The Space Between

Amy Dishman

In art, we call it negative.  In music, a pause.  In meditation, it’s the time between breaths.  In Japan, it is a simple word ‘Ma’ which carries with it a huge amount of meaning.  Literally translated to mean the “space between,” ma simultaneously describes both physical space and time.  


Ma is the blank page that becomes a novel, a drawing, or a symphony.  It is the dappled light that makes its way through holes in a screen.  It’s the space between piano keys that allow them to be played and the time between notes so that each can be heard.  The space between is full of possibilities where we are allowed to stop, think, breathe, observe, understand, and create.

My favorite spaces are full of ma:  The Poetry Foundation, The Barnes Foundation, and Portland’s Japanese Garden.  In all of these places I have said, “this feels right.”  In architecture we also often hear, “I don’t know why, but I love this space.” I would argue that part of what makes these and other spaces feel good to us is ma. We are physical beings and experience our world in a physical way through all our senses.  Emptiness allows for appreciation and understanding of the tangible.  

At the Poetry Foundation, ma is what makes the separation between the exterior screen, the exterior shell, and the interior glazing necessary. As a shell within a shell, within a shell, these spaces are separated by ma so that each can be read individually and as a whole system. The space between allows you to see and experience all facades more fully.  

It’s the full procession you take at the Barnes Foundation. Starting on the exterior, you enter a perfectly manicured courtyard that quiets the city on the other side. A long path leading to a bridge, dividing a reflecting pool, directs you to the entry which looks as though the limestone blocks were simply removed to create a portal. You are slightly compressed in the entry before you walk into a cavernous hall that takes you to the small, full galleries. It’s an extraordinary and overwhelming collection of art and objects to take in. This carefully orchestrated path prepares you for what you are about to see and experience by taking you on a journey.

At BVH we are in constant pursuit of creating spaces that are full of this intangible wonder for the people who enjoy them. It’s not an easy feat in a culture that is in stark contrast to the Japanese who revere emptiness. As Americans, we are rather terrified of it. Conversation always has to keep going; everyone knows what an awkward pause means. Our homes are filled and our portion sizes are massive. In this quest to fill every moment and every nook and cranny we are over-stressed, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed.  

In this overstimulated world, designing with ma allows space to be fully experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed. Ma allows space for the mind and body to pause, reflect, and let wonder creep in.