Significance of Open Spaces in Architecture

Sarbjit Singh Bahga –

Architecture is the art of creative play of spaces, both covered as well as open. Covered spaces or built-up masses have tangible qualities and they are capable of recording photogenic impression on the minds of the viewers.

Open spaces, on the other hand, have something intangible in them, which can only be felt or experienced by involving oneself in them. These spaces by themselves have no tangible expression or aspect but they can enable the viewers to appreciate the beauty of physical massing of the other. One, without the other, has little or even no relevance in architecture or urban design. The intimacy and quality of relationship between the covered and open spaces, is key to good architecture. One can feel this relationship. It is like a poem, good or not so good poem. Even in not so good a poem, the composition of words convey of being it a poem. But if the message that these words convey have stimulating and lasting impact on the minds of the readers, we call it a good poem.

Similar is the case of a sculpture. A cylindrical piece of wood or a cubical mass of clay, rock or concrete are not sculptures themselves. These are only the raw materials or basic forms. To make a sculpture out of them one needs to carve some portion out of it, leaving thus a void. It is that void or negative space that makes sense. The aesthetic quality of a sculpture depends upon the creative play of solids and voids.

Likewise, in architecture the negative or open spaces if creatively and harmoniously blended with the positive or covered spaces, can relieve the harshness of built-form while complementing it.

The inter-relationship between built-forms and open spaces (if exceptionally good) can have a lasting impact on the minds of viewers. One can recall one’s experience (how much old it may be) of a visit to a good piece of architecture or composite built-environment. What is that which have entered and lasted for long period in our subconscious? It is more of the experience of negative spaces than the positive ones. One may forget the architectural treatment of the facades of the Cannaught Place, Fatehpur Sikri, Jama Masjid, Golden Temple or some south Indian temple complexes, but it is the feel of the negative spaces enclosed by positive massing that have remained in our subconscious for so long a time. An architectural critic has very rightly said,” It is the open spaces that reflect clearly the strong sense of vitality that hold these complexes together. The spaces are rich and varied with a scale that befits the function they are required to serve.”

To achieve perfect ‘yin and yang’ relationship between the covered and open spaces and to make the latter more appropriate, rationale, purposeful and aesthetically appealing the following areas must be explored to the best of one’s imagination, experience, and creativity. These include scale, proportions, size and shape, spatial arrangement, continuity/relationship with adjoining spaces, besides, of course, purpose, treatment and texture, identity etc.

The scale, proportions, size and shape though are all interrelated terms, yet each one deserves to be given a conscious thought. More than that it becomes of paramount importance – the self-drafted guidelines indicating what? What should be the scale, proportions or size and shape? To achieve precision in thought one has to be extra-ordinary space sensitive, constant observer and self critic. It is only after the firm conviction that one should start the process of designing the built-environment. The end result then depends upon one’s ability to translate abstract ideas into reality.

The scale and proportions of open-to-sky enclosed spaces are as vital aspects as in the case of covered spaces or built-up massing. The narrow open spaces enclosed by comparatively high built-forms give a feeling of claustrophobic feeling while the sprawling spaces with horizontal massing around give a feeling of agoraphobia. Likewise, different shapes of these spaces give different feelings. Irregular spaces convey informal character while the geometrical shaped spaces tend to look more formal. The circular, rectangular, triangular, square and oval shaped spaces are capable of unfolding variety of experiences. It all depends upon designer’s ingenuity that which type of space is required in a particular situation.

The next in the line we may put the element of spatial arrangement i.e. the system or combination of number of open spaces. If variety of such spaces is envisaged in a particular built-form, it must form prelude whether these should be in conjunction with each other or in isolated denominations. Again this becomes a matter of designer’s personal experience and imagination that which way one chooses and what are the results one is looking for? If a feeling of sequential spaces with gradually unfolding new vistas is the pre-requisite then one has to opt for a system of contiguous open spaces lest, the combination of isolated spaces may be adopted. Besides the above, the relationship between the open spaces and covered ones is, nonetheless, an important factor to be thoroughly considered. If an abrupt relationship between the open and covered spaces is the need of a particular situation, the same can be achieved by enclosing open spaces with massive external surfaces of the built-form. Contrariwise, for a gradual transition from covered to open spaces, semi-covered/semi-enclosed spaces in the form of verandahs, roof-overhangs, canopies or pergolas may be designed to decrease the degree of abruptness of change.

‘Purpose’, of course, is a primary factor of consideration. Before initiating the process of carving out open spaces, designer needs to be absolutely clear in his/her mind that what is the intended purpose to be fulfilled. Is it utilitarian in nature, like gatherings and social interactions? If so, the question like, how large the space should be, how it will be accessible, where it should be located, must be answered by the designer himself. If the space is required for climatological reasons, again one has to consider thoroughly and make sure what purpose it is intended to be fulfilled. Is it cross –ventilation or lighting or both? In the regions where climate is hot and dry, narrow open spaces which can remain cool during the day due to mutual shading of adjoining built-forms may be useful. Such spaces if imaginatively and strategically located can be used as an outdoor living area during winter when the inner rooms are cold or as sleeping areas on summer nights while the inner rooms emit the heat absorbed during the scorching day. Similarly in hot and humid climate a system of sequential open spaces together with appropriate fenestrations may help in generating continuous air-currents.

Treatment and texture too, is an un-ignorable factor. The nature of landscape must be in tune with all the factors discussed above. Landscape should be representative of the broad functions of the built-form. There is hardly any need to convince that details and décor of open spaces in hospitals, offices, schools, hotels or apartments have to be different from each other. Besides the use, the factors like macro and micro climate of the area, the initial cost as well as subsequent maintenance cost, soil conditions, availability of water, and types of vegetation that can be grown, must be given serious thought before starting the actual detailing work.

Though the consideration of number of above said factors may result in achieving individual identity of every space yet a sincere effort in this regard may help in achieving better results. Every space must have an identity of its own. This will provide a sense direction to the viewers. Intentionally created focal points or landmarks may help people to orient themselves in the built-environment and help identify an area.

Besides the above mentioned aspects, which are generalized in nature, there may be many more particular issues need to be explored thoroughly by the architects or urban planners themselves. The purpose of this paper, as may be evident, is not to provide any ready-reckoner for designers. Instead, it is to emphasize the need to realize that open spaces viz-a-viz urban design and architecture are perhaps more vital aspects then that of built-forms. Hence, it is direly required to devote greater attention to their planning and designing. In fact, it will be more appropriate to conceive built-form not only as a solid but as spaces modeled by solids.

central_park_connaught_place_view_from_parikarma_restaurantCannaught Place, New Delhi

fatehpur_sikri_agraFatehpur Sikri



Golden Temple, Amritsar

yoga-7592Capitol Complex, Chandigarh


2 thoughts on “Significance of Open Spaces in Architecture”

  1. The Chaupal, courtyard, khalihan ( where harvested crop is piled),Dussehra groud, id gah , the ghats are all examples of openess in our architecture. Sir, inspired by your sequential way of observation which is key to architecture/ planning.
    B K Das,Arch Dept. Asst. Prof, NIT Patna


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