Discovering Beauty in Between: Exploring Liminal Spaces in Architecture

Discovering Beauty in Between


Imagine standing at the entrance of a vast, dimly lit corridor, a place neither here nor there. This is where liminality unfolds, as poetic interludes within the symphony of architecture. Corridors become storylines, atriums become peaceful sanctuaries, and thresholds become symbolic crossings in between spaces that transcend materiality. Liminality originated in anthropology but finds fresh relevance in the architectural and digital realms. Architects shape deliberate ambiguity and sensory experiences that extend beyond the conventional. Therefore, connecting people in public areas and enhancing spiritual encounters.

The Essence of Liminality

Liminal Hallway©

Deriving from Latin, “liminal” represents a state of transition or in-betweenness that characterizes the divide between two unique experiences or phases. While initially established in anthropology and popularized by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, liminality extends beyond architecture to encompass various aspects of human existence. This highlights profound transformations during rites of passage for both people and societies. With this knowledge, we can comprehend the transitory stages of human existence, from birth to death.

In the context of architecture, liminal spaces draw inspiration from this concept. They are the physical embodiments of liminality within built environments, serving as zones of transition that defy classification. Unlike conventional spaces with clear functions, liminal spaces force us to experience architecture on a deeply emotional and psychological level. This often leaves us with an uncanny feeling, as if we have discovered a portal to the unknown. The absence of a clear purpose or defined boundaries in these spaces prompts us to question their meaning and existence.

Elements and Characteristics

Canary Wharf Station,
Canary Wharf Station, London©

Spatial transitions in architecture, like corridors, atriums, stairwells, and entrances, serve as pivotal elements in creating liminal spaces. They introduce pauses within a building, recalibrating our senses as we journey from room to room. These spatial transitions connect various areas through narratives, passageways, and corridors to welcome exploration. Atriums, with their combination of light and shadow, inspire introspection. Symbolic thresholds demarcate entry into significant worlds. Architecture becomes enriched as architects use liminal spaces as canvases for emotional experiences.

Terminal 4 Holiday Inn Express Heathrow,
Terminal 4 Holiday Inn Express Heathrow, London©

Liminality is where ambiguity reigns supreme, inviting both transformation and contemplation. They challenge our traditional sense of place and time. Light and shadow dance to create an ever-shifting ambiance, instilling intrigue. Architects use materials to improve sensory experiences and sound to obscure the boundaries between the ordinary and the spectacular. Symbolic ornamentation on elements like doors underscores transitions while provoking emotional responses akin to experiencing an emotional movie. In public settings, liminal components tether people and spaces, but in religious architecture, they represent a sacred threshold into spiritual enlightenment.

The Design Process

The approach to design takes a unique turn within the fascinating domain of liminal spaces. Architects become storytellers through design elements that prompt visitors to question and explore their surroundings, inspiring curiosity through purposeful ambiguity. These spaces are meticulously conceived to be anything but straightforward. It starts with the layout of these transitional zones. Whether it’s through labyrinthine corridors that lead to unexpected destinations or enigmatic spatial geometries that defy easy navigation, obscurity becomes a means to an end—an invitation to embark on a journey of discovery within the confines of a structure.

Yet the narrative of liminal spaces isn’t confined solely to their physical layout. An important aspect of carving out liminal experiences is using light, sound, and tactility. Architects employ lighting schemes that alternate between shadow and illumination to foster wonder and intrigue. When conceptualizing, architects bring acoustics and materiality to the table. Both go hand in hand, as materials can amplify or muffle sound. The subtle echo of footsteps, the hush of distant voices, or the gentle hum of machinery combine to orchestrate a sensory experience that immerses visitors in an alternate world.

Liminal Spaces in Different Contexts

Road to
Road to Nowhere©                   
Vacant Airport© 

Liminal spaces exist in various architectural contexts, evoking movement, anticipation, and engagement as individuals travel between different areas. Liminality extends to outdoor spaces like pathways and courtyards, enhancing the multifaceted concept of these transitional zones in the built environment. Public transport hubs, such as airports, train stations, and bus terminals, epitomize liminal spaces. Airports, for instance, are quintessential examples where travelers pass through while awaiting flights, creating a sensation of being in limbo, neither here nor there. Expansive windows flood the space with natural light, creating an open atmosphere, while controlled pathways and signage maintain order amid travel chaos.

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba,
Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain©

Liminal zones are used to elevate spiritual and artistic encounters in spaces like cathedrals, temples, mosques, and museums. Ornate decorations and symbolic thresholds welcome worshippers at grand entrances to places of worship, enhancing their spiritual journey. These transitional zones serve as metaphysical bridges, moving from the secular to the sacred. In museums, liminal spaces encourage thoughtful interactions with art through corridors and vestibules that prompt visitors to slow down and contemplate the displayed works. In both contexts, liminal spaces transcend the physical, guiding individuals into deeper realms of reverence, spirituality, and artistic appreciation.

Emotional Impact

Memory void, Jewish Museum,
Jewish Museum Passage, Berlin©

Liminality in architecture can elicit a sparking tapestry of emotions, often amplifying feelings of transition, introspection, and anticipation. By their nature, being ‘in-between’ spaces – liminal spaces can invoke a sense of mystery and curiosity. They can leave a person lingering on the edge of discovery, creating a psychological tension that piques curiosity and keeps one engaged. This deliberate ambiguity is also a potent vehicle for introspection. The capability of liminal spaces to disengage one from their normal routine offers a pause, a moment to contemplate surroundings, experiences, and the self, thereby prompting a deeper emotional response.

Furthermore, the shifting sensory stimuli—light, sound, and texture—in these spaces create a spiritual journey that alters from moment to moment. This sensory interplay provokes an array of emotional responses, from tranquility and awe to fascination and, sometimes, mild anxiety. Finally, liminal spaces play to our inherent instinct to decipher the unknown. Navigating an undefined path through such spaces can foster a sense of accomplishment. How architects forge these paths can impact the way we perceive and react to these spaces. In sum, liminal spaces possess immense capability to stir emotional currents and shape psychological responses.

Navigating the Challenges of Liminality

Federal Trust Building,
Federal Trust Building, Nebraska©

Crafting liminal spaces presents architects with a delicate balancing act where innovation meets practicality. User experience takes center stage, demanding architects provoke obscurity and contemplation while ensuring user comfort and safety. Excessive ambiguity or confusion risks discomfort and disengagement, unless this is the aim. Achieving this balance requires deep insights into human psychology and spatial design. Moreover, sustainability and maintenance are paramount. Integrating sustainable practices necessitates advanced material and technology choices. Additionally, meticulous, ongoing maintenance is crucial to preserving the intricate designs and unique features of liminal spaces.

Notable Examples of Liminal Space

Church of Light by Tadao
Church of Light by Tadao Ando©

Tadao Ando’s full-scale mock-up of the Church of the Light, featured in the “Endeavors by Tadao Ando” exhibition in Tokyo, exhibits liminal architecture. This replica of the renowned concrete church, characterized by a cross-shaped cutout, immerses visitors physically and emotionally. By omitting glass, Ando underscores the idea that architecture must be encountered firsthand to fully appreciate its materiality, scale, and the interplay of light and shadow. The deliberate choice heightens the sensory experience, bridging the physical and emotional realms. In this context, light serves as a conduit for profound spatial and emotional exploration, accentuating the liminality of Ando’s architectural design.

Memory void, Jewish Museum,
Memory void, Jewish Museum, Berlin©

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Studio Libeskind, is a striking example of liminal architecture. Libeskind’s innovative design embodies the emotions and cruel experiences of the Jewish people during and after the Holocaust. The museum’s architecture is characterized by its abstracted Star of David form and zig-zagging layout, guiding visitors through a journey of absence, emptiness, and invisibility, mirroring the disappearance of Jewish culture. The building’s concrete walls, absence of windows, and use of light evoke profound feelings, leaving visitors with a visceral experience. It’s a testament to how architecture can convey history and emotion within liminality.

Future Outlook

Liminal Spaces through
Liminal Spaces through VR©

As we teeter on the brink of architectural evolution, the future of liminal spaces is a captivating realm where design converges with innovation and societal changes. Technology’s evolution can transform the way we construct and interact with spaces. Inventive virtual and augmented reality, for instance, may empower architects to venture beyond physical boundaries. Smart materials that respond to environmental conditions could yield dynamic liminal spaces tailored to our needs and emotions. Imagine stepping into a space that seamlessly blends the digital and the physical, heightening sensory experiences. This finds a fascinating illustration in the concept of Backrooms.

Cultural and social shifts will also leave their imprint on the incorporation of liminal spaces in future architectural designs. As our values evolve, liminal spaces may increasingly focus on sustainability and well-being. The liminal may extend beyond thresholds and corridors into shared areas that promote connectivity and diversity, reflecting the changing fabric of our societies. In this constantly evolving architectural landscape, liminal spaces bridge technology and culture. The future will not only bring physical environmental change but also a deeper understanding of it.

The Backrooms: A Digital Liminality

Backrooms, The Lobby
Backrooms, The Lobby Concept©

‘The Backrooms’ emerged from 4chan with an unsettling image of a fluorescent-lit interior, sparking a strong online reaction and evolving into a captivating phenomenon. Enthusiasts envisioned it as an otherworldly, abandoned maze accessible only through a reality-bending process reminiscent of a video game’s “no-clipping” mode. This digital realm divided itself into distinct levels, each presenting unique environments and potential threats. Diverging significantly from traditional liminal spaces, ‘The Backrooms’ thrives on disquiet and unease, exclusively inhabiting the digital realm. Navigating ‘The Backrooms’ blurs the line between familiarity and enigma, akin to exploring long-abandoned structures.

The meticulously designed labyrinthine corridors beckon exploration, illuminated by flickering fluorescent lights and accompanied by the eerie hum of machinery. Emotions experienced here, such as curiosity and unease, parallel those felt within physical liminal spaces. ‘The Backrooms’ immerses individuals in solitude and the unknown, intensifying its allure. This digital enigma left a significant mark on video game culture, inspiring free games on platforms like Steam and Roblox. Its lore reflects a culture deeply embedded in video games, continually seeking creative outlets. In essence, ‘The Backrooms’ departs from architectural norms, resonating with the enigmatic essence of liminal spaces.

The Architectural Implications of ‘The Backrooms

Liminal Pool Room
Liminal Pool Room Concept©

‘The Backrooms’ present a fascinating challenge to architects by reshaping our perception of liminal spaces between reality and the virtual. This pushes architects to embrace the creepy characteristics of virtual worlds and create immersive places that are full of surprise and mystery. ‘The Backrooms’ provide a fascinating architectural subject for investigation. For many onlookers, these digital realms elicit both fear and familiarity. A closer look reveals a similarity to major industrial or commercial regions from the modernist era. As a result of this architectural decision, the rooms and passageways are disproportionately large and repetitious.

Notably, ‘The Backrooms’ lack visible ventilation, which adds to the claustrophobic feeling. The use of harsh yellow lighting shows that they are utilitarian in nature, potentially as storage areas not designed for long-term occupancy. The general lack of upkeep in these regions raises concerns about their frequent desertion, adding to the unsettling ambiance. ‘The Backrooms’, in essence, redefines our idea of liminal spaces in the digital era, pushing architects to examine the eerie aspects of virtual surroundings and inspiring novel design methods that span the physical and digital domains.


Liminal spaces in architecture redefine how we experience the boundaries of the physical and emotional worlds. Born from anthropology, they challenge traditional notions, ushering in reflection, expectation, and wonder. Liminal spaces extend beyond passageways; they guide us between different states, from religious thresholds to museum atriums, enhancing engagement. Crafting them demands a delicate balance between innovation and practicality. Technology and culture will further shape these spaces, making them even more dynamic and emotionally tailored. ‘The Backrooms,’ a digital manifestation of liminality, underscores this evolution, challenging our understanding of the physical and virtual realms. It has influenced our culture in unexpected ways.

In this ever-evolving realm, liminal spaces remind us that architecture has the power to steer emotions and transformations. The uncharted domain of liminality beckons, as it urges us to re-imagine the built environment.