In 2009, a very interesting experiment took place on the internet. Two men, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, went on a scavenger hunt for 100 peculiar thrift items that cost them less than a few dollars each. They sent these items to writers who would then craft a fictional story around the objects. The goal was to test this hypothesis: “Narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones”. To quantify if adding a layer of narrative to the now ‘Significant Objects’ makes them more valuable, they put them on eBay. Instead of writing a product description, they used the writer’s story -stating that it’s fiction. To their surprise, it worked! What was once $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk was later sold for more than $3,000 (Significant Objects, 2010).

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Significant Objects_©Significant Objects

If mere fictional stories can transform insignificant objects into significant ones, what can historical events and real stories, some of which are linked to remarkable ancient civilizations, do to the structures surrounding us? 

When I first read this, I recalled a similar event that happened to me years ago on my trip to Europe. While roaming the streets of Barcelona with my friends, we passed by a building that looked as if pulled out of a children’s fairytale. My friends thought it was ‘nice’ to look at but weren’t moved enough to explore more. Knowing what it was, I was stunned in my place. I bought a ticket and went inside, flowing from one room to another between beautiful organic spaces, curved wooden walls, and breathtaking aquatic-green tiling. Casa Batlló is nothing less than majestic. And I knew that because I knew the story of the man behind it, Antoni Gaudi, and it excited me to discover his building and appreciate his work. 

As architects, these incidents are not rare. Everywhere we go, we find ourselves knowledgeable about our surroundings, at least more than others. This knowledge makes all the difference in the way we respond to and appreciate the surrounding architecture compared to how non-architects do. But stories aside, do the minds of architects operate differently than those of non-architects? Do we have an unfair advantage when it comes to perceiving a space beyond just our awareness of its history?

What is Spatial Perception?

In 2014, two scientists, Edvard and May-Britt Moser, discovered that all humans have geometric-shaped brain cells that act as internal GPS and help us navigate space. Our brains record and read spaces objectively in a universal manner (Chudy, 2017). Environments that surround us provide opportunities for exploration and provide information that is received through all the senses – feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. Symbolism and meaning can be attributed to spatial typologies, but they are not universal (Yazdanfar, Heidari, and Aghajari, 2015). What is common among all human beings, though, is how these typologies affect our spatial perception in a specific and highly individualistic way. 

Perception of space is affected by the person’s past experiences, cultural background, gender, education, and more. The general public might not be concerned about the psychological effects generated by how their surroundings are laid out. They simply experience it passively. As architects, it’s the opposite. Spatial education is an experience that strongly affects our interpretation of the surrounding environments.

We talked a little about the emotional response when perceiving a space enlightened with its story, but are there more technical differences such as special recognition and memory, way-finding, orientation, direction…?

Architects are System Thinkers | Spatial Perception

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Urban Map_©

What that means is that they identify single elements as part of a whole. When it comes to navigation and way-finding, architects may have a better sense of direction due to their training in urban mapping. While non-architects may find their way in a neighbourhood by remembering signs, distinctive colours, shop fronts, etc., architects may identify nodes, corners, streets, monuments, and more. It’s very similar to the psychological experiment where two people were asked to observe beautiful lake scenery. Only when one of them told the other that there were fish in the lake was the other able to see them. This means when you know of something; you start seeing it. And as architects, having previous training in identifying what composes space distinctively helps in building a mental map for it. It expands the range of elements they can identify, categorize, and keep track of and thus improves their way-finding abilities.

Architects are Futurists

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Dark Street_©siGT1papillon

Between beautifully rendered images and floor plans that don’t exist, they work at the edge of what ‘could be’. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to analyze and learn from special qualities to improve their designs. This results in experiencing space the same way a writer experiences a novel: analytical, methodical, and even at times, critical. Due to their enlightened awareness, they’re actively observing the characteristics of a space and analyzing the method behind them. A tree can feel ‘beautiful’ to a regular person. A Street can be deemed ‘scary’. A public plaza can feel relaxing and enjoyable. Behind those basic adjectives, architects judge the built environment beyond its physical attributes. It’s the ‘WHY’ behind the ‘beautiful’, ‘scary’ or’ relaxing’ that is unlocked in the perception of the architect’s mind. The beautiful lush tree is positioned at the corner of the street, where it’s observed from different angles. The street seems scary simply because it’s narrow and dark due to poor lighting conditions, which signal to the brain that it’s unsafe. The enjoyable piazza is wide and well-diversified because of its interlocked tiling, comfortable urban furniture, and planned space for people to gather.

It’s a Privilege  | Spatial Perception

Being surrounded by your medium of study, in my opinion, is both a privilege and a curse. The architectural knowledge we have puts us in a constant state of analyzing our surroundings. Because architects are problem solvers, we’re always identifying the ‘better version’ of how space could be, especially in the case of poorly designed or neglected structures. It can easily torment the neurotic ones of us to be in a space suffering from a loss of potential, like a misused park or a deteriorating heritage monument. No doubt, the ability to perceive special qualities is built in every human being. But as architects, we get to experience our surroundings on a much deeper level. It’s certainly a privilege to understand how and why the world is built the way it is.

“I do not claim to know what space is. The longer I think about it, the more mysterious it becomes. About one thing, however, I am sure: when we, as architects, are concerned with space, we are contending with, but a tiny part of the infinity that surrounds the earth, and yet each building marks a unique place in that infinity.” -Peter Zumthor (Chudy, 2017)

Reference List: 2010. Significant Objects. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Chudy, O., 2017. SPATIAL PERCEPTION AND ARCHITECTURE | TMD STUDIO LTD. [online] TMD STUDIO LTD. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Yazdanfar, S.A., Heidari, A.A. and Aghajari, N., 2015. Comparison of Architects’ and Non-Architects’ Perception of Place. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences170, pp.690-699.

Chudy, O., 2017. SPATIAL PERCEPTION AND ARCHITECTURE | TMD STUDIO LTD. [online] TMD STUDIO LTD. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 June 2021].


Figure 1: Significant Objects, 2019. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 June 2021].

Figure 2: n.d. NEW WESTMINSTER WAYFINDING. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 June 2021].

Figure 3: siGT1papillon, 2007. Dark street. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 June 2021].


Mounira is an award-winning architect and self-taught entrepreneur. She leads Jawnah, a VC-backed online wellness brand that builds skincare products inspired by the Mederentian heritage. In the afternoons, Mounira enjoys digital art, writing, and researching the latest trends in XR technology.