Searching for a Dark Corner: Architecture that Serves an Emotional Need

my favourite chair on Grandpa Basil's verandah

When you consider your home or the place you grew up in, how do you envisage it? For instance, are you remembering the kitchen, the lounge and the study, or are you instead conjuring visuals of cosy corners for watching the rain, the space in your mum’s room where you sat and watched her dress, and the frame of the shed door that acted as a ladder to the roof so you could climb up and get away from the noise in the house?

When you consider the space you inhabit now, how do you conceive of it?

Lately, I’ve found myself longing for a cozy type of space, with the knowledge that in the past those nooks have been enveloping allies. At times I am drawn to the kitchen, not because of a desperate need to make a pear crumble (which is legitimate nonetheless), but for its grand, light-filled character, that itself begs to be filled with wafting aromas of baking, its edges swathed in colourful detail of our lives.  I often retire to the sunroom, coaxed by the vines pressing against its glass perimeter and chipped white-painted studs, with numerous ledges inviting you to rest your tea. I more often have a desire to simply be nestled within this sanctuary after a long and chaotic week than for the activity, reading, which I do here.  The stairs and slope of the ground below hold this space precariously out into the overgrown (and for our landlord, probably undesirable) garden that has unapologetically expanded over time.

the sunroom at 114 Sir Fred Schonell Drive

As homes and their typological content are being scrupulously re-evaluated to suit the changing density of cities, I feel reflection upon our current and specific needs and wants from a city and our homes within this fabric is vital.

There are two visually obvious clues as to why this could be useful.

First, have you noticed the numerous and expansive spaces within the city that are underutilised and forgotten? I’ve often dreamed how these could be cherished as practice rooms for bands, design studios, lecture and event spaces, homeless shelters, pop-up restaurants or other malleable activities that vitalise the cityscape.

projections and installations activate a long dormant area of Brooklyn

The less space wasted for housing, the more public space for learning and socialising. How many times have you wandered into a friend or relative’s home and noticed its superfluous space? Kitchens barely touched, or used for alternate functions, backyards overgrown and hallways or spare bedrooms that haven’t enjoyed human occupation in years. There is often a rational argument for those abandoned or unkempt spaces being empty, in that they might create an essential layer of breathing room in the dense knit of the city, but that is another topic for another day.

Donovan Hill D House

Homes that were designed when the standard family unit was larger, when time spent at home was greater and patterns of living were more easily confined to spaces, are obviously mismatched to our current state of urban living. In acquiring an old home or apartment, we find ourselves knocking down walls and creating new boundaries to suit contemporary ideals of the home. In creating dwellings from scratch however, rather than ensuring there is a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a laundry and a sitting room, perhaps instead we might endeavour to fulfil our more complex needs. Is there a dark space for retreating to, an outdoor space for pensive, wine-induced banter, a large bright space for gaily entertaining one’s closest friends, and enough other variations of space for comfort, without constructing superfluous space? After all, the public space within the ‘city’ has laundromats, restaurants, cinemas, parks, public squares, libraries, food halls, theatres, museums and a plethora of other spaces that facilitate functions that were once indisputably built into our homes.

Owen and Vokes Yeronga House

The second reason for rethinking the design of homes within the city is because I believe in creating dwellings for the growing urban populations, we are putting ourselves in danger of negatively affecting a number of things: circulation (both pedestrian and vehicular), free space for public socialising, and self-positioning and way-finding (i.e our ability to recognise and use natural and man-made elements of an environment to help us navigate and understand our specific place within it).

While these urban dwellings must be thoughtfully constructed and are obviously of the upmost importance, they are entirely served by other spaces in a city, and therefore must cede design precedence to conscious thought toward the public space. New residential towers should not only try to achieve efficiency regarding private space for residents, but must also balance their imposing presence by giving over more public space within and at the base of the structure, so that the city maintains a balance between these two realms and enough transition spaces in between for sharing to encourage community. Do you also have the fear that the city’s built form will continue to grow so that eventually we can no longer remember the land and environment that thrived for millions of years before we decided to pour concrete over it all?

Yokohama Apartment by ON Design Partners

So, instead of considering a small urban housing complex as a series of large, ‘luxurious’ shells, I hope designers conceive of a project as a series of small communal spaces with different qualities (aspects, views, light, accessibility, scale) and then those supremely private zones, which will vary in character along with their inhabitants, will comfort us as individuals and serve a new function of space. That function doesn’t depend upon utensils or furniture but more on how we react and are emotionally served. Perhaps in considering space instead of function, and challenging what we’ve always assumed, these urban manifestations might continue to be places of excitement, creativity, inspiration, socialisation and comfort.

communal zone in the Yokohama Apartment

Photo Credit:

3. Project for Public Spaces

4. Jon Linkins for the D House in Brisbane by Donovan Hill

5. Owen and Vokes Yeronga House in Brisbane

6., Architecture News and Designs

7. Shinkenchiku Online


  1. walker says:

    Interesting points, Gemma. I think many of the concerns you mentioned are exacerbated by the tendency to think of housing as being a means for working. Especially in places like China where they build small, stacked cities around new factories in the middle of nowhere. I don’t blame people for organizing their lives to make ends-meet, but I think an unfortunate side effect is that creates cities designed more for working than for living, and there’s no strong market force to defend public/transition spaces. It’s important to remember what we risk sacrificing in a narrow housing-for-working paradigm and I appreciate you reminding me.

  2. Gemma says:

    You’re right Walker, I witnessed this a great deal in Shanghai – and as you say there needs to be someone defending those largely undervalued transition and free spaces, or the city will loose that vital character of being friendly and supportive, and will instead be just a dense weave of privately owned spaces that we only encounter for work and to spend money to better our careers. A fearsome predicament. Thanks for your thoughts Walker!

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