Friday, February 18, 2011

A Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall

In Hall’s A Hidden Dimension, he examines how humans interact with each other and perceive things at different distances – a field he calls proxemics. Different cultures establish different distances for personal contact. For example, Americans are comfortable at close distances, six to eighteen inches, only if they intimately know one another. Americans often feel uncomfortable when someone is in their face or inside their personally established boundary. However, when Hall studied individuals from the Arab community, the personal boundary dissolves. They are far more comfortable at closer distances.

One of the memorable concepts from the book is when Hall distinguishes between painters and sculptors. The sculptor works at a much closer distance to the subject, within a few feet whereas the painter works within four to eight feet. The painter wants to capture the whole visual field yet the sculptor is concerned with replicating tactile qualities. Likewise, Hall notes that features are accentuated at close distances which enhance the characteristics in sculpture but distort images in paintings.

The distinction between the two disciplines makes me wonder if we are designing places from the wrong distance or scale. If designing cities were seen as truly an artful endeavor, what distance would we use to capture our subjects? With the invention of computers, internet, geographic information systems, auto-cad, etc. – are we properly addressing landscapes from afar? Yet, examining space from six to eighteen inches is not desirable either. How do we feel spaces, and design for human’s needs when technology may distance us?