The space Spec(R) has a universal property:
In the category of sets there is no such thing as the initial local ring into which some given ring R maps, i.e. a local ring L and a map f:R-->L such that any map from R into a local ring factors through f.
But a ring R is a ring object in the topos of Sets. Now if you are willing to let the topos vary in which it should live, such a "free local ring on R" does exist: It is the ring object in the topos of sheaves on Spec(R) which is given by the structure sheaf of Spec(R). So the space you were wondering about is part of the solution of forming a free local ring over a given ring (you can reconstruct the space from the sheaf topos, so you could really say that it "is" the space).
An even nicer reformulation of this is the following (even more high brow, but it nicely singles out the space):
A ring R, i.e. a ring in the topos of sets, is the same as a topos morphism from the topos of sets into the classifying topos T of rings (by definition of classifying topos). There also is a classifying topos of local rings with a map to T (which is given by forgetting that the universal local ring is local). If you form the pullback (in an appropriate topos sense) of these two maps you get the topos of sheaves on Spec(R) (i.e. morally the space Spec(R)). The map from this into the classifying topos of local rings is what corresponds to the structure sheaf.
Isn't that nice? See Monique Hakim's "Schemas relatifs et Topos anelles" for all this (the original reference, free of logic), or alternatively Moerdijk/MacLane's "Sheaves in Geometry and Logic" (with logic and formal languages).