Nothing is Something: The Importance of Negative Space (Part 2)

A few posts back I talked about negative space as it appears in two-dimensional artwork. As I mentioned in that discussion, negative space is the “empty” space in an artwork. It’s the space between and around objects and shapes. It is not, however, merely what is left over after the composition has been organized. Negative space is an important player in the composition and should not be treated casually. You can read that blog post here.

In this post let’s move the conversation about negative space, or empty space, to the three-dimensional realm of architecture. In architecture the empty void of a room is actually considered positive space because it is a main focus.

Defining space and encouraging people to move through space in specific ways are basic tasks of architecture. The very concept of walls – the most fundamental element of architecture – is based on containing and defining space. When we look at a building we notice its scale and form but as soon as we enter it – or even get close to it – we begin interacting with its empty spaces. Courtyards, hallways, meeting rooms, offices and storage closets, galleries and event spaces are just some examples of architectural spaces we typically find in public buildings. The size, shape and arrangement of these empty spaces is ultimately every bit as important as the material form and visual appearance of the building. If the spaces aren’t effective the building is seen as more or less dysfunctional.

Here are two examples of public buildings that successfully define and manage their primary empty spaces.

Photograph by Klaus Frahm of theatre spaces

In this photograph by Klaus Frahm we can see adjoining architectural spaces that function in separate but mutually supportive ways. The theater’s auditorium is designed to accommodate large numbers of people in comfortable style. The backstage space is designed to house equipment and props that can be rearranged quickly and efficiently. One space is built for the pure enjoyment of the theater and the other space is built solely to facilitate the creation of illusions. Both spaces are large enough to accommodate spectacle and both spaces share the single stage as a presentation space.

Foyer of San Francisco City Hall

In this photograph of San Francisco’s City Hall we see another example of the effective use of architectural empty space. As the public enters the building there is immediate access to more than a dozen corridors leading directly to the offices of different city agencies. The main staircase invites visitors to move easily from the ground floor to the mezzanine level and then into the heart of the building. The staircase doubles as a podium for speakers and the entire foyer is a perfect setting for ceremonies and major events. All of these activities are what we expect to happen in a civic center and this building provides a graceful space for all of them…just a few feet inside its main entrance.

As you can see, “empty space” is at the very heart and soul of architecture.

In a future blog post I will discuss the use of negative space in sculpture.

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