These last few months of immersion in the coronavirus pandemic have spawned intense, interesting analysis and reflection on the quality of the architecture that surrounds us. The weeks spent in lockdown highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of our homes and the idea of intermediate space has materialised as the way to improve user-oriented architecture subject to intense, continuous use. Much has been said about balconies, corridors, and landings as paradigms of residential intermediate space, and about how we suddenly identified them as spaces where the quality of a home can be improved.
Intermediate spaces are an intrinsic, indispensable part of architecture, but they are rarely specified in design programmes. They are spaces that are taken for granted, and which different cultures, ideologies and tendencies have addressed in different ways. In individualistic societies where the public and private domains are clearly differentiated, intermediate space has tended to shrink, whereas in societies more given to exploiting exteriors and urban public spaces, it is more prominent. The presence of intermediate spaces and how they are used therefore reflect the nature of society. They are associated with a series of meaningful or ritual actions which complement the function of the dwelling’s principal space, although such rituals are not always specified.
In his book “The Architecture of the City”, Aldo Rossi conceptualises intermediate spaces as primary types: flexible, irreducible, and therefore attributable to architectural or urban planning projects of different scales. A space’s intermediacy derives from its position between different realities, users, materials, and times. It separates as much as it unites, and so its design always implies a certain intent. Japanese houses are famous for the omnipresence of intermediate spaces with functions that are shared and variable thanks to modular construction, flexibility, and translucid, movable partitions. The term engawa, based on en, meaning “link”, is used to refer to a type of space that belongs to two realities at the same time; physically, it takes the form of an outdoor, covered, raised platform (as in Hokusai’s painting) connecting different perimetral spaces, the uses of which are determined by domestic social rituals. In engawa, we are neither inside nor outside, but in both places at the same time. It is a way of both extending interior space outwards and drawing the surrounding landscape into the house.
To design quality intermediate spaces, it’s necessary to consider them from the perspectives of the two realities of which they form part, both in a formal, material sense and in terms of sensory perception and function. Intermediate space accommodates movements and customs. It exemplifies the features and meanings of the spaces it connects, and it’s capable of enlarging those spaces by blurring the dividing lines between them.