Much Ado About Nothing: The Physics Of Space
Written for Art, Antiques and Design (By Gail Green)
You know the old saying, “what isn’t said is sometimes more important than what is.” In architecture a balance of perfection is achieved through the expression of volume and void, the unspoken part of the equation. That is, the space itself is the void, with the walls and physical structure, the mass. We all talk about the walls, the physical entities that actually order the emptiness. But what about the voids, the negative space, the emptiness that abides within? Is it not just as important, if not more so, than the mass itself? Design is as much about “feeling” as it is about “seeing.” How one feels when traversing a room is, in many ways, more important than the physical boundaries which contain it. Unless a space “flows,” it doesn’t feel right and we are at odds with our environs.
We can’t touch that emptiness; rather, it’s an intuitive and synesthetic response our bodies and minds have to our surroundings. Of course, the most successful rooms embody a perfect balance of inside and out, volume and void.
In much the same way physical nature responds to critical mass or matter through its polar opposite, anti-matter, a volume needs void. It is that expressed dialectic, a tension between positive and negative that holds the universe and space in place. There is a term in architecture that names a landscape void: poches. It’s the ground between buildings, creating a bridge from one mass to another.
I like this French word for pocket, for a pocket is, of course, a void defined only by the fact that it is an opening created by two pieces of fabric. In this way, the space between buildings, the air filling rooms, are also poches. These voids say as much about the architecture as the masses themselves. My point is that oftentimes they say more. But, it is a subtle positive expression, rather than an expressed negative. These poches / voids, emphasize their existence as defined objects in their own right.
My colleague Frank Cuhna notes that “space is not the “left-overs’ of architecture but rather that the space itself is the architecture. It is the voids created by the solids that make the architecture interesting and pleasurable. The only reason I design and construct walls is to create the space (the negative). The process of producing architecture from a monolithic form is to subtract from the solid what is needed to create the negative space for the occupants to inhabit and enjoy.” This is an interesting perspective in the sense that in order to create the space he loves, he has to create the matter, the form from formlessness. It is a creation of something from nothing, the physical from the immaterial, matter from the imagination.
The Eastern philosophers saw the emptiness of space as positive. It’s nothingness is rich with imaginative possibilities, transcending temporal boundaries. Like the cesuras of musical compositions, whose stops elide bringing one note to another, a poche bridges one building to its neighbor. It is the formless field that allows ideas to dwell. The hollow between spaces, connecting solid to structure, suggests both absence and presence as an evolving negation. It is from the depth of the void that our ideas generate. The void explores the ideational. In Japanese philosophy, there are five elements, the void being one of them. It is part of the material world, yet immaterial.
It is yin and yang.
This oppositional interplay between volume and void is expressed visually in various ways: the detail of the reveal, the window, the doorway, the expressed puncture in a wall. The reveal, the delicately carved groove poised on a piece of wood, creates a most interesting moulding. It’s small vacuum of space adds a depth to the wood (stone or other material) that otherwise would look bulky and unrefined. In this way, the void says more than the physical boundaries which surround it. Reveals can also exist between floors and their intersecting walls, creating a floating feeling. This conjures a magical feel in the sense that the observer doesn’t see the wall directly touch the floor. Instead, it floats, as though in mid-air.
Windows are voids, too. They are piercings of the exterior walls and thus help create the character of a structure. The eyes of the house, windows let the viewer peer out, limiting or opening their vision to what is beyond. Big glass floor to ceiling windows are voids that are completely open, admitting all. Smaller openings are more selective, leaving more to the imagination.
Doorways are voids, as well. Bridging one contiguous space to another, these openings engage two empty volumes. It’s an ironic juxtaposition, as the doorway – a void – is in itself a bridging device. Again, something is derived from nothing, with structure evolving from a vacuum. Uniquely shaped openings add more depth to a space, creating subtly and intrigue.
And, lastly, wall punctures – or piercings – can be the most creative voids. Here, the knowable part, the wall structure is redefined by the shaped emptiness that resides within. It can be a square, a rectangle, a circle, an ovoid, thin, thick, small, large – almost anything the imagination can configure. It can be a slit or almost the whole wall surface. When accommodating light, these punctures are most dramatic.
Voids are thus volumes, inside out. They are the other side of the coin, both of which must exist in the physical universe in order to create a balance. What they say, what the emptiness parlays, provides fertile ground for the imagination. And, what isn’t said, is the burgeoning of a word. As Heinz Pagels notes, “There was emptiness more profound than the void between the tars, for which there was no here and there and before and after, and yet out the that void the entire plenum of existence sprang forth.”
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