• Multilogue Collective

City and Space: The Relevance of “Negative Spaces” in Saturated Cities

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Written by: Tahani Khan Illustrations and Photographs: Tahani Khan


Excerpt: It is not easy to overlook factors that question the mental and physical well being of those of us living in the modern city. The urge to sit in the garden is dominated by spending time indoors, even with all the comfort mechanisms working as per our fancy. We subconsciously seek what is already in abundance. Our primitive instincts urge us to seek open and breathable spaces yet we are constantly aiming for “growth” that has adverse effects on our physical and mental health as well as social structure.



The primal and simple life of the hunter-gatherer would most likely prove to be an unimaginable lifestyle for the modern man. The dependency of the prehistoric human on its pristine environment is tied to individual effort. The absence of commodification led to resources having value. Whether it was hunting, procuring edible plants, forging tools and weapons; everything had to be done with individual effort. On the other hand, the modern man has perpetuated his needs and glorified his never-ending desires. The exploitation of the environment has degraded our relationship with it so much so that there seems to be a point of no return. The evolution of the character and degree of stress starting from our ancestors to the present day modern humans has changed drastically. Although we no longer have to worry about protection from weather conditions and danger from predators as stressors, the present-day stressors are dormant and stagnant, affecting the very fundamental well-being of our mind.


This directly links to the shift of the landscape reinforced by the global political and social scenarios. Like the rest of the world, India too struggled during and after the world war. While there was rapid construction to rebuild cities and fulfil the immediate housing demands of the common people in the Western countries, India had lost most of its glory as well as the resources.


There was a large amount of spot development in the major powerhouses of the country. But at the same time, the majority of the residual areas were left at the hands of fate and spontaneity. Construction was mimicked and the essence of India was lost in the modern era for the urban areas that were trying to rise up in a time of radical change and freedom. Now what remains of it is a development paradigm that is neither Westernized nor Indian. And India is still dealing with an identity crisis in terms of architecture.


If it did stick to its roots, our architecture would have had a reflection of our culture, which would speak volumes of the balance between nature and the world man creates.

Unfortunately, there is a lot that has changed in terms of architecture in urban areas. There is still a steady and stable growth of the urban population resulting in the formation of concrete jungles with little breathable space within homes and spaces of utility. The new age concept that encourages the polarity between humans and the world outside has drawn a concrete curtain between built and nature. Consequently, this leaves no residual space where there could have bred activities that not just enhanced the quality of a space but also the psychological well-being of a person and their relationship with the surroundings.

The separation is now compensated by an artificially induced comfort. As a result, the built neither harmonizes with the outer world nor builds an essence of covalence with it.


It is not easy to overlook factors that question the mental and physical well being of those of us living in the modern city. The urge to sit in the garden is dominated by spending time indoors, even with all the comfort mechanisms working as per our fancy. We subconsciously seek what is already in abundance. Our primitive instincts urge us to seek open and breathable spaces yet we are constantly aiming for “growth” that has adverse effects on our physical and mental health as well as social structure.


Till more than a decade ago, there were houses with courtyards decorated with fruiting plants, inviting in birds and propagating domestic activities. Such a typology created a dialogue across streets and created scenery that made urban settlements look homely. Unfortunately, this is a forgotten frame of time. Such spaces became the areas of intense social activity. However, it is now mostly lost at the hands of optimizing breathable spaces for residential development.


Flashback: Streets bred an array of activities, coherence, and conversations as a result of open spaces and permeable edges between houses.


Any person living in a city or town is a victim of the dormant lifestyle that has developed over the last few decades. Being enclosed in our homes embedded in a machine like a city that never seems to stop has made our minds a film reel that has repetitive images of city life.


Breathable spaces within boundaries were the nucleus of most households


Appropriation of open and private spaces proved to be an essential part of family activities; something that seems to be lacking in most low and middle-income urban Indian households today


The quality of life has deteriorated intensely. Where there were street conversations across doorways and lawns, now lies pitch silence complimented by the humming of air conditioners in apartments and flats.


The effect of the built environment is perceived through various senses. The lack of quality spaces with regard to nature is clearly seen as a common phenomenon within the built environment. Where do we rest our eyes after a stressful day? This transition of our declining lifestyle is heavily dependent on how architecture and its role in urban development have been taken for granted, which has eventually impacted our lives in more ways than we can imagine.


The design of a city should make effective use of its physical features. Along with that, it should be responsive to the cultural and social structure of its settlers. At the very least, streetscapes and open spaces could play a vital role in creating what has been lost in the time bygone.

On a rather smaller scale, architecture should open windows to the world outside rather than making it a cocoon for people to enclose themselves in. The evolution of cities is ever-changing with respect to time. Yet the need for breathable spaces, both physically and mentally as a respite from urban life is necessary. An interwoven fabric of positive and negative spaces within the built and on an urban level would prove to create a sense of balance. This balance could be in terms of the built volume of the city as well as between the built and green spaces. An interesting trajectory of this design approach is its effect on city planning and designing. It has the potential to make profound changes in the urban language.


Considering the negative impacts of the outside world entering the internal built environment may evoke a sense of realization and sensitization about how blindly we are ploughing our way towards development. The essence of soft fascination is essential to soften the harsh edges of the city. It is also essential to sensitize ourselves by coming in terms with the damage done to the city environment.

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