design and perception

Lefebvre argues that he “cannot understand the philosophical separation/distinction of the object and the subject, of the body and the world”. “The limits”, he continues, “seem to me unclear”1.

Copying from Lefebvre’s “the production of space”:

“For the most part, philosophers have taken the existence of an absolute space as a given, long with whatever it might contain: figures, relations and proportions, numbers, and so on. Against this posture, Leibniz maintains that space “in itself”, space as such, is neither “nothing” nor “something” — and even less the totality of things or the form of their sum; for Leibniz space was, indeed, the indiscernible. In order to discern “something” therein, axes and an origin must be introduced, and a right and a left, i.e. the direction or orientation of those axes.  This does not mean, however, that Leibniz espouses the ‘subjectivist” thesis according to which the observer and the measure together constitute the real. To the contrary, what Leibniz means to say is that it is necessary for space to be occupied. Thus for Leibniz space is  absolutely relative — that is, endowed both with a perfectly abstract quality which leads mathematical thought to treat it as primordial (and hence readily to invest it with transcendence), and with a concrete character (in that it is in space that bodies exist, that they manifest their material existence).”2

As an architect, I was taught to produce spaces, actively based on their role as social receptors/hosts. That is, design spaces that would correspond to certain social structures or activities. In a way, design spaces that would reproduce my perceived values of social and everyday life.

In the words of Lefebvre, again, “the production of space is by no means an innocent production…it is the reproduction of the [capitalist] relations of production”. Just as the design of spaces includes signifiers of its use and purpose, and, in this sense, defines relations, in the same time Foucault explains that freedom cannot be designed. Referring to Le Corbusier’s attempts to “impose freedom”, he argues that “in the structure of things there is no inherent guarantee for the exercise of freedom”3. He goes on to say that “it would be arbitrary to try and distinct/separate the practice of social relations from the spatial distributions in which people find themselves.”3

Spaces can define social structures and behaviours, but it is the final use of them that makes them what they are. Functional, non-functional, malfunctional, useful, friendly, scary. All these are developed through the spontaneous, natural and non-planned uses, or even alterations, of the planned and built environment. The planner’s role stops when a space is handed to the public. The structure (with all its signifiers) is indeed imposed, but the uses are not always as planned. When handed to the public, planned uses, routes, occupations, places might not work as predicted, due to the individual, human factor. Crowds might sidetrack from paths, rooms might change use, habits might not be imposed.

All these deviations happen due to behavioural and perceptual differences, common in most animals. One perceptive variation that causes behavioural differences is the perception of physical measurements. Physical quantities are length (and also width, height, depth), time, mass, temperature, amount of substance, electric current, lumimous intensity, angle4. These quantities are all measured and agreed to be measured by an international system that defines the unit of each of them, when measured by accurate instruments. The human senses, however, do not perceive physical measurements just as “accurately”, or in a homogenous way. Perceptions vary from person to person and are defined by various factors.

As an architecture student, I have made mistakes designing out-of-scale buildings, and as a pedestrian/wanderer/observer I have experienced out-of-scale spaces and places. What I am interested in is to explore how distance perceptions vary among individuals. And how these different perceptions define the “convenience” of a space, and also the trip-planning procedure. I will try to find a pattern that connects the altered/different perceptions of distance and time in small scale environments. How far or how close a bus stop or a train station is (perceived to be), how long is (perceived to be) a commuting trip or a recreational trip, how convenient a local network of public transport facilities is (perceived to be). There is a long existing bibliography of distance perception, but what I intend to do is link it directly to trip-planning and the effectiveness of local public transport facilities. My goal is, by the end of my research, to have developed a satisfactory review of the patterns people choose to move based on their perception of distance (and, consequently, time).



  1. Henri Lefebvre. (1990). The space in Pieces. Nihilism and Controversy. Athens: Ypsilon. p. 101.
  2. Henri Lefebvre. (1991). Spatial Architectonics. The Production of Space. Blackwell Publishing. p. 175
  3. Michel Foucault. (1987). Space, knowledge and authority. Authority, Knowledge and Ethics. Athens: Ypsilon. p. 51.
  4. Wikipedia. Physical quantity. Available: Last accessed 22nd Feb 2014.


About Katerina

Katerina is a Google Developer Expert for Angular and a software engineer, focused on the web front end. Her projects focus on interactivity, web maps and new technologies. She also likes to mix and match web APIs, experimenting with device sensors, and she open sources her code for the general good. She speaks at international conferences and co-organizes the Angular Athens meetup. She is also involved with supporting diversity in the community, speaking about it and helping the ngGirls whenever she can. Katerina is obsessed with sharing knowledge and spreading the word about things she loves, which is all that has to do with web. She is indigenous to the internet, and she loves web development. So much that she does not understand the distinction between work and life sometimes. Or so her friends say. She lives with her Maine Coon in Athens, Greece.

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