Architecture principles 101 – openness vs enclosure

There are fundamentals of great architecture that you learn early on in design studios. I wanted to share some of them gradually over the next few weeks as it does help to have a little understanding of these when you are setting out to design or renovate your own home. Firstly it helps to de-code the language of your Architect in order to make the whole design process transparent, and secondly, if you start looking for these in projects and homes you begin to very quickly see these qualities in the spaces around you, understand how they impact on the feeling of a home and how it can transform an ordinary house into a great one. I’ll try to use classic images which illustrate the principles – so please excuse the excursion into ‘Arts and Crafts’ for a while as it lends itself to show this more graphically…!

Openness vs Enclosure.

I was a student of Claude Megson who would teach us this with bubble diagrams showing overlapping ‘openness’ vs ‘enclosure’ circles. He would then develop his house plans around these underlying concepts.

Openness is the view, the light, the feeling of being in the open, public, exposed. Note the height of the spaces in the following images, the glazing, light, smooth surfaces and use of skylights as well as steps to create a difference between one space and another.

Affleck House (1940) Frank Lloyd Wright Alden B. Dow Home and Studio

Enclosure describes security, warmth, shelter and retreat, protection and private.This doesn’t necessarily mean totally dark (refer to light shafts and careful use of windows below), but its a place you curl up with a good book in the evenings. In the following illustrations you can see the lowered ceiling heights and greater use of mass and (sometimes) rougher textures.

Snowflake (1941) Frank Lloyd Wright

Goetsch-Winckler House (1940) Frank Lloyd Wright

They contrast with each other, they can be at different corners of the same space or they could be separated by a transition corridor. Architects delight in finding many ways of achieving this effect and evoking the different feelings that they communicate. Transition spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright often emphasized the transition between one room and the next by taking people through a small tight corridor so that when you arrived in the open lofty space the feeling of reaching this new one was emphasised extraordinarily. These Transition spaces can be walkways, corridors, stairs, even an entire room can be a transition between one extreme and another. The movement of the body and the effect of the different senses (sight, touch, sound, kinetic movement, even smell) effect how we behave in different spaces. An old reference book ‘Body, Memory and Architecture’ (ref below) describes how it works for the sense of touch:

 ” The fit and movements of our bodies within and around buildings are .. significantly effected by our haptic sense, by the tactile surfaces and edges we encounter. Smooth  surfaces invite close contact, while rough materials… generate movement in wide radii around corners and more careful tentative movement through corridors. Changes of texture often signal special events and can trigger a slowing or quickening of one’s pace.”

Alden B. Dow Home and Studio

William B. and Mary Shuford Palmer House (1951) Frank Lloyd Wright

In your own home these can be translated in numerous ways. Photographer Patrick Reynolds house renovated by Malcolm Walker is described as having the design principles of the ‘Cave’ (which is the TV den room, low ceiling height, down a couple of steps, dark finishes) and the ‘Stage’ (which is the kitchen, dining room, heart of the busy family house, large ceiling height, stainless steel bench)  the two glimpse each other and benefit from the contrast. The enclosure, openness and transition spaces are ones that occur in every home. When renovating or building it is an opportunity to look at the different rooms carefully and consider how you want these spaces to feel. While it may be easy to put it in the ‘too hard’ basket, and ‘doesnt it need to be neutral to accommodate resale value’ basket. You will find the instinctive reaction of most people walking into a tailored home will be one of delight.

Credits Images via   Michigan State Historic Preservation Office Body Memory and Architecture ‘  Kent C Bloomer and Charles W Moore. IBSN 030002142-9


7 thoughts on “Architecture principles 101 – openness vs enclosure

  1. Openness and enclosure
    You’ve given me 2 clothes to wear.
    One I can feel free when I’m out to feel the freedom with my mother nature.
    One I can feel warm when I need to feel love with my own mother.
    To balance whenever depends in my needs.
    The theory did explain.

    Transition of space, the line of in between will be the memories of whenever that I need, I will always be comfortable and happy.

    That’s what I call.

    Sense of belonging.

  2. How did I ever miss this post? You’ve hit on points that are important to me and close to home. Appropriate examples from Wright and Dow.
    Thanks, too, for introducing me to Megson, an architect unknown to me until now. Seems to be something of a kindred spirit. Sorry he left so early.
    Do you ever consider writing more about your experiences with him as a student?

  3. An architect friend of mine (also a Megson student) is probably more qualified! His family bought a house that Megson designed and he carefully researched his work and then restored it. Such great and interesting spaces through every room and little sleeping and seating alcoves all very carefully considered. Simple concepts but ones that get to the heart of our daily experiences!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post. It is surely one of the few post i have come across that could so effortlessly describe the kind of emotions architecture could evoke.


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