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A Few Reflections on Space

I remember, years ago when I was living in London, there was a building. I don't recall where it was, except that it was on the canal somewhere close to Camden. I remember walking into this building and immediately starting to feel ill - a visceral sense of discomfort. At the time I had no idea what this was about and promptly left the building. What was strange, was that the moment I left the building the feeling subsided. Weeks ago, out of curiosity, I returned and experienced the same thing. What was this? Why did I have this reaction to the building, to the space? Since that time, I have become increasingly aware of spaces that seem to affect me, usually triggering a visceral discomfort. I never understood what this was about, especially since it did not seem to affect those I am with or others in the space.

Now I understand some of this. I am very sensitive to spaces, to what is in the space, to the way a space flows. Of course this includes the sensory components in terms of the smells, sounds, temperature and visual stimulation. One of the well-described aspects of the neurodivergent experience includes the heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulation, especially sensory stimulation that may b experienced as intrusive and overwhelming. And usually the neurodivergent individuals has much lower thresholds to such stimulation.

But it is something more than just this. And I can best describe it with reference to a talk I once listened to about the way Rudolf Steiner spoke about architecture and the design of the Goetheanum in Switzerland. Architecture creates spaces that are about much more than the sum of the objective structural qualities. We can resonate and respond to the space and flow that is created by a design. And this response is pre-verbal, visceral and emotional. Even writing this I am aware that this sounds a like magical thinking, but that is not what I am going for here. There are spaces that we can subjectively experience as grounding, comforting, soothing in the same way that there are spaces that feel jarring, disruptive and confusing.

I personally struggle with malls and have on numerous occasions experienced a 'nervous system shutdown', sometimes because of the sensory assault of a space, but sometimes also because of the space and what it does to me. I do not think that this is something that is unique to neurodivergent individuals, but rather that we are more sensitive to this.


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