Space, place, and territory

By Fábio Duarte, researcher at MIT’s Senseable City Lab and professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica, Curitiba, Brazil

Being in space is a primal condition of our existence. Philosophers, physicists, geographers, architects and sociologists have for centuries discussed the importance of space in human existence. Yet there is still no single, clear and consensual definition of it. Societal changes transform our understanding of space—from the primacy and pervasiveness of the Catholic religion in all aspects of life in the European Middle Ages to the conceptual and technological breakthroughs of science, which have marked modern western society, paradigm shifts have occurred in our understanding of the world and how space is perceived and conceived.

Space has not just been multiple throughout history, though. At any point in time, people perceive and conceive space differently, on both individual and collective levels. It is not enough to say the concept of space is multiple. As both a mental and sensory experience that is vital for human existence, it is legitimate to keep asking basic questions: how can space be defined? Is there a universal formative logic of space, to which all known or yet-to-be-discovered spaces would be subject? If space is plural, ranging from oneiric to economic spaces, how can such plurality be embraced under the concept of space?

Space as a primal condition of our existence encompasses physical and subjective aspects. Rather than being something pure or absolute, space is constructed at the exact moment it allows the formation of beings, things and flows. Walking through vast expanses of desert, or during a long night of dreams, we are aware of our existence through the entities and flows that make up space. When we imagine, or dream, without conscious control over our acts and mental activities, we seem detached from the material space. Nonetheless, there are oneiric elements that belong only to the dream world, but which inform our conscious life. Let’s consider just this aspect of space, what we could call the lively space of a sleeping body.

The sleeping body occupies space not by occupying a position in it, by being outstretched and inert, but because at that moment, even while being an unconscious mind, the body maintains active exchanges with its surroundings. The body actively establishes relations with space in order to remain in equilibrium and continue working. The body regulates its temperature, which is different from that when we are performing conscious activities, changes breathing rhythms and chooses sleep positions (seated or lying, not standing) in spite of the mind being unconscious. Indeed, even while sleeping we are still alert to the world we know when awake, albeit minimally. We still relate our surroundings to our biological filters, for we are immediately wakened by strange external noises or physiological requirements.

We could be said to live in two different spaces while sleeping (even though, as a person, they are interconnected): the space of the sleeping body, which interacts physically with the surroundings; and the dream space, populated by internalized entities, and flows/actions that often influence the space we live in when conscious. These spaces feedback into each other, even though they are normally seen and analyzed separately.

Perhaps because they are experienced in everyday terms, in a single body, pinpointing the distinction between spaces might be helpful as a methodological device. Let us consider an astronomer. When the Sun rises he awakens, he cycles off to his laboratory, having to avoid cars, controlling the power of his legs to go uphill and downhill, taking natural or architectural elements as references, experiencing a space composed of corporeal and urban flows and entities. He powers up his computer, looks at the sky through a telescope and immerses himself in a world of solar explosions, the transformation of hydrogen into helium, the effect of solar plasma on the Earth’s gravitational field, the courses of natural and artificial satellites, studying how these elements relate to each other and organize astronomical space.

Although conceivable, it seems disproportionate to think how and why the thermal balance of the sleeping human body could be included as an element that has any influence on the astronomical space studied by the astronomer. The apprehension, comprehension and analysis of spaces accept that the astronomer experiences different spaces—different because they are formed of entities and flows organized according to specific logics, which are determined by cultural filters, and with different purposes. And even knowing about the rotation of the Earth, at the end of the working day the astronomer cycles off into the sunset.

Building on the richness of space, on how we perceive, understand, and interact with it, in this book I explore the concepts of space, place, and territory as a critical way to analyze and enjoy complex spaces, such as our contemporary cities, intertwined with high-technological devices and social struggles, with global flows of information and ingrained cultural aspects, with atoms, bits, and dreams.

This text is an extract from Fábio Duarte, Space, Place and Territory: A Critical Review on Spatialities (London and New York: Routledge, 2017).




The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

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MIT School of Architecture + Planning

MIT School of Architecture + Planning

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

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