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.
The symbol for Ma combines door and sun. Together these two characters depict a door through the crevice of which the sunlight peeps in. We see in this symbol not only the structure of a door but a door that is open for the light to come in, thus enabling growth and sparking creativity. This is Ma – the space between the edges, the space and time in which we experience life.
Ma permeates Japanese art, architecture, culture, and everyday life, expressed in the way people speak and move, as well as in art – in the way the spaces around the object are given equal if not more importance than the object itself – and in architecture and interior design where the sparseness of the interiors with a few thoughtfully placed objects evokes feelings of elegance and calm.
“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates.” – Junichiro Tanizaki (prominent Japanese author)
But like many ancient concepts, Ma is ever more relevant to modern life. It can be used to regulate our nervous system and better handle life’s challenges. At a time when most people are overwhelmed by the state of the world, the economy, and the climate crisis, stressed about work and relationships, and confused by the barrage of conflicting messages in the media, a deliberate pause can be a powerful technique to help us manage the non-stop stimuli and complexity of life.
The concept of a conscious pause is a well-known tool for self-improvement perfectly encapsulated in the STOP framework used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There, STOP stands for:
- S: Stop. Whatever you’re doing, just pause momentarily.
- T: Take a breath. Re-connect with your breath. The breath is an anchor to the present moment.
- O: Observe. Notice what is happening. What is happening inside you, and outside of you? Where has your mind gone? What do you feel? What are you doing?
- P: Proceed. Continue doing what you were doing. Or don’t: Use the information gained during this check-in to change course. Whatever you do, do it mindfully.
Pausing can help us see things clearly, re-center, reconnect with ourselves, recharge and regenerate.
It is with these ideas in mind that I had set out to design a space for people who live in a constant state of flux – digital nomads, remote workers, entrepreneurs, and creatives.
The common thread between these lifestyles is change, lack of stability, high highs and low lows:
Digital nomads and remote workers constantly juggle work with travel, online and IRL connections, business seeping into personal and vice versa.
The life of an entrepreneur is high intensity, constant motion, complete lack of balance between personal life and business, splitting attention between multiple subjects and activities, and swinging wildly between exaltation and despair on a daily basis.
The life of a creative is also filled with movement and change as well as juggling all aspects of a creative practice from accounting to marketing, all while managing to produce work. This requires exceptional time management skills and the ability to quiet one’s mind in order to create.
Wonder how I know all this? I’ve been all of these at various points in my life, and have been a nomad/expat while bootstrapping AOMA for the past 3 years. It’s been a wild ride!
So when designing the interior and exterior spaces of AOMA, I designed for a range of needs and experiences from solitude to fully social.
The garden contains a variety of spaces for solo, small groups, and larger get-togethers with intimate corners, leafy shaded areas, and wide poolside lawns to support the mood and emotional needs of residents.
The Coworking space is in a separate building from the Coliving, creating a space between work and play/rest areas to help both disconnect and focus.
Our rooms feature double sound insulation and private outdoor spaces as well as desks to provide our guests an opportunity to retreat from the socially charged experience of a Coliving space and recuperate in solitude.
But the most “Ma” of all is the facade itself.
Do you often find yourself working indoors and looking wistfully at the sunny patches outside only to move there with your laptop to find it a bit hot, too sunny to see the screen, the lawn chair eating into your flesh and straining your poor knowledge worker back? And so you try for a while, frustration mixed in equal parts with enjoyment, until you give up and go back in. Happens to me all the time. So I knew I wanted to be in an in-between space – warm but not direct sunlight, shielded from the wind with comfy seating.
So when I started working with my architects on the building’s design, my brief was to create an indoor / outdoor space with beautiful shadow patterns that change throughout the day and create shelter and cozyness where the residents could work and relax.
The resulting solution was a modern day portico that weaves itself around the front of the building creating a space that is protected yet open, with diffused light and shadows protecting from direct sun and the columns from the wind.
It’s a space to work, outdoor dinners, or for sipping a cocktail while watching life play out in front of you out by the pool and in the garden.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I inadvertently brought back and recreated a crucial element of traditional Japanese temple design based on “Ma,” which now found its new home in Portugal.