The Shape and Size of Things

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
6 min readFeb 15, 2024

And how it impacts us emotionally

Stockholm

Recently, I moved into Central Stockholm, and although my location is very convenient (ultra central, 2 minutes from the metro and museum, water access, etc.), I find one thing unsettling:

  • The buildings here are or seem to be freakishly tall and are placed extremely close to each other.

This triggers in me an extreme feeling of claustrophobia. Everything seems massive and oppressive.

This big city wants to make you feel small.

Malmö

I used to live in Malmö for a while back. My feelings about it are very different compared to Stockholm.

Malmö feels breezy, open, and welcoming, and I do not mean that in the cultural sense. I mean from a geometric, organizational standpoint.

Möllevången — Malmö

The buildings in Malmö are between 3 and 4 floors tall, and the width of most large roads between them goes from 1:1 to 1:3. Building height to road width in terms of ratio.

This small city wants you to feel welcome!

So the obvious question, for me, is: Why?

I was looking for some of that experience in Stockholm, and as I mentioned, Stockholm differs from that. Architecture is more prominent here, tighter, and more oppressive, brutalist in places like there is no place for fun, for breathing.

One place that resonates significantly with what I am looking for might be the district of Vasastan.

The profile of the buildings and the colourful facades struck my interest. The wiki page, however, cleared it for me:

Compared to central Stockholm, streets were widened to 18 metres, except for the main east-west-bound street Odengatan which was made 30 metres wide and adorned with plantings after continental prototypes. In accordance with construction charters from the 1870s, building corners where filleted and building heights adopted to street width and limited to five floors — embellishing proportions intended to bring light and air into the urban space. The Neo-Renaissance plaster architecture of the middle class residential buildings in southern Vasastaden is highly reminiscent of the Ringstraße in Vienna; the ground floors are dominated by horizontal elements with columns and pilasters above, while accentuated cornices closes the vertical compositions. Later architects failed to appreciate these Neo-Renaissance buildings and freed many of them of most of their decorations.[1]

Also

The city district, most likely named after the street Vasagatan, in its turn named after King Gustav Vasa in 1885, was still a peripheral part of the city in the early 1880s. Before the end of that decade, however, some 150 buildings had been built and only the properties along Odengatan remained vacant. The expansion was preceded by a city plan established in 1879, a slightly more modest edition of the 1866 intentions of city planner Albert Lindhagen, in its turn largely a continuation north of an original 17th-century plan. Like the Baroque plan, the new plan took little or no account of local topographic variations, and where the two failed to reconcile, sites were simply set aside as parks or for major structures such as the Sabbatsberg Hospital.[1]

Map of Stockholm in the mid-1800s.

As a comparison, the parts of Malmö I am talking about were built, probably around the mid-1800s, mainly as a part of Kockum’s industrialisation effort.

The middle part of the town is preserved. Still, everything else not in Gamlastan is being built according to the Swedish Construction Charter of the 1870s, thus leading to similar-looking areas, as was the fashion at the time.

Malmö — 1881

Study

In Francis D. K. Ching's book Architecture: Form, Space and Order, in the Chapter titled Circulation, the author makes a case for how space exerts a psychological force over the agent, or the inhabitant of the space.

Larger open spaces offer moments of mental rest, repose, and reflection, while tighter spaces constrict the inhabitants and allow them to move along the side of the constricting walls.

The constriction is psychological, and it is not only about how close things are together but also how tall they are compared to how close they are to each other.

Incidentally, the book is available here:

How does this impact design

I think there is a direct correlation between space and emotion:

  • Large open spaces offer introspection; they invite agents to sit and think.
  • The ample prospect space in front of them is overwhelming, so movement stops.
  • In the hustle and bustle of the rat race, agents come to expect and want the prospect of a large open area with no constricting features.
  • The constrictive nature of modern cities, all the tight streets and tall buildings, the crowded metros, the busses, and the traffic push the agent to move. Still, when faced with moving alongside others, it becomes a problem of flow and capacity. For agents, this means depression and apathy.
  • Crowd Density goes against the principle of movement and makes the flow worse, so large open spaces with no constriction become even more desirable.
Central Park — New York
  • A proper ratio between pathway and wall height can lead to intimate spaces.
  • Walkability is one of the things being pursued in the modern era, bringing more of the prospect into the flow areas and allowing pockets of rest in spaces that were otherwise designed for flow.

Parks, waterfronts, and beaches all invite contemplation and introspection. In the real world, there is context. Agents come from dense areas here to relax. People living in these areas go to dense areas to seek excitement.

In video games, context needs to be established.

In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater — After fighting the boss called the End, the Player is forced to go up an unusually long ladder, which leads to a moment of introspection as the player considers what he has done so far.

Breath of the Wild has moments where reaching mountain tops reveals incredible vistas while the music changes to support a calmer and more reflective tone.

How does space impact us emotionally?

The entire point of level and world design is to create a pulsating effect regarding experiences. You want the players to move from one feeling to another to get impressed by nature's majesty, architecture's oppressiveness, and so on.

It might be fun to go to a densely populated urban area for a weekend, but prolonged exposure often leads to burnout and depression.

Architects and Urban Planners do not have the resources or flexibility to adjust real-world spaces to offer better experiences, so we, the travellers, need to design our own experience and define our sense of pace.

As game developers, however, we have both resources and flexibility to improve these spaces.

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Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.