Book Review: “The Hidden Dimension,” by Edward T. Hall

The Hidden Dimension

Fortunately this book is available new or used online, as it is a valuable exploration of the way human beings in different times and cultures have interpreted and used space, and of the effects of  spatial configurations in urban cultures. In fact, it was author Edward T. Hall’s specific intention that the findings examined in this book be applied to urban design, but they will also be useful to writer, readers, and human beings in general.

Mr. Hall (who coined the term “proxemics” to describe this field of study) begins with an overview of “distance regulation in animals,” to quote one chapter heading, and the effects of crowding and spatial arrangements on social and non-social, territorial and non-territorial animals. After collating the findings of numerous studies, including several he managed himself,  he examines the physiological bases of perception in both animals and humans before moving on to what he calls the “anthropology of space,” that is, the different ways humans have devised to arrange, demarcate, and exploit space throughout our history.

As he approaches the modern era in his narrative, he deploys specific examples of spatial conventions, mostly derived from his own studies. These focus on US, Northern European, Southern European, Arabic, and Japanese cultures, as well as describing various adaptations and misadaptions of space devised by or imposed upon different subgroupings of US residents, including not only immigrants but internal immigrants, such as southern blacks who moved north.

One example is in the arrangement of rooms, where he contrasts the American practice of lining furniture around the edges of a space with the Japanese preference to group it in the center. Another is in the use of time and schedules, where he recounts the complaints of Northern Europeans that Americans schedule too much into too little time, obviating the possibility of developing or accommodating the relationships that are required to complete the tasks alloted: “Many of my European subjects observed that in Europe human relationships are important whereas in the United States the schedule is important.” They also observed that Americans treat space with “incredible casualness. According to European standards, Americans use space in a wasteful way and seldom plan adequately for public needs.”

This observation exposes the core of one of the great obstacles to making the US social and physical environments both more effective than they presently are, as the demands of a growing population eat up the windfall of the “wide-open spaces” that the US picked up as it played out the theme of Manifest Destiny.

The foundation to many of the problems presented in this book is revealed, of course, as the private automobile, and Mr. Hall devotes several long sections of the latter chapters to the automobile and its normative effect on US culture. Some notable statements:

Since the French savor and participate in the city itself…the need for insulating space in the automobile may be somewhat less than it is in the United states where humans are dwarfed by skyscrapers and the products of Detroit [and] visually assaulted by filth and rubbish….” 

“The automobile is the greatest consumer of public and personal space yet created by man…. The car gobbles up spaces in which people might meet. Parks, sidewalks, everything goes to the automobile.”

These insights, combined with Mr. Hall’s detailed explanation of differing cultural interpretations of visual, tactile, auditory, and even olfactory space, and how a knowledge of these differences can be used not only to harmonize but to enrich city life, make this book valuable in itself to any student or proponent of modern urban living. It’s also certainly worth studying for writers trying to express how human beings develop relationships with each other and with their environment, especially in the multitudinous and multicultural cities where we, more and more, choose to live, these fraught and difficult days.

Originally published in Sustainable City News.

Rick Risemberg