August 10, 2008
For a printable version click Look Ma!
It’s next time again.
From where comes all this hostility? Ok, I get it. Architects can sometimes really infuriate people with a really confusing vocabulary – but to lash out at a really beautiful concept like “negative space” seems way over the top to me.
I find the concept totally fascinating, so I was astonished to find the blogs and forums filled with practically vitriolic comments about negative space. It was as if the term itself was somehow subversive and tricky. The architects using it were portrayed as smarty pants con artists trying to mess with people’s heads. Lighten up. This is a truly elegant idea worthy of your attention.
Maybe it is the "negative" in negative space which is upsetting everybody. The concept is pretty simple. We tend to think what architects do is all about making stuff using lots of sturdy materials like bricks and mortar and shingles and doors. Turns out, once you grok the idea of negative space, architecture can be more about the void than the actual stuff holding up the ceiling. It’s the space, the empty space where one often discovers the secret hiding place of genius.
People write about this all the time. Architects rave and rhapsodize about it. This is one of the most poetic parts of the profession. I love to watch an architect’s face when they get excited about this. Frank Gehry talked about it, on camera, when he told me about the negative space created between of the sails of his sail boat. He even let us film this! And then we were able to show this idea – this sailboat-inspired but actually built negative space in his most famous building, the Bilbao museum in Spain. Philip Johnson talked about this as well. He said it was spaces like this which can make you burst into tears. He described this happening to him when when he walked into the soaring spaces in Bilbao. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that Philip Johnson felt negative space was the very essence of architecture, and he had a jewel box of a glass house to prove it – negative space with no walls as big as all outdoors.
So, then the vocabulary kicks in to make this something we can discuss. The reviled “negative space” is maybe the most innocent of these terms. Ready for the word of the day? Here you go. INTERSTITIAL. It is a great word. And the great thing about a new word is it’s is like remembering the name of a new friend. If you can hold on to it and remember to use it – it invariably brings a smile.
Interstitial means the space in between and it is a total blast to look at a building or a piece of sculpture or even a painting and keep this word in mind. You suddenly start to see a whole new world that isn’t there! How fun is that? This is the abject joy of emptiness. You already love this idea. You love a blank space on your calendar. The Zen of a rare uncluttered drawer or closet can be a great luxury. Underpacked luggage is bliss. Less is more. Trust me, finding the space in between, the interstitial, the negative space is a delightful way to amp up your ability to enjoy all sorts of things. Slowness fits in here big time.
In researching this idea I found some very provocative words and ideas to leave you with. First is the work of a contemporary artist/sculptor Rachel Whiteread. She does these “casts” of interior spaces and these become the sculpture. Get this. She fills up an actual room with polymer resin, or some such plaster and arty goop, totally floods the space – glub, glub, glub. Then she waits for the resin to dry and demolishes the room and that becomes the sculpture! Look Ma! Negative space in all its glory.
But the pun of the title here is the total kicker. It turns out the Japanese have an even better word than interstitial for this concept. Their word is MA. Just two letters. But a total mindblower of an idea.
MA is, as I understand it (and if you know anything about this word or this concept I hope you will write a comment about it because this is totally amazing), more than emptiness. MA, some would say, is the mental space created by the emptiness! Isn’t that just the most gorgeous thought! It makes total sense when you think about the Japanese garden or Japanese flower arranging or those graceful ineffable Japanese screens.
Now see the wizened Chinese Taoist priest put his bony finger dead on the point. Lao Tsu, although not explaining Ma specifically, explains all and nothing in his verse number 11 from the Tao te Ching.
The Uses of Not:
Thirty spokes join together at one hub,
But it is the hole in the center that makes it operable.
Clay is molded into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside that makes it useful.
Doors and windows are cut to make a room,
It is the empty spaces that we use.
Therefore, existence is what we have,
But non-existence is what we use
The sensibility of contemporary photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who takes dreamy pictures of barely perceptible water horizons, is drenched in Ma.
Before I read about the term Ma I had never fully considered the experiential aspect of this concept. The adroit creation of (empty) space gives one a corresponding exhilaration inside the brain. This is why the tears rush in. This is what makes the cathedral soar. It is the thrill of the silence between the notes, the soothing vista of the valley, and the seduction of the shadow. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this.
Until next time with much love,