The cosmologist Carl Sagan, in attempting to explain how there could be weird extra dimensions of which we were simply not aware, liked to invoke the example of “flatland”, a fantasy two-dimensional world where all the objects and people were flat and sublimely unaware that a third dimension even existed. Perhaps, Carl mystically argued, there were fourth, fifth and sixth dimensions which our 3D selves, like the inhabitants of “flatland”, simply could not comprehend.
Yet our modern world of property is itself a form of “flatland”, where people overwhelmingly tend to think in terms of two dimensions, as if they are the only ones that matter. Check out the details of any house or flat for sale and they are likely to tell you the length and width of any room, offer you a two-dimensional floor plan, as well as a total floor area.
The actual ceiling height of the rooms is almost treated as an irrelevance. Certainly no one tends to think of the cubic volumes that rooms contain. Provided that we have enough room to comfortably move about in our houses and flats, we – the inhabitants of our real-world “flatland” – seem to attach little value to the third dimension around us.
I find that when I am in high-ceilinged spaces, I feel a sense of freedom and expanse
But perhaps we should. For few things so affect your impression of a room as the ceiling height when you walk into it, and your reaction to a space is greatly affected by how high the ceilings rise up above you.
Our forebears seemed to appreciate this far more than we do. Georgian and Victorian houses for the rich and mighty almost universally boast high decorated, corniced ceilings, often with giant doorways which 7ft people could comfortably walk through. The idea seems to have been less about practicality and adapting to human forms and more about physically creating magnificent spaces that reflected the soaring achievement, wealth and ambition of the people that lived in them. Plain, low ceilings would have doubtless appeared to them as a slap in the face, an affront to their grandiose sense of self.
In our egalitarian, functional modern world, we seem to have mostly swept away all of that and convinced ourselves that, provided ceilings are at least a comfortable 50cm above your head, they don’t matter at all. Builders would rather not waste materials going any higher, and efficiency-minded occupants, if faced with lavishly high ceilings, might think how much more expensive it is to heat the space. Some people positively prefer cosy, low-slung dwellings.
Yes, I want to have space that I can comfortably move through, but I also wish to have space above my head to let my spirit soar a little
Yet, for me, room height is the most absurdly undervalued of a property’s qualities. I find that when I am in high-ceilinged spaces, I feel a sense of freedom and expanse. I start to become a little more ambitious in my thoughts, as if a barrier has been taken away and allowed me to expand into new mental spaces.
Personally I’m in full agreement with our ancestors that room height matters a lot, in fact is just as important a dimension as width and length. Yes, I want to have space that I can comfortably move through, but I also wish to have space above my head to let my spirit soar a little.
I’m gratified that I am not alone on this view. I recently had a visitor from the other side of the world come and visit. I spent a couple of days showing tourist sights and regaling with interesting stories about buildings. When I caught up with him again, under a bog standard restaurant ceiling, six months later in his home country, I was taken aback when he remarked, “Do you know what stays with me most about my visit?” I flatly shook my head. “The wonderful height of your ceilings . . . ”