Taking up space

Belonging, permission and freedom in the fragile dynamics of sharing (work)space

The taking up of space is usually talked about in negative contexts, indicating a “too much” of something. From manspreading on the train to the unbalanced distribution of talking time in discussions, it is synonymous with the infringement of someone else’s space or, worse, shutting someone else out completely. Conversely, there is also no shortage of advice on how to take up space, often relating to workplace meetings.

A passive-aggressive battleground in which fire is to be fought with fire.

Luckily, the context Tomomi and I discussed in our weekly conversations was of a more peaceful nature. Coming from a desire to hold space for individual or collective creation, our studio is built around cooperation instead of competition.

Still, we found plenty of subtler ways that space might be taken up, even in the most cooperative of environments, often unintentionally. Some modes of working or just being in a space are simply more dominant than others. Oral communication and noise, for example, will always take up more space than quieter approaches to work. If one person in a library were to have a phone call, 99 people reading books would not be able to drown out the noise by means of collective silence.

Hosts and Guests

As we pondered on how we want to share the spaces in which we create, the situation under Covid, and the new conflicts that arose from it or the dormant ones that were accelerated represented a neat little petri dish to explore more subtle dynamics in which space might be — unintentionally — taken up or be perceived as such.

When remote work became a norm for many of us practically overnight and lasted throughout the waves, throughout the tightening and loosening of restrictions and recommendations, it led to a wide variety in how often people frequented and will be frequenting their office buildings.

Some invested in home offices, while others returned to company premises as fast as possible, being unable to work at the same table where other family members simultaneously took calls, or because they depended on the company’s equipment. With the loss of routines, predictability, and, finally, presence, our relationships with each other and with the spaces that we share changed profoundly. Meeting irl has become such an exceptional occurrence that a certain awkwardness seems to almost be guaranteed.

Beyond mourning casualness lost, Tomomi and I talked about the possibility that the varying frequency might create a hierarchy when it comes to people’s perceived claim to the shared space. If you have been absent for a prolonged period of time and then return to the office that was consistently used by a coworker, you might find that the dynamics have changed considerably. The space feels taken up and you are not sure how to position yourself in it anymore, literally and figuratively. You tread lightly in the room and around the others, and maybe even feel the urge to ask “is it okay if I sit here?”. Behaviors of a visitor, of a guest.

This feeling might be enhanced by the physical signs of that frequency: the various ways one might spread out in a shared but (suddenly) empty space. If you find yourself continuously alone in an office or studio, the explicit rules and implicit norms that were set up to devote the space to the community instead of individual habits might lose their urgency over time. While in the beginning you still kept the agreed-upon order of things, returned tools after their use, and cleaned up used cups immediately, you soon had to realize that the situation was not changing anytime soon; you were alone for now. With that, the logic of the place changes, and, with it, your personal habits begin to replace communal norms: you now leave tools out because you might use them later that week anyway; same for the coffee cup and plate you used yesterday. Personal things start to accumulate; maybe you start using a colleague’s chair as a coat rack. However, while for you, this behavior was just a gradual adaptation to the situation, simply more convenient; for anyone entering, the place now distinctly bears your mark.

Without intending to do so, you transformed the shared space into your personal space, which might just be what it means to “take up space”.

It then follows almost as a consequence, that a workplace which is perceived as taken-up provides the unfortunate foundation for a host-guest dynamic to emerge: Someone walks in expecting to enter a shared space but finds themselves in someone else’s area.

What’s so bad about being welcome?

From our earliest conversations about how an ideal studio would be set up, we worked under the assumption that a feeling of belonging was important and a host-guest dynamic was inconsistent with that and should be opposed. But why, though? Most of us will have had the experience of being a guest somewhere and hopefully have good memories attached to it, the warm sensation of being welcome. This is by no means an unpleasant feeling, so what’s so bad about being welcome? And what is the difference between being a guest and belonging?

A quick google search defines a guest as “a person who is invited to visit the home of or take part in a function organized by another”. Being a guest is dependent on an invitation and with that comes that we have no ownership of the place we are invited to, we will be following someone else’s rules. Again, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If we think about the feeling of staying in a comfortable hotel room or being guided into a friend’s home to be served a hearty meal, it doesn’t matter that it would be inappropriate for us to walk into the hotel kitchen to snatch a midnight snack from the fridge or to decide to spontaneously prepare ourselves a bath without our host explicitly inviting us to do so, giving us permission.

Invitations, belonging, and freedom

Invitation and permission are crucial aspects because what being a guest doesn’t grant is the casual freedom to use the space to your liking. This is granted only by belonging. If you belong, you require neither permission nor invitation. Here, then, is the reason why we consider it important to design for a sense of belonging in a workplace and why host-guest-dynamics ought to be resisted. In addition to fulfilling a basic human desire, the sense of belonging opens up more freedom to create. Freedom for individual strengths to bloom and to make the most out of the resources we have in and between ourselves. Being welcome and being a guest are grand experiences in themselves but might fall short in this context.

However, if belonging grants you freedom, wouldn’t that also mean that you are free to take up space? And is that a paradox or are there instances of taking up space that don’t lead to the host-guest dynamic we want to avoid?

Space and intimacy

When I learned that the backroom of AQ’s studio contains two tatami beds, I found this quite curious in the context of our explorations on the more subtle, unintended ways in which space gets taken up. On a post-it, I noted: Can you work in the same room as someone sleeping?

Maybe because the act of sleeping is so personal, it always seemed to me that sleeping people had a lot of potential for taking up space. The seat next to a sleeping person on the train is often the last one to be occupied. This may just be due to the desire to avoid the involuntary physical contact of them unconsciously sinking onto your shoulder (a very literal taking up of space!) but I think there might also be a sense of the space around them having turned too intimate and thus feeling weirdly intrusive. I want to compare it to the feeling one gets when sitting next to a couple that is hugging and whispering. By displaying such intimacy, both sleepers and lovers are temporarily transforming the common area around them into their personal realm.

Thinking about the question of a bed in a workplace, I also recalled a time when I was sharing a studio with a girl who liked to work late at night and then sleep on the sofa in the middle of the room. When I and the other studio members arrived, she was still asleep, so everyone moved carefully around her and scheduled louder activities for after she woke up. There was also the formerly described awkwardness of working next to someone who you are not really close to and who displays something so intimate. On some mornings, the impression of space being taken up was amplified when she had her large dog with her who would growl protectively when others entered the studio, marking everybody an intruder, at least for the time she was asleep.

But then again, still pondering over my post-it question, I thought back on how just a couple of days ago, I was working in the common room of my share house while some of my housemates who had just returned from an overnight stargazing trip were sleeping on the sofas, rosy-cheeked and exhausted. It felt comfortable, familiar, and actually created an atmosphere of common belonging.

So why is it that in one instance someone sleeping in a shared space creates a mutual sense of belonging and another makes you feel like an intruder? Is it simply the relationship to the sleeper or the presence or absence of a growling dog?

As much space as you need

The difference became clear when Tomomi told me that the beds were not only set up as a reaction to the changes caused by covid, to offer options to members who needed a change of scenery; but that they also represent a collective wish for a work environment in which you can work and move freely according to your needs and the requirements of the task at hand, without feeling the need to ask for permission and negotiating your position. If you want to move to another table or the sofa for a while, go ahead. If you need a nap, you are free to do so. In fact, Tomomi stated, you’re free to take up as much space as you need.

That this dynamic way of working and being in space was collectively agreed upon, this reciprocal declaration of freedom by the group is, I think, what makes all the difference. This is why one instance of sleeping in a shared space creates the undesired host-guest dynamic, while the other creates a mutual sense of belonging. The studio I was working in was set up as a workspace mainly, it was not meant to also be used for other spheres of life, so the atmosphere became strange and awkward when it was suddenly used as a bedroom. On the other hand, the common room in my sharehouse is a multi-purpose space, akin to a living room. It is set up for a variety of activities; eating, playing, working, watching TV, and, yes, even sleeping.

Shared spaces hold the potential to include many different modes of working and being, can be used flexibly, and even temporarily being taken up, as long as it happens in ways everybody settled on. The different nuances of “taking up space”, then, seem to depend on whether such an order of things were — explicitly or implicitly — agreed upon or not.

Of course, we stumble upon a problem here: with regularity, predictability, and, finally, our physical presence itself not being reliable factors of our workplace experience anymore, the upkeep or re-negotiation of how we want to share space becomes much more difficult. Communal norms and ideals might not have time to settle and there is more room for individualist quirks and uncommunicated mismatches. The following two essays will dive deeper into an exploration of these fragile dynamics.

In this series, artist Lisa Woite and AQ designer Tomomi Sasaki trace the ideals and struggles of sharing space, each devoted to a different way of being in a shared space: Taking up space, marking space, and earning space.

Next: Marking space-In a shared (work)space, what is mine vs yours and why does it matter?

January 28, 2022