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MA: The Space In Between

Photo by Brianna Stelfox

“Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form”

The Japanese concept of Ma (間) is a philosophical concept of the space between the edges, between the beginning and end, the space in between literally meaning gap, space, or pause. It is prevalent in Japanese art and design and is heavily seen in its architecture and usually refers to literal, physical negative space, but may also refer to the perception of gap or interval. Both of these interpretations can be seen in traditional Japanese homes to its most famous contemporary works.

The character for Ma (間) combines the characters of “gate” and “sun” and can be literally translated to “sun gate”. The character itself represents the manifestation of Ma. The composition of the character (moon lies below and in between the character for gate) itself evokes images of light traveling through the cracks of a doorway.

Photo by Brianna Stelfox

Japanese Homes

Aesthetic values are at the core of Japanese homes, which allows the concept of Ma to fit into everyday design. If you take a look at the “archetypical Japanese home, the minimalist tatami room prioritizes smooth lines and clean surfaces, with belongings neatly tucked away, and a few carefully chosen objects centered in such a way that emphasizes the empty space around them. Contrary to Western thinking and the rise of Marie Kondo, it’s not just about minimalism, tidiness or decluttering, it’s more about making emptiness a physical manifestation of the spiritual concept. Japanese homes also employ a toko-no-ma which is a “literal empty space that is built into Japanese sitting rooms - a display alcove typically filled with a scroll, bonsai tree or other art object.”

Photo by Brianna Stelfox

Ma in Architecture

Beyond the traditional aesthetic and values of the Japanese home, Ma exists in a general architectural context. In general, it tends to refer to the space in between, for instance, the “dimension of space between the structural posts of the interior”. It is a unique way of thinking about design, in that you are not only designing the physicality of a building, but also sculpting the space that exists in the interim.

The traditional Japanese tea house is the epitome of Ma in architectural design. The layout of the teahouse is “intentionally designed to encompass empty space -- energy filled with possibilities.” The emptiness of the space allows for more appreciation of the space itself and the life and rituals that inhabits it.

Photo by Brianna Stelfox


Aspects of Ma can be incorporated into your own daily life and home. Once you start noticing it, Ma is everywhere. I hope we can all find inspiration in this spiritual and physical manifestation of an ancient principle. Take a look around your home, or the next time you’re out and about and see if you can find your own interpretation of Ma. As Junichiro Tanizaki puts it, “we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates.”

Written by Brianna Stelfox



Japan-ness in Architecture by Arata Isozaki

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