Look Ma!

August 10, 2008


Borromini’s ethereal Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza Chapel in Rome

Borromini’s ethereal Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza Chapel in Rome

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.

San Carlino Balustrade by Borromini. If you are not looking at the amazing shapes in between the pillars you are missing half the fun.

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.

Phillip Johnson’s glass house (1949). Click for a glass house slide show by Paul Warchol for TIME

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.

Rachael Whiteread, Ghost 1990

Rachel Whiteread’s plaster casts of empty rooms (1990) turn negative space into positive art

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.

Japanese screen in Tokyo Museum, Pine Trees in fog by 16th C. master of Ma, Hasegawa Tohaku

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.

Hiroshi Sugimoto “Lake Superior, Cascade River” 1995 Gelatin-silver print

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,



  • martina says:

    Another word is “potential” space. What is coming to be, or could be. In the sculpture garden at Stanford University, there is a Rodin sculpture which is called “Hope”. I looked closely at the young woman in bronze. The belly is a bit swollen. In profile, I suddenly realized it is a PREGNANT belly, about 22 weeks. Just enough to pooch out, about a centimeter or two above the umbilicus. If it were fat, it would not be just that fullness of the lower abdomen. Many people probably do not see pregnancy in that statue. But I am an Obstetrician. So I get it, that it is the best way he could have chosen, to represent hope. I loved everybody’s posting about this issue. I loved the “bony finger” of Lao Tzu. I really loved the James Wright poem, and the others quoted by Sarah. And the reference to Donovan, whose music I always loved, and now I need to get a CD to listen to again, because I remember that song. And outside my window this morning, the landscape looks like that gorgeous ‘Trees in fog” by a Japanese master. The sun is now shining, and making each branch hold diamonds which sparkle. It is so gorgeous on the white plum blossoms– like a bridal gown. But the redwoods are rising up in the valley of fog, and seem like a whisper beyond an echo. I love the clay cup holding the fullness of potential space, for its usefulness. THANK YOU for this wonderful reflection!

  • Susan Miller says:


    For me, it pings the fluid system of the body. The body, as we all know, is made up primarily of fluid. These fluids are mainly known to the lay person as blood, lymph and maybe spinal fluid. But there is another way to consider these fluids. In a course of study called Body Mind Centering, we learn about the different movement qualities associated with cellular, transitional and interstitial fluids.

    It is the interstitial fluid that transports the nourishment to the cell and excess nutrients and waste back to the venous or lymphatic systems. So as a go between in the body this interstitial fluid is pretty important. This fluid is the ocean in which the cells exist.

    In movement, interstitial fluid is the foundation of the vitality and flow of power through the organs and muscles. Without the interstitial fluid we would have gaps and lost connections – so in movement the interstitial fluid is a pathway, a transporter, a transition.

    Think “fish is positive” space – “ocean is negative” space. Not really, eh? Think of the ocean as a vast nothingness… negative space. Yet when we contain a bit of it and study further it has as much vitality as what we may have thought of as positive. The positive is easy to consider as such because it is already contained/defined like the fish.

    If you divide a canvas and paint the top half white and the bottom half black, which is the negative space?

    Likewise in a gallery is the wall space between paintings negative? I say no. I say that it is an interval – the space between tones or percussive sounds is what creates the rhythm. But as we learn in mathematics, the space between two integers is infinite.

    And what about light? I am thinking of the “walk light” – the light left on on the stage when the theater is darkened and closed up for its sleep. Does that light in the vast darkness become the positive space or is the darkened theater itself the positive while the lone bulb illumines only that which passes near it?

    From Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts: “A vase stood at the heart of the house. Alabaster, smooth, cold, holding the still distilled essence of emptiness, silence.”

    Susan founded the professional modern dance ensemble, The Repertory Project, in 1987 as an outgrowth of her work with dance students at Cleveland State University. Her blog can be found at http://realneo.us/blog/susan-miller –TB

  • Dear Tom,

    Since my art school days, I was always bothered by the term “negative space”. The expression seemed a redundancy, if not a misnomer. In drawing class, we were told to use the outline of the empty space to help us define the shape of the mass. In sculpture class, the hole became the focus. That phrase, “negative space”, is way too inadequate to describe the complexities of a void.

    While empty blocks of a calendar spell vacation to one person, to the next they scream “You need to get a life!” Divorce brings loneliness and grief to some, but to others, peace and freedom. A clean plate can signify a full stomach, or hunger.

    Thank you Tom, for enriching my vocabulary. “Interstitial” rolls off the tongue with enough sophistication to make it worthy of the concept. The simplicity of “Ma” reflects the beauty and power – the positive aspects – of “negative” space. I will most definitely use these new terms this school year when I cover the element of space with my art students.

    MaryBeth teaches Visual Arts in the Cleveland Municipal School System. Her blog can be found at mbmatthews.blogspot.com – TB

  • martha towns says:

    Dear Tom: I love being in the august company of you and the people who take the time to send such wonderful responses to your blog. So much to think about; so little time. Actually I did already know of the word Interstitial, another of those words one does not get much chance to use.

    Best, Martha

    Martha Towns is a popular and articulate columnist who regularly writes for Currents – TB

  • Tom, your meditations on Ma, Interstices, and Negative Space brought to mind a few favorites: a song by Donovan, that archangel of Brit hippiedom:

    “First there is a mountain

    then there is no mountain

    then there is.”

    Keats’ definition of Negative Capability:

    “…when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…

    & this poem from Wallace Stevens:

    The Snow Man

    One must have a mind of winter

    To regard the frost and the boughs

    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time

    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think

    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land

    Full of the same wind

    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,

    And, nothing himself, beholds

    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


    & this one from William Stafford:

    Notice What This Poem is Not Doing

    The light along the hills in the morning

    comes down slowly, naming the trees

    white, then coasting the ground for stones to nominate.

    Notice what this poem is not doing.

    A house, a house, a barn, the old

    quarry, where the river shrugs–

    how much of this place is yours?

    Notice what this poem is not doing.

    Every person gone has taken a stone

    to hold, and catch the sun. The carving

    says, “Not here, but called away.”

    Notice what this poem is not doing.

    The sun, the earth, the sky, all wait.

    The crowns and redbirds talk. The light

    along the hills has come, has found you.

    Notice what this poem has not done.


    This one from James Wright:

    The Jewel

    There is this cave

    In the air behind my body

    That nobody is going to touch:

    A cloister, a silence

    Closing around a blossom of fire.

    When I stand upright in the wind,

    My bones turn to dark emeralds.


    & this one from Mark Strand:

    Keeping Things Whole

    In a field

    I am the absence

    of field.

    This is

    always the case.

    Wherever I am

    I am what is missing.

    When I walk

    I part the air

    and always

    the air moves in

    to fill the spaces

    where my body’s been.

    We all have reasons

    for moving.

    I move

    to keep things whole.

    Sarah Gridley is the Poet in Residence at Case Western Reserve University – TB

  • juan bastos says:

    MA-gnificent piece Tom! I was twenty-two years old when I heard for the first time the term “Negative space”. I had been taken art classes since I was eleven years old, and suddenly I was learning the vocabulary and tips I needed. I decided to copy great masters drawings, and while trying to draw Leonardo’s drawing of a standing male nude showing his back, I realize that if I saw the negative space between his opened legs, I noticed the silhouette of a ghost figure…the only thing I had to do, was to add a couple of imaginary eyes and focus inside the interior of the space..meaning, its negative space. BOO! Magic.

    Leonardo and Bastos copy

    Suddenly I was not thinking that the lines I was copying belonged to the man’s legs, but to the outline of the ghost figure…Next, I was going to get the rendering of the arms…What I found were two extra ghost shapes isolated in, once again, in the negative space. As long as I was not focusing in the figure, but in the worlds of the new shapes I was discovering, copying Leonardo’s drawing became much easier! Since then, I see shapes in a different way. I may remember the form of a country in a map, the way states are distributed, the manner my arms are resting, and my imagination gets lost inside the hidden shapes, very much like seeing clouds in the sky, and their associations with each other.

    Juan Bastos is a superb portrait painter living in L.A. His work can be seen at Juan Bastos.com

  • Harvey Buchanan says:

    Dear Tom,

    I first began to think about negative space when studying the paintings of Cezanne who used it to break the use of geometrical perspective, an artificial optical invention of the Renaissance. When Cezanne painted a landscape, he rejected the use of geometrical perspective (which conveys space as deep and immobile-fixed); rather he saw nature as both flat and dynamic, in movement. Cezanne Brook courtesy Cleveland Museum of ArtHis mountains, still-lifes, and figures are not depicted as distinct forms surrounded by empty space, but as part of the visual surround. Looked at this way, the world we see exists not in volumes and voids but as a continuum. The “real” world is not as Constable portrays it but the way – in a culminating moment – Jackson Pollock portrays it: both surface and depth simultaneously, and in constant movement. In effect Renaissance geometrical perspective represents space as we know it to be, not what we see.

    The evolution of modern painting from Cezanne to cubism, from Mondrian to Pollack has been a search for flattening out the artificiality of perspectival painting and the exploration of ways to convey the world through flatness and movement. There are no voids in nature, nothing is empty, everything is full and moving, and that is the way the visual world should – must – be represented.

    EscherAccordingly, Dutch artist M.C. Escher depicts images as both positive and negative (like holding a photographic negative up to the light). With a scissor, one cuts out a figure by shaping the space around it and creates a silhouette. This demonstrates that dark defines light , shadows define shapes, empty defines full — they are all one , a unity. And, if you want to think in more universal terms, throughout all human history and experience evil defines good, foolish defines wise, life defines death, (and vice-versa).

    Sugimoto shows that silence and sound are not distinctive, but part of the same whole, the same aural continuum. Rachel Whiteread fills “empty” voids with matter the way potters fill moulds – for her rooms and buildings are moulds – she demonstrates that void and full are continuums. She works like a traditional potter- she extends the potters art to architecture. Lao Tsu uses metaphor and plays with words to convey the same or a similar idea in his game of verbal opposites and paradox .

    Borromini and Philip Johnson used voids (“the abject joy of emptiness”) as an essential ingredient in their architecture. But is this really “empty” ? are voids gaps in volumes? Or are voids, seen and experienced, another kind of full, of “filling”? Architecture (and sculpture) are three-dimensional art forms, but the term – if not the concept – “negative space” has usually been associated with painting and to some extent sculpture. Perhaps it is not unexpected that it is applied – but in a very different way – to architecture.


    Harvey Buchanan is the former Dean of Arts & Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. He is also the founder of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Museum of Art joint program in Art History – TB

  • Fred Ball says:

    Dear Tom : Thanks for the August edition of your DIARY OF A FILMMAKER.

    As I began reading your message, I thought that you were talking about one of my favorite words and then you did – almost. You used the word INTERSTITIAL But I was thinking of the word INTERSTICES which is pronounced phonetically to sound like IN-TER STI SEAS. It is fun to say and I have always regretted that there have not been enough occasions for me to use it. It is the void between things and seems to be a common name for nothing.

    This then brings me to other uses for such a word that we all know about but don’t talk about very much. The SEINFELD success story is a good example of a TV skit about nothing and they made it an important part of their half hour on TV to be sure that the story line was about nothing. He ended up a millionaire and also had many million persons tuning in every week to see his show about nothing.

    Another fun example comes to mind with the comedy of Jack Benny. He is standing on the street when a passerby confronts him with a pistol and demands “Your money or your life.” Benny calmly strokes his chin and looks off into space as if in a deep reverie. What follows is nothing – which is rare on expensive primetime TV. Silence reigns. The thief is stumped on how to get through to this guy and finally in an exasperated shout he repeats “Your money or your life!” Finally Benny comes out of his contemplation and in a calm but annoyed tone quips back “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” It is a simple joke but the audience loves the suspense of the dead air while Benny decides how to answer the thief in such a tense moment. The dead air, the nothing, is what makes it such a classic joke.

    My comments here are a bit light-hearted compared to you talking about deep architectural concepts so you will excuse my levity while I look for other examples of nothing. Please stand by for more.

    Love, UNCLE FRED

    Fred Ball is the former Mayor of Bratenahl and has been a tireless champion of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland for over half a century. – TB

  • Tom: It’s a pleasure to read your musings and the wonderful comments from your friends. There is something special about this subject of negative space or MA. It gets at the heart of describing what matters…call it the Source, or God, or the Great Void…many sages have described it better than I can. I just wanted to add that it’s always a thrill to notice “It”, even in subtle glimpses of negative space, and to openly discuss It in this forum. It is not to be feared; It is to enjoy! Let critics crab about It–too bad they miss out on the fun.

    Jane Bredendick teaches Children’s Theatre and Nia and serves “on countless community boards promoting humanities.” She lives in Marshfield, Wisconsin – TB

  • Dana says:

    I am currently doing a play called HOME in which there is a lot of negative space — silences and emptiness that the audience responds to in different ways. There are silences that speak louder than words. And at its heart, language is the negative space of air molded by lips and palate. I like the contemplation of emptiness and nothingness, which are not the same. For me emptiness is positive, affirming, optimistic, waiting for purpose, asking to be filled; nothingness is negative, unaffirming, dead.

    Dana Ivey was the original Miss Daisy in the off Broadway play Driving Miss Daisy. She has recently been inducted into the National Theater Hall of Fame. – TB

  • hi tomaso,

    all i can say is that you are a poet,

    of the sublime.

    you bring a stash of keys

    and are always opening new portals

    that i was not even aware

    were there

    or anywhere on my horizon.

    maybe magician is closer to the mark,

    because i never see it coming

    and suddenly i am overwhelmed by your insights

    or out sites.

    brilliant, keep it up,

    and multissimo grazie for keeping me on your radar,

    your friend,


    Abe Frajndlich is an outstanding photographer of photographers (among other celebrities). He has a fabulous new show on Minor White opening at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC Sept. 12-Oct. 18 – TB

  • Bob Woods says:

    So very interesting, Tom! I have always been fond of a quote related to this topic, attributed to Igor Stravinsky: “Silence is the canvas on which I compose my music.”

    I see in your blog references to “creating” nothingness/emptiness” which I have always believed in, but in the context that what we create are things which “define” a chunk of nothing. Is not all that we observe in the universe unlimited nothingness defined by the presence of energy which has manifested itself into “things” in order to define the nothingness (or chaos as early writers loved to call it)?

    Since I am not a comfortable wordsmith I am most appreciative that music exists as another means of defining nothingness, and therefore another means of communication. [Interestingly, though, I almost always speak of music in visual terms.]

    These conversations tire my brain now that I spend too much of my time multitasking all day long – such a killer of creativity. Delightfully, this blog reminds me of the joy of being a kid, lying on the ground looking at the night sky and all those stars and planets, and those big empty black spaces just waiting, I guess, to have something or somebody reveal what they mean. Perhaps that is the singular purpose for the existence and pleasure of humanity.

    P.S. to Mark Bowles: What a wonderful thing you are doing for your daughter!

    Bob Woods has won countless Grammys, founded perhaps the most innovative digital recording label on the planet (TELARC) and understands, more than anyone I know, the difficulty of recording and reproducing silence. – TB

  • I have a diary that I am writing to my daughter, though she does not yet know. She is 8 now and I plan on giving it to her when she is 18. I started it when she was unborn, the size of a grain of rice. I call it “Intertime,” when the word “intertwine” morphed within me into the neologism “intertime.” The idea is that time itself compresses into nothingness. The past and future come together as the present becomes an omnipresent panopticon in which all is revealed. I have been writing to a woman that is not yet to be. A negative space that she will one day fill.

    On July 6th, just last month, my entry to her was: “Lao Tzu wondered, ‘What is the most important part of the clay pot?’ The answer is the emptiness inside. I cannot get the truth of it out of my head. Everything is as it should be in the emptiness.”

    She is the unborn, the baby, the child, the teen, the woman…the daughter that becomes what life is for me. The ultimate negative space that I watch being filled each day.

    Thank you Tom, for reminding us of this. It is what make the tears rush in for me.

    Mark is a historian and quite obviously an exceptional writer. He can be visited at bellehistory.com – TB

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