Spaces, Poetics and Voids


Marc Schoonderbeek

The terms mentioned thus far, such as ‘detachment’, ‘superficiality’ and ‘lack of precision’, are generally seen as characteristics to avoid, and therefore ‘negative’. In contrast, architecture is considered to be essentially ‘positive’ in nature and, at present, this attitude is more emphasised than ever. The desire to draw attention to this ‘constructive’ characteristic of architecture seems inexhaustible for those active in the field. According to this vision, the negative is acceptable in other forms of art, such as literature or music, but not in architecture, which is perceived as fundamentally constructive because it deals with the ‘bringing together’ of substance and operates ‘towards’ a physical construction (i.e. what was described above as poiesis). What is neglected, however, is the fact that the poetic itself has another, inherently negative and disturbing side.[13] 13 - See, for instance, similar arguments in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny; Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 1992), especially part 1 ‘Houses’, in which he emphasises the ‘haunted’ aspect of architecture. Already in Plato’s nation state, for example, the poet is actually the one who causes danger and might bring the city to ruin, and thus needs to be expelled. Plato’s condemnation of art foresees the element of seduction, the experience of beauty, which overwhelms the spectator and provokes dysfunction, or at least unproductive distraction.[14] 14 - This reference to Plato’s Republic comes from Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Man without Content’, on website:, [accessed on 12 June 2012], p. 4. If architecture is potentially poetic, or can offer a poetic experience of space, then the inherent negative aspect needs to be both acknowledged and dealt with.

The negative equivalent of construction, namely destruction, is then, in Nietzschian terms, the way through which new values and new work can emerge;[15] 15 - Nietzsche’s concept of ‘Umwertung aller Werte’. or, as Giorgio Agamben recently stated, it is the correct way to escape from aesthetics and the silent pleasures of art, which would eradicate quite violently any possible way of understanding a work of art. Agamben argues that we need this ‘loss’ and ‘abyss’, for ‘if it is true that the fundamental architectural problem becomes visible only in the house ravaged by fire, then perhaps we are today in a privileged position to understand the authentic significance of the Western aesthetic project’.[16] 16 - Agamben, op. cit., p. 6. In addition to the ‘divine terror’ of aesthetic distraction and the uncanny possibility of destructive disaster – two of the inherent ‘dangers’ of any architecture – one could point to a third inherently negative aspect of architecture: namely the levels of control architecture inflicts on its users and inhabitants. To a very large extent, each architectural form or space determines the range of spatial possibilities, thus limiting potential movement and behaviour. This means that each work of architecture is also a device that imposes order and discipline, if only through its function of ‘housing bodies’.

So, evidently, we are already Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,[17] 17 - The title of Rem Koolhaas’s graduation project, which proposed a Berlin-Wall-like structure running through London. Published, amongst others, in: O.M.A, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1995), pp. 2-21. but in order to explore the impact of that insight on architecture, the current understanding of the nature of the prison needs to be clarified. The classical model of the prison, which makes a clear distinction between inside and outside, has already been wonderfully reversed in the Zone of Tarkovski’s film Stalker,[18] 18 - Mosfilm Studios, USSR, 1979. and in Rem Koolhaas’s graduation project. More recently, Agamben introduced the prison camp as a model for the contemporary city, namely as the ‘nomos of the political space in which we are still living’.[19] 19 - Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer; Sovereign, Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 166. The camp is the permanent location to which one can be outlawed. For Agamben, the lawfully marginalised, the ones subjected to excessive control and fierce discipline, are no longer the exception, even though they have not necessarily become the rule either. The camp is the ‘fourth, inseparable element’ that needs to be added to the ‘old trinity’[20] 20 - Ibid, pp. 175-176. composed of the state, the nation, and land. The marginalised no longer inhabit the periphery; instead, the marginal and the periphery are dispersed within the field of differentiation. They are located everywhere and thus nowhere in particular. This has consequences for architecture as well, as the whole array of ‘others’, as described both in the contemporary surface condition and in the dissemination within the urban field, need to virtually find their ‘place’ within the order that architecture proposes. Architecture is therefore no longer dealing with the (endless) repetition of the same order, as in Hilberseimer’s Groszstadt for instance, but is supposed to enable the diversification of difference itself, ad infinitum.

From an architectural point of view, Agamben’s argument requires elaboration. For instance, he does not make any specific distinction between different types of camps, nor does he explain the spatial organisation of the camp. Moreover, neither the camp nor the ‘state of exception’ can come into existence without a proper boundary or defence line, implemented to delineate the different sides. This concept of ‘border thinking’ has also been introduced recently in the social sciences, and especially in post-colonial studies, in order to foster other ways of thinking about the project of modernity besides the dominant Western one. Border thinking has the attribute of being able to balance the dominant versus dominated positions, while at the same time taking the marginal areas of exchange into consideration. It has an equally sensitive appreciation for both sides of any divide. In this context, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians provides an intriguing reference, as it gives a wonderful account of the immanent possibilities (and, to be honest, disasters as well) of that border condition. In Coetzee’s book, the outer edges of the empire slowly become the place where the outsiders, i.e. the barbarians, form the all too attractive counterpoint to established culture. In first instance, this state of affairs is met with hostile acts of protectionism and invasions, but after a while a slow process occurs whereby both sides of the divide become ‘infected’ with the characteristics of each other’s culture.


TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture