Spaces for therapy and counselling are haunted spaces, spaces whose physical characteristics manifest past inhabitation and cue connections to another’s trauma. This paper explores findings from a research project which examined the perceptions of spatiality of individuals who self harm, and the interior encounters they were exposed to which are of particular significance to this group. This data collection involved a series of semi-structured interviews with mental health service users who self harm, their carers, therapists/counsellors, architects, and design experts/researchers. Also included was an examination of existing built therapeutic spaces. Through analysis of the data collected, a series of findings were determined relating to perceptions of spatiality and the semantics of architectural therapeutic encounters. This paper first explores metaphor and metaphorical expression as discussed in literary, philosophy and architectural discourse. Following this, the methods used in the study reported in this paper are defined. Results are presented subsequently, outlining the spatial metaphors and haunted dimensions of therapeutic space perceived by service users. The discussion investigates possible explanations for why spatial metaphors were of particular significance, and why traces within built interior space is cueing connections to another’s trauma. This is framed across three themes: (1) sensitivity to spatial metaphoric content; (2) sensory engagement triggering connections to narratives (imagined); and (3) the forfeiting of language and significance of a dialogue with the built environment through touch and the human sensorium. This discussion is presented alongside relevant discourse on spatial metaphors and semantics of space from a variety of disciplines, in order to aid the analysis. What emerged from the study was that the sense of place experienced by service users brings together real and imagined dimensions of space, present and absent. The findings of this study indicate that the semantics of space in therapeutic settings is key to exploring sense of place and the haunted dimensions of therapeutic space. Therapeutic spaces are imbued with metaphoric signifiers, bodily transmission, and offer opportunities for non-verbal communication, increased body awareness, increased sensory engagement and perception, and opportunities for the development of the self. Providing spaces which are psychologically safe, and not haunted by spectres of the past service user and their trauma, requires attention be paid to notions of trace within the counselling workspace, and the semantics of architectural therapeutic encounters.
Stephanie Liddicoat is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include explorations of spatial perceptions by vulnerable or marginalised groups and the semantics of spatial encounters.