the child, is a large and somewhat immobile type of object” (29). We have to note that Tuan’s concept of place and space is highly patriarchal: the domestic woman is coded as immobile in his model. Like the infant, immobility is a deficiency because movement/mobility is a primary source knowledge: to experience the new and unfamiliar through the senses. An immobile homebody is unable to do so.

In fact, Tuan notes that when seeing a female schoolteacher—the embodiment of domesticity outside the home—outside of her ‘place’ of the schoolhouse, “she upsets his system of classification” (30). Thus, we are surprised and upset by the mobile woman. Of course, Tuan does notes that such disruptions is evidence of the child’s inability to make sense of their new world.

“Separation,” or the inability to see the connections or relations between spatial elements, is another aspect where the child is unable to comprehend spatial elements. In this case, a child is often preoccupied with individual objects themselves rather than their connection. For example, when asked to draw a man with a hat, the hat is often drawn separated from the head and the man separated from the ground. This shows the child’s inability to see spatial relations. Toys can help show children the relations among objects: in taking a God-like position, looking at the earth from above, we can show the relations among objects, much like photography from 30,000 feet.


  1. Body, Personal Relations, and Spatial Values

Tuan opens this chapter by pointing to two fundamental principles of spatial organization—two principles where man organizes space. Both principles speak to the ways that the body “organizes space so that it conforms with and caters to his biological needs and social relations” (34): first, man looks toward his posture and structure of his human body and second, he looks to the relations between other human beings (social). As Tuan writes, “man [is] inhabiting the world, commanding and creating it” (34). As such, our body’s positions and cultural attitudes toward the body often influence how we perceive space, movement, and place: “man is the measure” or in other words, “in a literal sense, the human body is the measure of direction, location, and distance” (44). He notes, for example, the idea of “being close” as denoting intimacy as well as geographical proximity.


  1. Spaciousness and Crowding

As Tuan writes, “Spaciousness is closely associated with the sense of being free. Freedom implies space; it means having the power and enough room in which to act…the power to move” (52). Movement is a way of experiencing and thus making meaning from space. Immobility, then, impedes experience space: “an immobile person will have difficulty mastering even primitive ideas of abstract space, for such ideas develop out of movement—out of the direct experiencing of space through movement” (52). Tuan points to infants, prisoners, and the bedridden as unfree, immobile persons, unable to move freely. Tuan also points to man’s use of tools to experience space and spaciousness: a bicycle, for example, “enlarges the human sense of space, and likewise the sports car” (53).

However, the presence of other objects or other human beings can curtail or limit spaciousness, threatening openness. Crowding is seen in opposition to spaciousness. Unlike objects, however, other human beings can signal and bound behavior through social rules and performances. However, Tuan points to intimacy as a primary component of a sense of crowding. For example, the city may seem less crowded since people flow through the space in a kind of ambience without always taking note of all behaviors or individuals. The countryside, on the other side, can be more spacriousess, yet it’s intimacy and observation from a closer group can seem crowding. Tuan writes, “crowding is an awareness that one is observed. In a small town people ‘watch out’ for one another. Watch out has both the desirable sense of caring and the undesirable one of idle—and perhaps malicious—curiosity” (61).


  1. Spatial Ability, Knowledge, and Place

Tuan makes a distinction between spatial ability and spatial knowledge: “Spatial ability becomes spatial knowledge when movements and change of locations can be envisaged” (68). As described by Tuan, spatial ability is often a tacit and unarticulated process where individuals can navigate spaces often without conscious awareness (knowing how to get to a location because of landmarks or memory of other experiences). However, spatial knowledge is focused more on the wider picture of space/place.

Spatial knowledge is often developed through people’s movements within space: “when people come to know a street grid they know a succession of movements appropriate to recognized landmarks…when space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place. Kinesthetic and perceptual experience as well as the ability to form concepts are required for the change if the space is large” (72-3). In other words, people construct a sense of place through their kinesthetic and habitual movements within spaces. However, this sense of place is often only tacit—constituting spatial skill. To develop spatial knowledge, we can take note of map making: how do we articulate our movements and represent the physical?

Tuan takes particular note on how we navigate spaces either familiar or unfamiliar. We can often note spatial skill in familiar terrain: individuals use their memories of movents—their bodies and emotions tied together—to navigate familiar terrain. However, the ability to create maps for navigation likewise allows individuals to anticipate many kinds of movements and to create meaning from disparate objects within a landscape.


  1. Intimate Experiences of Place

            Again, Tuan defines place as a pause in movement: “the pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value” (138). People are often seen as places and homes; however, Tuan pushes back further and notes that permanence is a key element of place, regardless of whether they involve people, objects, or landscapes, but Tuan notes that people and objects go hand-in-hand in developing a sense of place. For instance, losing a loved one can have a drastic impact on how we experience place: “things and objects endure and are dependable in ways that human beings…[often] do not endure and are not dependable…[however] in the absence of the right people, things and places are quickly drained of meaning so that their lastingness is an irritation rather than a comfort” (140). For example, he talks about St. Augustine who, when having lost a friend, does not experience is hometown the same way any longer: “for Augustine the value of place was borrowed from the intimacy of a particular human relationship; place itself offered little outside the human bond” (140).

As such, objects—such as trees or walkways—are deliberately incorporated into place designs in order to stage encounters among people: “Trees are planted for aesthetic effect, deliberately, but their real value may lie as stations for poignant, unplanned human encounters” (142-3).

Tuan, then, discusses further the concept of home: “Home is an intimate place. We think of the house as home and place, but enchanted images of the past are evoked not so much by the entire building, which can only be seen, as by its components and furnishings, which can be touched and smelled as well…This surely is the meaning of home—a place where every day is multiplied by all the days before it” (144). In other words, permanent fixtures or objects can prompts memories that inhabit one’s home or place. The intimacy of the memories can define a home. In order to make meaning from these objects, it’s not simply vision, but rather touch and tactility.


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