If our spaces could speak, what would they say?

Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.

Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.

Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior. 

I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use? 

What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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