Millions of us now recognize that the physical spaces we inhabit are not passive or ignorable, but intensely active, negotiable, changeable, and fraught with consequences every time we traverse them.
The last eighteen months have forced us to re-set our relationships with every kind of space.
A room that once functioned as an occasional way station becomes a crucible of confined boredom. The metaphor of ‘walls closing in’ springs to life like a scene from a horror movie. A street that served as a rapid conveyor, whisking you from one space to another, morphs into a static expanse, leaving you stranded and abandoned.
Or, conversely, the street outside your window morphs into a congregate playground exclusively for human traffic, bringing the inside, outside, upending social contracts about when, where, and how we meet others. The sounds filling your space adopt new rhythms, the decibel levels rising and falling out of sequence.
A room that once functioned as an occasional way station becomes a crucible of confined boredom.
The transformation of private and public spaces in ways we neither chose nor anticipated might trigger a life-affirming epiphany — or lead to an unsettled feeling, as if an unseen giant hand has picked you up and plopped you down in unfamiliar territory. A once-friendly space reveals its latent hostility, perhaps in the form of black mold, a gas leak, or worse yet, an eviction notice that carries a subtext: We are voiding your claim to space.
Now we know, if we did not before: Surroundings matter, even when you ignore them. For a long time, many of us did ignore them, intent on propelling our bodies from one space to another as efficiently as possible. Home was the place you left and then came back to: a holding tank, of sorts, offering respite, but only until you left again. You stopped noticing the sofa, the lamp, the crack on the wall, the way the light slants through the window.
Our spaces are hard and soft, our furnishings like the clothing we drape upon a mannequin composed of wood, brick, and steel. But much of the time, we’re too busy looking out to observe the hard and soft components within, and how they work together (or not) in our spaces.
Inhabiting a safe space to the point where its detailed nature, its very construction, may fall beneath your notice has been a privilege, and like most privileges, it comes with the luxury of not paying attention. One may assume home as a reality without needing to consider it consciously. While you may decorate with intention, the fact of your space is beside the point. Those of us in this position can afford a type of space-blindness: we inhabit, therefore we are.
We merge and blend with our primary space so thoroughly, we hardly pay attention to where our footpads end and the floorboard begins.
This has never been true for everyone. If you use a wheelchair, a walker, or a cane, you already dwell amid highly activated interior and exterior spaces. Space is dynamic, demanding to be noticed. It can be a beast, coming for you any moment — the unseen curb or bump, the slippery rug, the jutting table leg, the invisible splash of water on a tiled floor. If you cannot afford permanent shelter, then every space is an antagonist, if not an outright enemy, imposing its exhausting demands on your over-tired brain.
A good friend of mine will never sit with her back to an entrance, for she knows that’s how an enemy takes you by surprise.
The great closing-in wrought by the pandemic thrust our spaces upon those of us privileged to give them short shrift before. The luxury of space-blindness has forcibly yielded to a more conscious confrontation. The playing field has perhaps been leveled with those whose private space has never been synonymous with equilibrium.
Suddenly, you are always here, never there.
Home spaces are unexpectedly refracted in a fun-house mirror — shrunk, twisted, distorted. Individual rooms are like actors performing roles way outside their ranges. A cozy nook hurls accusations of pretentious posturing. A dining room is cast as an all-purpose confessional, a receiver of secrets, meltdowns, deadlines, and information piles — a far cry from its designated role as part-time entertainer.
Space in general has mutated like a spiky virus. New micro-spaces have emerged, some measured in six steps. Others measured in millimeters, such as the privacy curtain imposed by your mask, an intimately moist space that is both secretive and protective, a spatial form of self-care.
What to do, as our spaces demand to be noticed? On the one hand, you might double-down on settling in. One friend who did that filled her kitchen with the fragrant, steamy cloud of cooked jam, putting up hundreds of jars to fill her space — her way of striking back against a competing cloud of existential dread.
Space in general has mutated like a spiky virus.
Another friend sold up and moved out, putting a period on twenty-five years in a house where she raised two children. Starting over in new space perhaps fills a longing to breathe deeply once more, if only until the newness wears off.
A third friend embarked on a rigorous exercise regimen, reclaiming control over her most intimate space — her body — as a counterpoint to the threats she could not control in the other spaces of her life.
These reflections bring me around to my own intense and hyper-aware relationship with space, which long pre-dates the pandemic. Growing up in a series of houses, never in any of them longer than a few years, has made me deeply possessive, even prickly, about physical space. I imagine I am like a fish that can only thrive in water where the precise levels of oxygen and salinity are conducive to life.
I can walk into a room arranged by someone I dearly love and feel deeply uncomfortable — like a dog turning in circles three times before settling down. The placement of objects in the room, their heft, color, and shape, all put me on edge. The paint on the walls, the juxtaposition between rooms, or the way sunlight does or does not filter through blinds, can trigger a feeling that’s like wearing too-tight shoes. When a space feels wrong, and I feel wrong in it, I’m unsure whether to sit, stand, or pace. I’m incapable of obliviousness; space affects my body. As the great urbanist-philosopher Jane Jacobs noted, “Being human is itself difficult, and therefore all kinds of settlements…have problems.”
For years, I’ve had recurring dreams that unfold in a variety of indoor spaces. In these dreams, I wander through dilapidated rooms, losing my bearings, distressed by broken furniture, scarred walls, awkward layouts, and I can’t fix any of it. I panic that I’m stuck there, in a space that feels maddeningly incompatible, giving rise to a sense of dis-arrangement and displacement, as if I’m a refugee forced out of my true home.
I know little about the ancient Chinese art of feng shui, which seeks to harmonize individuals with their surroundings. But the intention makes perfect sense to me. The notion of physical space as a fulcrum for binding the universe, earth, and humanity together to achieve qi — literally, breath, or vital energy — strikes me as real and true.
Our forced reacquaintance with our private spaces during the pandemic bears this out. No one is immune to the life force emanating from their occupied space or the ways it affects moods and relationships with the entrenched humans, animals, and objects among them. Your space is anything but passive and fully capable of emitting vibrations that may or not promote harmony. You’ll know this when you hit your shin again on the table leg. Or worse: when prolonged physical nearness with someone you trusted crumbles into betrayal. Your space is complicit in the pain, one way or another.
No one is immune to the life force emanating from their occupied space.
I think too about the role of hieratic space in our everyday lives, and how it’s shifted. Hieratic space, or scale, refers to representing objects that occupy any given space based on their importance. In Egyptian and medieval European art, for example, pharaohs or religious leaders were sculpted or painted in the foreground, bigger than all the other people and objects around them. Back then, the depiction of physical space mainly carried symbolic references rather than arrangements for real-world living.
Take, for instance, Fra Angelico’s famous painting of the Cortona Annunciation (1433–34), in which the archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to tell her she is pregnant. Both foregrounded figures are resplendent in colorfully draped fabrics, their heads wreathed in golden haloes, complementing Gabriel’s golden wings. The allegory takes place in a walled garden dominated by geometrically arranged columns and arches. This specific space exists to express the importance of protecting the Virgin’s chastity while also imprisoning her. Perhaps that is an arrangement for living, but if so, it’s a bleak one when viewed through a modern lens.
Depictions of hieratic space are alive and well today, though ironically, the formula has flipped. Whereas people once dominated spatial planes and space itself, like the medieval walled garden, was a symbolic composite, the focus now is on the structure itself — the expansive mansion or luxury resort. The owners and occupiers of these spaces are important by association, but they are not necessarily front and center in the hieratic depiction on Instagram or Pinterest. There is little symbology left to the imagination: the sprawling mansion doesn’t disguise its meaning.
The pandemic quarantine has laid bare the cruelty of this dynamic. As the wealthy escaped to bright, “clean” spaces in the countryside or by the water, millions more were left to swelter or freeze in small spaces at risk of viral contamination, simply because the enclosures made physical separation nearly impossible.
Souped-up private spaces also function as public spaces for the distanced wealthy, while the rest of our communal public space remains a battleground for minute-by-minute negotiations about safety.
I’ve been fortunate to live in a space on a high floor of an apartment building filled with light since before the pandemic. The qi in this space is conducive to peace, safety, and relative contentment.
Still, my space hangs heavy from time to time with the cloistered fear of disease and the anxiety bred of uncertainty. It’s all there, in the air, inhaled during long bouts of insomnia. Space cannot heal all wounds, or cushion the blow of bad news, no matter how cocooned I may be.
A friend’s sudden death earlier this year has seeped into the woodwork. A low-grade worry that my vaccinated daughter, half a continent away, might yet get sick in spaces dense with cavalier attitudes, haunts my nights.
Our spaces, like life itself, are imperfect. Nevertheless, people over place, I say, for only then will place suit people.
Space cannot heal all wounds.
We built these spaces around us, and in theory, they should work for us. But our spaces work upon us, in equal measure. Home quarantine has ripped away any pretension that the majority of us can manifest the space we want, the space we need, through sheer force of will. That’s simply not true.
If this crisis has revealed anything about our relationship to space, perhaps it’s that our public and private spaces deserve our full and undivided attention. They’re too important — too vital to a dignified existence — to leave the urban planners and politicians in charge. Our space is us, and we are our space. Let’s own up.
Listen to the author read this essay here.