Re-reading a History of Space

With negative space in mind, it is possible to look back at the history of architecture and see new things. The eyes of our imagination can walk through walls. We can enter into the space of solids. We can relearn the lessons of space, mass, and volume, appropriating old plans through this new interpretation, revealing space that was never intended to be seen. We can imagine the poché and the secondary spaces being perceived as negative space and move through the building, with the perception of anti-space in a wandering, exploratory promenadefinding new figures and unexpected possibilities.

Confrontations of alternative space types can be imagined in other plans: figural and non-figural space is combined circumstantially in the perimeter of Mansart's Church of the Visitation, in Paris (figure 11), and in Fischer von Erlach’s Holy Trinity Church, in Salzburg (figure 12). We can compare the different degrees of hollow form in the negative space of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, in Rome (figure 13), and the pavilion of the Piazza d’Oro at Hadrian’s Villa (figure 14).

We can see with new eyes; to compare the Medieval Claypotts Castle (figure 15 a, bto the Modern Carpenter Center (figure 16a, b) to observe different spatial images of the same figure. We can re-inhabit the side walls of The Sultan Hassan Mosque, in Cairo (figure 17), or compare the dynamic plans of Castell Coch, in Wales (figure 18), to the Old Sacristy of St Peter's, in Rome (figure 19), repossessing space within the walls. The thick walls of every castle and fortification suggest a version of a free plan with the formation of space (figure 22).

To develop the potential of negative space, it is necessary to transform our way of seeing and making plans, to work with different objectives and judge with new values. Wasted space must be made intentionally to produce the left-over dimensions separating spaces. With special attention, this dimension can be made into negative space, to be exploited as the raw material for the formation of a new use of space.

  1. 11)Ste Marie de la Visitation, Paris, France, François Mansart, 1632-34.

  1. 14)Piazza d’Oro, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy, 125 AD.

  1. 12)Holy Trinity Church, Salzburg, Austria, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, 1695.

  1. 13)Sant’Agnese in Agone, Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy, begun by Rainaldi, 1652.

  1. 16)a. Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Le Corbusier, 1964, view.

  1. 15)a. Claypotts Castle, Dundee, Scotland, 1569 - 1588, view.

  1. 16)b. Carpenter Center, plan.

  1. 15)b. Claypotts Castle, plan.

Once present, this thickness can be usefully reoccupied. Closets, cabinets, shelves, even whole rooms such as toilets and vestibules can become a dense continuous medium of surface and negative spaces. They need no longer be seen as the still-life objects required to animate a modern interior.

The re-submersion of subsidiary elements into the thickness of the wall provides the necessary dimension for the plastic manipulation of space. What remains is the question of refinement and the precise focus of these spatial configurations. We will have to relearn the definition of continuous surface and re-acquire the skills to make good profiles and taut silhouettes, as the characteristics which join the wall to space. If the wall is to make space, it must manifest a dense architecture all its own (figure 20).

The architecture of the wall, of negative space, can incorporate another world of intimacy, emotion, and memory. It can contain places which are the equivalent of attics and basements. Alcoves, window seats, inglenooks, hidden panels, and secret passages, can be carved from the solid. The space of the walls can provide new mystery, illusion and surprise.

With the enriched variety of spatial separation, a new functional adaptability is also possible for both architecture and the city, based on a classification of space rather than a separation of uses through zoning. The conventional relationships of plan and program can be rethought. Incompatible functions can be adjacent to one another but separate and unconnected. Spatial uses can be mixed in unconventional but non-conflicting ways as circumstance requires.

  1. 17)Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

  1. 18)Castell Coch, Cardiff, Wales, 11th - 13th centuries.

  1. 19)Old Sacristy, St Peter’s, Rome.

  1. 20)Lord Derby’s House, London, England, Robert Adam, 1777.

The profile and poché make an architecture of the walls.

Perhaps Louis Kahn had a similar idea about the negative space in a thick wall when he wrote:

  1. “The dark architectural directness of the castle and the musically rhythmic image of the Greek temple combines in my mind a thought about Le Corbusier. I believe Le Corbusier, even in the light of his marvelous revelations in architecture, is just beginning to create his greatest work. I dare to think of a building that he might make, a great block of building, which is cut into from top to bottom in varied places of varied shapes neither forgetting the castle, nor the order of the temple, giving light to spaces and passages on the immediate interior and leading to a glorious central and single space, their walls and their light left in faceted planes, the shapes of the record of their making, intermingling with the serenity of light from above.”

The notion of servant spaces as articulated by Louis Kahn for mechanical equipment or subsidiary functions can be contained within the negative space of the walls forming the preferred positive spatial sequences. Essential but secondary spaces no longer need be embarrassing appendices to a configuration, or justified through a conscious expression. Servant space, is reimagined castle space, and becomes instead, part of the supporting ground for the design of space (figure 21).

The architecture of positive space, supported by the illusion of negative space and thick walls, can occur only with the transformation of our sensibility to space itself. We can focus on the tautness of shapes and the specific definitions of space for its own sake. Once positive space has again become a medium of architecture, its capacity for meaning will unfold.

The use of negative space, is not a fashion. It is not a justification for collecting architectural antiques or the making of a super-graphic mannerism. The dignity and repose of precise, clear spatial figures should generate both elevation and plan. Space should become explicit, form less autonomous. The particularity of walls should be consistent with the spaces they enclose. The reuse of space does not imply a new version of total design nor a temporary posture of historicism. It is an association of the oldest principles of architecture with contemporary technology and perception.

The rediscovery of the virtual thick wall and the value of negative space result from the need to break through the limitations of anti-space. It has emerged slowly through drawing and design, and grown without conscious articulation in the struggle to make space. However, the testing has just begun. Architecture will talk back, in an interaction of design and critical conviction, establishing and confirming the condensation of these ideas.

  1. 21)Erdman Hall Dormitories, Bryn Mawr, PA, Louis I Kahn, 1965.

  1. 22)Castle plans.

Dover Castle.

World War 1 Fortress.

The City of Space - A Revised Agenda

We have at our disposal the knowledge to develop a new strategy for architecture which can, through its formation of exterior space, affect the configuration of the city. It is possible to produce a new city of space by extending the definition of negative space to the larger scale of the urban block. The result will be a new interpretation of streets, squares, and public places.

To achieve the city of space a specific program of goals can be established for the process of work, which reconsiders the relationship of space to the plan and the wall. A new agenda is required for architecture and the city as follows:

First, the wall must promote the architecture of space by joining with it in mutual configuration. To accomplish this requires new priorities—it will be necessary to:

  1. Make walls primarily to shape space—the wall is not a neutral partition which simply divides anti-space; it can be made with density, texture and configuration.

  2. Make walls which are thick and contain space—the thick wall is the medium of negative space; its dimension is a primary condition of volumetric space.

  3. Make walls only for the sake of space; walls are not just the perimeter edges of programmed functions; they are the location of transitions and are places in themselves.

  4. Make walls which define exterior space first—facades are not just the skin of a box, the representation of the interior, nor the surface for signs; they are the boundary walls of urban rooms, the street and the square. The facade is the generator of public space and the boundary of enclosure.

Next, the plan must be re-established. It must become again the mechanism for invention and the generation of space. In order to compose a plan of space, it is necessary to make plans which integrate geometry with the composition of space—geometry is not just a modular system within free space, nor is the plan limited to abstracted coordinates for locating forms.

  1. Make plans with more than one spatial order—the plan is not simply a clear arrangement of areas; it must also provide for the multiple interpretation of events and experience through space. The plan is the generator of order.

  2. Make plans where circulation is integral with the sequential forms of space—circulation is not a separate element of architecture, nor is a plan generated simply by the path of a promenade.

  3. Make free plans composed of space rather than of objects—the use of volumetric space does not require rigid, inflexible plans nor is a free plan the exclusive province of anti-space.

  4. Make plans with negative space—the wasted space of apparent mass and thickness are preconditions for the presence of space.

Space is the qualifier of both wall and plan. Through this agenda, space can be re-incorporated into architecture and the city with the necessary form and dimension to again become a figure of composition capable of a broader range of meanings.

The purpose here is not to create a new style or justify a more arbitrary, expressive architecture, but to provide a simple and clear way of accommodating a complexity of conditions with appropriate spatial configurations. This implies the existence of more elaborate intermediate categories—in effect, a complete typology of space and form integrated together into a larger fabric of order, beyond the individual work of architecture.

It is now clear that to make a truly connective city and a complex responsive architecture with anti-space alone is impossible. The simultaneous presence of a free plan inside and a free plan outside will obliterate all distinctions, destroy all space, and lead to a chaotic placeless uniformity. Nothing can cohere because there is no means or need for interdependence. Without the nuance and variations produced with multiple differentiated spaces, there are no collective ordering devices available for the larger urban environment. Without the responsibility to make space, architecture is left alone in self-reflection, striving for attention, searching for identity, and trying to rediscover its own missing purpose.

Through concentrated attention, a revived sensibility to space can be re-integrated into architecture and city as a primary purpose. This critical task has been the motivation and the aspiration of our work.

To paraphrase Mies van der Rohe:

  1. “...we are ready to pledge ourselves to this idea, to believe that the potential vitality of the period has...not yet been lost,”

to make space the generator of place.