Review: Space and Place; the Perspective of Experience by Yi Fu Tuan (1977) Assessment 8 out of 10

A key text of “humanist” geography, placing human experience centre stage.

Yi Fu Tuan is an Oxford-educated Chinese American geographer. He originally researched geomorphology, then landscapes, writing the volume of the Oxford edited “World Landscapes” series on China. He then became a, probably the, guru of “humanist” geography, putting man himself, and man’s experience, at the centre of an understanding of the human created world.

“Space and Place” is based not on fieldwork, but on a wide reading in, and long thinking about, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and literature, including poetry. Written in 1977 it remains vivid, almost poetic.

An infant is placed lying on his back or carried by his mother, on whom his world is centred. Children learn about their locality by moving between home & school, recognising places where their journey changes direction. They & adults learn the pattern of movement and only later, and perhaps never, the geography of the locality through which they travel.

Hunter-gatherers in the tropical forests, with natural complexity around them and unvarying seasons, have little spatial or temporal awareness. By contrast, Eskimo hunter-gatherers have considerable spatial awareness of the bleak landscape in which they live. In fog or blizzard, land, sky and water lose differentiation. Landmarks disappear, but the Eskimo finds his way, relying on the feel of the land, snow quality and whether the air is fresh or salt. Pacific islanders are able to navigate across a wide ocean, knowing in which direction there is landfall, relying on wave pattern, bird flight and stellar navigation.

Man himself is the measure of his world, the cubit from the forefinger to the elbow, the fathom, the distance across outstretched arms, the mile, a thousand paces. In mythic space, the human body is perceived as an image of the cosmos or as the centre of the world, looking out to its cardinal points. Reflecting the asymmetry of the body, the right side is perceived as sacred and superior to the left, sinister side. Chinese culture apparently reverses this pattern, favouring the left hand side, but this is based on Chinese space being centred on the Emperor, who faces south and the sun. His left side therefore faces east, the place of the rising sun and male (yang) , his right to the setting sun to the west and female (yin).

Man is a unique amongst animals in standing up, surveying his surroundings. A prone individual is submissive. The socially superior looks down on their inferiors. Upper stories are generally preferred. There are exceptions. In 19th century Paris, the first floor was the most valued, poorer occupants living higher up, (in the artist’s garret), without adequate piping and reached by long, steep stairs. Modern plumbing and lifts have re-established the superiority of the upper floors, looking out & down ( not down & out) from the penthouse.

Dr Tuan refers to differences in the human relationship to places, “Rootlessness” and the rather different contrasts between “Place and Placelessness” considered by the Canadian Geographer Edward Relph (1976) and later the contrast between “Somewheres and Anywheres” by the UK Political Scientist, David Goodhart (2017).

The book focuses on the relationship between place, space & time. When travelling from A to B, we forget the turns, changes of direction, simplifying the journey into a straight line, of progress in time & space from origin to destination.

While it takes time to form an attachment to a place, the quality and intensity of the experience matters more than simply the time spent in a place.

Chinese and Turkish courtyard homes look inward to continuity and the past, modern Western homes, with plate glass windows, outward to the future.

I re-read “Space and Place”, cycling across Central Europe with my wife, Anne. Our journey consisted of days’ rides through a beautiful and historically important landscape, punctuated by overnight stops at places where we stayed, for dinner and the night’s sleep. Our journey took time, the places were pauses in that journey. Our “Perspective of Experience” provided both experience in itself, and an opportunity to reflect on Dr Tuan’s writing.

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