Spaces, Poetics and Voids


Simone Pizzagalli

A void can be regarded as a representation of an absence, if not an absence itself, as I mentioned when describing the 1666 map of London. In opposition and in relation to the concept of space, the void as a concept is understood to be a feature with distinct characteristics that allow the development of architectural form. A void is also a tool for analysing the structure that contains it; in this particular case, London’s urban context and history. This process of analysis introduces the possibility of establishing a formal, architectural narration of the city in which an understanding of the void can be used as the main tool in assisting this process.

From a formal, representational point of view, the perception of the void as something absent, missing or even invisible, is possible simply by delineating its limits within a containing structure and identifying the presence of a number of traces dispersed in close proximity to it. These two elements – boundaries and traces – are therefore helpful in circumscribing what is rather difficult to define. Boundaries and traces both constitute parts of formal compositions and spatial structures that are generated and understandable outside the realm of the perceived void.

In the first interpretation, where the void is perceived due to the existence of a boundary, it is accommodated within an existing formal structure, which enables it to be distinguished by the emergence of borders between matter and nothingness. This more conceptual understanding of the notion of void can be found in several examples of formal interpretation developed in art, and in its intentional or coincidental application in large-scale systems, such as the modern city.[1] 1 - I am referring to examples such as Fontana, Matta-Clark, etc., discussed extensively later in the text, and exemplary cities like London, Rotterdam or Berlin, which were heavily affected by events that erased large parts of their historical city fabric.The very limits and borders that give ‘shape’ to our perception of the void are nothing other than constituent parts of that same containing structure. The void mirrors, as a negative presence, a given spatial set of elements and relations, creating a tension that not only explicates the creation of the border but also precipitates the desire to complete the disassembled and fragmented part of the structure. In the map of London a tension is established between the erased area and the surviving metropolitan fabric, where the border itself becomes a clear and stark element of transition, an osmotic membrane between what exists and what is missing, between life and death, movement and stillness, certainty and possibility. The boundary constitutes the condition for the void, and the urban structure that accommodates it, to be fully perceived and understood as parts of the same spatial narration.[2] 2 - The idea of ‘boundary’ refers to the analysis of the idea of space provided by Heidegger in his essay ‘Dwelling, Building, Thinking’: ‘A space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary, Greek peras. A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognised, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.’ I would like to think that this concept might be appropriate in the definition of ‘absence’ introduced earlier in the text. Despite differences in the use of terms, what is interesting is the idea of peras, or perimeter, as the fundamental element for a space to exist and therefore to be able to accommodate objects, events and relationships. This can be compared to the ancient myths when cities were founded by defining their limits or boundaries, designating a space characterised by different jurisdictional and spatial values from the rest of the surrounding world: a place set apart.

The void is therefore the negation of the form in which it is contained due to the interposition of a border that somehow becomes more important than the elements it separates. The attention of the viewer looking at the map, and thus probing the consequences of the Great Fire on London’s urban fabric, is diverted in the first instance to this boundary, creating a state of confusion and anxiety about the representation of the two opposites. In the second instance, the city structure surrounding the void can be analysed in order to understand the formal characteristics of the void itself, which leads to a rational understanding of the functioning and constituent elements of the accommodating system, as well as addressing the need for some kind of formal continuity in the interrupted composition. Therefore the sense of uneasiness and estrangement that a viewer experiences initiates an understanding of the accommodating structure (in this case the city of London), its form, the essential meanings of its existence, and its constituent elements and relationships. At the same time, this awareness allows the irrational revelation of infinite possible ways in which the gap might be filled, the structure completed. The threads stretched between the material world and human life within the metropolis are again ready to be woven into a new composition. The clarification of ‘what was there’ and ‘what is still there’ is a premise for constructing ‘what could be there’ in the void. The boundary is the entry point for this process of analysis, composition and re-composition; the vanished parts of the structure are understood notwithstanding their absence and are substituted by an unlimited set of potential formal compositions gathered from intuition, memory and imagination.

In the second interpretation, where the void is perceived and identified through the disclosure of a set of traces, the situation differs from the first in that these fragments are involved in potentially new interpretations of the accommodating structure or system. If the presence of the void, understood as an element that either creates or is circumscribed by a boundary separating matter from nothingness, does not allow for the complete reconstruction of the formal values of the accommodating space – given that the latter has been ruptured and broken and so is no longer intelligible as a structure – then the void is conceivable as an assemblage of traces that permeate both entities. Both the void and its accommodating structure reveal interrelating patterns of elements and fragments that are intrinsic to understanding and interpreting their forms.

Small-scale voids and erasures in the city fabric fall under this second category, together with the idea of the city as a large-scale system evolving in time and space and therefore producing overlaps and discrepancies within its form. Voids that occur in the city, whether on a small or large scale, can become part of a process of disclosure whereby layers and fragments belonging to different periods and spaces are revealed. The varying degrees of scale and speed typical of this evolutionary process inform us about the condition of the city as a permanently changing system. The emergence of small-scale deletions, forgotten spaces, temporary voids, gaps and small marginal areas in the metropolis is the result of a process of formal changes occurring over time. Such transformations do not always seamlessly substitute established forms with new ones. Economical, political and social choices, private and public endeavours, visions and utopias, temporary events, history, war, etc. are all involved in shaping the urban fabric, thus producing formal and structural changes that result in spaces clashing, overlapping or substituting one another in a sort of continuous collage of systems. The marginal areas discussed here, the small gaps and interruptions, are residual evidence of this process of overlapping; they become hosts to an accumulation of fragments belonging to the remote and complex history of a place. Once again referring to Hollar’s map of London, an example of this condition is the impressive and intriguing set of traces incorporated in the representation of London after the fire, in which, as I indicated, both the lines and the remaining buildings are part of a kind of non-literal reconstruction of the city’s previous form.

This interpretation shows how the void can be understood not simply as something blank or abstract, as was the case in the analysis of its boundary discussed above, but as a real and concrete composition of actual fragments belonging to its accommodating structure. The void becomes a place of formal recollection emerging out of unclear and incomplete parts that are impossible to interpret and understand and thus remain mute. This silence is what distinguishes a void from an empty space. The absence of any rational and conclusive formal value is a sign of the rich potential and profound otherness of the void. Its capacity to evoke analogous meanings and forms in our memory and imagination[3] 3 - This recalls the famous Adolf Loos quote from the essay ‘Architecture’: ‘When we come across a mound in the wood, six feet long and three feet wide, raised to a pyramidal form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: somebody lies buried here. This is architecture.’ The simple, almost silent form of the mound in the wood has the power of stirring the emotions of the onlooker, eliciting an acknowledgement of the multitude of meanings and formal reasons such a simple composition of elements is able to convey. I see the fragments involved in the exposure of an urban void as having the same formal evocative power, but this time on manifold and extremely complex interpretative levels defines a void as an excavation into all the possible formal overlapping interpretations of a space, whether realised or hypothetical.

Therefore a void can either be understood as an absence circumscribed by a boundary, or as a discrete area typified by disclosed, overlapping signs and traces. In the former case, the void constitutes an undefined, empty and disconnected otherness; in the latter, the absence is tangible as something inseparable from the formal development of its accommodating structure. The first interpretation sees the void as an element mirroring reality, revealing how it is composed and assembled, and disclosing its formal characteristics through the definition of boundaries and absence, whereas the second interpretation of the void acknowledges the complexity of its accommodating structure, recognising the void as an irrational superimposition of fragments, open to interpretation. Both points of view define the relationships that occur between silence and a structured and formalised grammar of elements.


TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture