On how we can’t stop turning the space around us into place.
by Elissa Strauss









Given space, we create place. We just can’t help ourselves. The whole endeavor starts pretty broadly. We move to a city, space, and find a neighborhood, place. We move to a neighborhood, space, and find somewhere to live, place. We move into an apartment, space, and occupy it with our couches and beds and pretzels and books to make it a place.

And still, the need to occupy and contain space can continue. Here I am in my office, sitting at my frosted glass desk, tall metal cabinet behind me holding my husband’s files, bookshelves overhead, and my hungry dog gazing at me from a brown couch which we turn into a bed for guests. Everything is familiar, everything is mine, but still these items alone were not enough to make it a place. And so I further intervened.

I am referring to the four small animal sculptures on my desk: a black wooden turtle from Mexico, a porcelain frog given to me by a friend of my grandfather’s in Puerto Rico, a ceramic bird from Chile whose simple lines I find calming, and a wooden llama whose provenance I can’t remember. There are also the miniature Tibetan prayer flags hanging above my desk that I received in a mail solicitation from some foundation. (I never gave them money, but enjoy the free gift.) To the left of the shelf is a blackboard on which nothing is written, but whose corners are stuffed with pictures of loved ones, along with a postcard of Vermeer’s Milkmaid that I received from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is only with these small objects around me, some story-laden, others obtained through instinct and happenstance, that I was able to, well, dwell. I know that collectively these items have little monetary value or artistic merit, yet their presence was crucial for the creation of place.

In his introduction of Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience Yi-Fu Tuan discusses the difference between the two.

‘Space’ and ‘place’ are familiar words denoting common experiences. We live in space. There is no space for another building on the lot. The Great Plains look spacious. Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other. There is no place like home. What is home? It is the old homestead, the old neighborhood, hometown, or motherland. Geographers study places. Planners would like to evoke “a sense of place.” These are unexceptional ways of speaking. Space and place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted. When we think about them, however, they may assume unexpected meanings and raise questions we have not thought to ask.

Space is amorphous, it’s abstraction, it’s the blinding sun to place’s desk lamp, the wide, grey Atlantic to place’s swimming hole just up the way. We move through space, but can only return to place. We can exist in space, but we can only dwell in place. In Genius LociChristian Noberg-Schulz explains that dwelling “implies something more than ‘shelter’. It implies that the spaces where life occurs are ‘places’, in the true sense of the word. A place is a space that has character.”

My careful placement of knickknacks and photos, and my experiments with domestic geography that led up to it, is not nearly as noble or ambitious as the men and women who built the tower of Babel. But our fears and motivations are the same. After arriving the plains of the Valley of Shinar, the ancients got building, “lest [they] be scattered upon the broad face of earth.”

I too dread the idea of being scattered. The irregularity! The inconstancy! The disorganization! And so I keep on chiseling away at the space around me, cutting and carving until a fresh glint of place catches my eye.