The Absence is Present: The Role of the Void in Our Cultural Landscapes
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
– John Cage, Silence
In comparison with architecture, landscape has long been considered the void. Countless black and white diagrams have been made asserting architecture as content, landscape as space. In this way, landscape is often rendered neutral, empty, or even absent. A brief consideration of this practice reveals it be both strange and illogical. Panita Karamanea, taking inspiration from Christophe Girot, points out that landscape always precedes the landscape architect, while architecture can never precede the architect (Karamanea, 2015). Landscapes exist as a palimpsest of human actions, accumulated over time and rich in content. Wars are fought and gold is struck. Oceans recede and empires crumble. Landscapes exist as a site of collective history, laden with stories, possibilities, and burdens. So why has its presence been so often neglected?
While our understanding of landscape has changed dramatically in recent times, the historic mistreatment of landscape says much about our understanding of voids, and our ability to ascertain that which exists within them. In search of design potentials, this essay considers the cultural agency of voids, perceived or not, as they are represented in the landscape. In a way, it is an exploration of the voids within the void.
Theorizing on the importance of empty space, architect Christopher Alexander writes that:
In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it… It is the silence, at the heart” (Alexander, 2002)
For Alexander, voids offer an instance of contrast, a refuge of peace, by which to understand that which occurs around it. Embedded in his description is the assertion of something essential. Alexander implies that in order for something to have “perfect wholeness”, it must contain a moment of emptiness. How do we make sense of such a paradox? Does such an emptiness actually exist or, as in the case of landscape, is there much to be discovered? This paper explores the social, material, and metaphysical implications of spatial voids by considering three distinct cases: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, the National September 11 Memorial, and China’s Tiananmen Square. Together these examples exhibit the various behavioral influences of empty space on the mind and body, illuminating the powerful presence of absence in our cultural imaginations.
“Aura has a density of extreme and unknown proportions.” – Michael Heizer
In the late 1960s, a group of young artists left New York City and headed for the desert. Disenchanted with the stuffy, commercialized nature of gallery and museum culture at the time, these artists looked toward the American West in search of a radically different type of practice. The group, which included artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Nancy Holt, were interested in the earth itself as canvas and material. Commonly referred to as land art, their works explored notions such as geology, weather, erosion, entropy, and environmental phenomena. The vast, empty expanses of the American desert allowed the experimentation and scale of these practices to grow bigger and bigger, and in 1970, Michael Heizer completed a piece of earthwork that would revolutionize the public’s understanding of art and land in America. At a length of fifteen hundred feet, Double Negative is comprised of a pair of long, straight trenches spanning a gap along the edge of Nevada’s Mormon Mesa. Perfectly aligned across the indent of the mesa, the trenches read as a single, contiguous volume—a massive linear form in the negative. With the help of dynamite and a bulldozer, Heizer excavated nearly 240,000 tons of desert sandstone from the mesa, leaving it strewn down the rock face at the mouths of the trenches. The result is a colossal surgical incision within the natural landscape.
Figure 1. Aerial view of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative
For landscape architects and artists alike, this radical act of excavation illustrates the revolutionary nature of Heizer’s work. For Heizer and his contemporaries, ground became canvas and bulldozer became paintbrush. Suddenly, the purview of the artist was magnified tremendously—the very earth could be shaped and formed at the artist’s will. But in comparison with other earthworks at the time, what makes Heizer’s work truly exceptional is its negative quality. Rather than creating form through the addition of material (e.g. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty), Double Negative and his related works are manifested through a process of removal. Its power thus emanates from that which is revealed.
Physically, the 50-foot high walls of the trenches expose the sedimentary geology of the mesa—a layered history book of the site’s development since the Pliocene, with stories of creek beds, vegetation, erosion, and volcanoes (Brock & Buck, 2008). The outpouring of excavated sandstone and rhyolite down the hill reinforce these narratives, and as we encounter this deep geological past, our sense of time is dramatically stretched. We begin to feel the power of something ancient and pre-human—a feeling which is dramatically amplified by the piece’s ingenious composition. The implied cohesion between the trenches, bridging the enormous gap of the mesa, creates a virtual presence in the mind that flickers in and out of view. As we work to see the thing which is not there, we are confronted with an absence of monumental proportions. It is the immensity of this absence, the unavoidable weight and uncanny presence of it, that makes Double Negative so powerful.
Figure 2. View from inside the one of the trenches of Double Negative, looking out across the gap to the opposite trench.
The sublime sleight of hand created by Heizer performs what Hegel refers to as “the labor of the negative.” Hegel asserted that negation is the basis for all identity, a dialectical process in which the self is first affirmed by negating its otherness, then reaffirmed through the negation of this negation (Hegel, Miller, & Findlay, 1977). This oscillating ambiguity of self is what allows form to become matter, absence to become presence (Bach, 2013). It is the stark nonappearance of something which brings it into view. The overwhelming absence of presence we experience with Double Negative leaves us to subconsciously wonder: What was there? When was it there? And who was responsible? The sleek linear form speaks of an intelligent and altogether unnatural force. It is both primitive and alien, primal and advanced. In the barren, blank space of the desert, we become lost in time. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in his writings on phenomenology, argued that negation was the unconditional basis upon which all imagination occurs (Sartre, 2004). According to Sartre, to deny the existence of something requires the ability to conceive of such a thing in the first place. Imagination becomes an intentional act, the creation of a virtual object which “contains a certain part of nothingness.” Wherever a void, our imagination fills it. In the case of Double Negative, we are overcome not only by the sheer size of our creation, but by the lingering doubt of whether it is ours in the first place.
The sublime nature of this experience, the creeping feeling of a larger power at work, mirrors that of many religious contexts. Sartre himself describes imagination as “an essential and transcendental condition of consciousness” (Sartre, 2004). Susan Herrington (2014), in her work on the architecture of absence, points to Raoul Mortley’s observation that silence is often a form of negative theology. Mortley notes that:
[Silence is a] part of the protocol in mysteries; a ritual recognition of the awesomeness of the divinity, and apart from its ritual value it also had real value, in that the divine presence was thought to strike dumb. (Mortley 1975)
Silence is found not only in the rituals of religion, but in the emptiness of its spaces: from soaring cathedral arches to the mihrab of the mosque. It is not hard to find these transcendental qualities murmuring in Heizer’s trenches as well. The creation and visitation of the piece becomes a pilgrimage in itself—a journey into the barren, bearing-less desert of the West, a topographical void in which mirages run free. Double Negative, with its flickering mass and eroding facades, remains forever a dis-appearance in progress.
Loss, Memory, and Forgetting
Autumn was over him: and now they stood
On the lone border of the lake once more:
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.
– Ephemera, William Butler Yeats
Completed during the burgeoning environmental movement ignited by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, critics of Heizer’s work pointed to the project’s utter ecological disregard, registering the piece as a gigantic wound upon the landscape—a literal and metaphorical scar. Despite a lack of strong evidence to support these claims (Baker, 1971), reactions such as these speak further to the affective resonance of the site. The critics’ sentimental responses come as no surprise given that trauma itself is considered to be a paradoxical moment of presence/absence. Kerler observes that:
On the one hand, the trauma is present in the sense that it hauntingly calls for its articulation; on the other hand, it is absent since it cannot be completely represented/articulated... (Kerler, 2013)
Absence and void are inextricably linked to notions of memory and loss—key aspects in the experience of trauma. In addition to the pains of environmental injustice, the collective losses experienced as a result of war, genocide, and natural disaster often bring with them the psychoemotional desire for memorialization. And while the idea of loss has been considered as a part of memorialization practices for centuries, only recently has the affective labor of absence come to be celebrated in the formal manifestation of commemorative sites themselves.
The dominant mode of memorialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries came in the form of monuments—large sculptural pieces marking or acknowledging the site of trauma. The limits of such monuments became evident when it was acknowledged that these sites ultimately become places of psychoemotional deferral, standing in for collective memory. As Jacque Micieli-Voutsinas puts it:
Why remember if we have places that do it for us? As monuments became graveyards of collective memory over time, places for memory to live and die, the late 20th Century developed new memorial aesthetics favoring ‘anti-monumentality’ (see Carr, 2003). (Micieli-Voutsinas, 2016)
Anti-monumental (or anti-memorial) aesthetics seek to avoid the false closure and premature satisfaction of traditional monuments (Spitz, 2005), instead favoring more abstract and experiential compositions. Waterton writes:
[T]hinking about the spaces of heritage means shifting from the static ‘site’ or ‘artefact’ to questions of engagement, experience and performance. … These are all multi-sensual sites, alive with intense and often lingering sounds, smells, and sights. (Waterton, 2014)
The purpose of these multi-sensory experiences are to bring the visitor into an affective ecology that is active, ongoing, and collaborative. The sites do not merely represent history but allow one to feel history, opening up space for psychosensory cognition therein. This strategy is particularly important in the context of traumatic events, which Freud professed to be inherently unrepresentable and unknowable (Spitz, 2005)
Figure 3. Horst Hoheisel’s Aschrott Fountain, an inverted fountain which mirrors a Jewish fountain destroyed by Nazi’s during the terror of Hitler’s regime. The fountain stands as an early precedent of anti-memorial aesthetic and serves as inspiration for the development of the National September 11 Memorial.
Perhaps the most visited of these anti-memorial sites is the National September 11 Memorial in New York City. Designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial is centered around two large voids—recessed pools, an acre each in size, which mark the former footprints of the twin towers. Water cascades down the 30-foot walls into the pools, muting the sounds of the bustling city before disappearing into a square hole at the center. Working with Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the area, Arad specifically chose to preserve the empty footprints on the site as a symbol of the wound left on the city. The affective impacts of the decision are powerful. A void left rather than imagined, the memorial once again renders absence present. But in comparison with Heizer’s Double Negative, the site evokes an entirely different experience. In contrast to the austere loneliness of the desert pilgrimage, the September 11 Memorial is notably public and heavily frequented. This, combined with the weight of its historical and political context, creates a shared affective ecology that is both collectively diverse and—for many—deeply, deeply personal.
An important contributor to the sensori-emotional experience of the memorial is the water. In part, it is both cleansing and calming, quieting the harsh noises of the city to create a microenvironment for personal reflection. But its affective labor extends far beyond this thanks to its quantity and its particular interactions with the void. As a performative feature, it acknowledges trauma awareness as an “unfolding” (Caruth, 1995). Cascading down the walls of the memorial and into the pools below, the water effectively performs gravity. This act, in a gentle way, may register consciously as reference to the towers and the people who fell within them. But in a more somatic way, it transmits an actual feeling of weight to those who visit. Further, the water’s disappearance into the center hole negates any appeals for resolution or permanence. Unlike the trenches of Double Negative, which can be entered and explored, the pools of the September 11 Memorial remain notably off-limits. Our ability to interact with or visualize that which fills the void remains cut-off, distant, forever fleeting. The affective embodiments felt through this experience allow us to come to terms with the feeling of an inaccessible trauma. While imagination may fail, through embodiment we find traces. Jane Bennett writes:
If emotions are not retrievable from memory, they are revivable; hence, we don't remember grief or ecstasy, but by recalling a situation that produces those sensations we can produce a new bout of emotion. … Affect, properly conjured, produces a real-time somatic experience, no longer framed as representation. (Bennett, 2006)
Figure 4. Aerial view of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan.
Figure 5. President Barack Obama visits the National September 11 Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The pools of the September 11 Memorial speak to an open-endedness regarding our collective engagement with the events that took place there. Rather than a placeholder for collective memory, the site allows for the development of an evolving affective heritage, shared and continually shaped by the diverse embodiments which unfold there (Spitz, 2005). This cooperative participation precludes the possibility of a cultural amnesia, and avoids the pitfalls of master narratives through the assemblage of a range of personal reactions and experiences. The traces of trauma are sustained to allow the public an extended opportunity to confront that which cannot be put in words.
Space for the Masses
In presence of the Moon nobody sees stars. - Amit Kalantri
The transcendent and therapeutic potency of the voids discussed so far rely in part on their sheer magnitude. Sublime confrontation inherently positions the viewer at the precipice of terror and awe. We face forces beyond our own might and understanding while remaining safe from the dangers of their true reality. Within these voids lies power. This power is largely virtual, conceived in the minds of the people experiencing them. Through a kind of temporal sorcery, forces of the past and future are brought into the now, and their absence is rendered present. But what happens when this operation is reversed—when the dialectic continues? In what ways might voids work to render presence absent?
In 1949, after years of communist struggles and civil against the Nationalist Party of China, victory was finally achieved. The People’s Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949, and Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party, was proclaimed its leader. Mass celebrations were held across the country, centering at Tiananmen Square in the country’s reestablished capital of Beijing. Mao greeted his people atop the gate to the old Forbidden City, eager to finally establish a socialist, post-imperial identity for China. A key component of his populist ideology was the establishment of public squares—gathering places for the general public to voice their opinions and engage in political activity and dialogue with their leaders. These squares (guangchang), which were established across the provinces of China, were meant to grant the populace the status as a people. But with the inclusion of a raised platform for political leaders, they effectively established a hierarchy of power in which the central government could dictate the formation and maintenance of a desirable “public” (Hung, 1991). This assertion of a new order was epitomized, of course, at the central house of government: Tiananmen Square. In an effort to symbolize the Chinese populace in its entirety, Mao ordered a public square “big enough for one billion people” (the entire population of China, plus a friend) (Hornsby, 2015). While this ambitious goal was never quite reached, the square was significantly expanded from its imperial-era T-shape. Through the systematic deconstruction of a massive quantity of structures left over from imperialism and foreign occupation, the Tiananmen site was wiped clean, physically and historically, thus allowing for the eventual occupation of a staggering 400,000 people (Hung, 1991). The largest public square in the world was born.
The square’s design is notable mostly because of its stark emptiness. Despite the removal of a significant number of former imperial structures, including buildings, pavilions, and artificial rivers; very little was done to repopulate the site. The most significant intervention was the addition of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a massive obelisk set at the center of the square, established to honor the martyrs of the country’s post-imperial order. This monument, far from a being a part of the square’s intentional expansion, was sited and planned long before the People’s Republic of China was even established (Hung, 1991). Despite the structure’s massive dimensions, it remains somewhat belittled by the ever-more vast expanse of gray pavement that makes up the Square’s extents.
Figure 6 (left). A map of Tiananmen square as it exists today. Figure 7 (right). A plan of Tiananmen square during imperial times, showing its historical T-shape. Most of the administration buildings which flank the square were removed as a part of Mao’s expansion of the square.
Though carried out in an entirely new manner, the events at the square kept within their previous lineage of utility, remaining a site of political ritual and, more recently through the Nationalist uprising, contestation. What was different was the reconceptualization of presence on the site. In contrast to the opaque, operatic communications of the imperial leaders, Mao actually greeted his people face to face, both literally through decrees from Tiananmen Gate, and (in the interim) symbolically via the massive portrait which adorned the gate’s front wall. While these gestures were symbolically uplifting for many people, the reality of their effects remains more complicated. Throughout Mao’s regime, a great number of political demonstrations took place to maintain and celebrate a socialist order and to curtail the development of a privileged bourgeoisie at the expense of the proletarian. These public demonstrations, more or less compulsory, included criminal hearings, executions, and torture. The presence of the people, professed as a gift of collective power, slowly became a vehicle in which to assert the complicity of the public (Hornsby, 2015). The manipulation of this collective responsibility, exemplified by the unchecked brutality of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and their subsequent suppression, gains its resonant power, in part, through the Square itself. As a symbol of the people, the Square inherits their complicity.
The fallacies regarding the public empowerment bestowed by the square became painfully evident with the protests and massacre of 1989. After six weeks of pro-democratic demonstrations, widespread hunger strikes, and persistent occupation of the square, the Chinese government declared martial law, sending in nearly 300,000 troops to restore order. The square—immense, bare, and overwhelmingly feature-less—allowed the tanks of the People's Liberation Army to enter and navigate the space with relative ease, crushing and firing at people as they moved. In the end, the Tiananmen Square Massacre (referred to by the Chinese government simply as the “June Fourth Incident”) witnessed the loss of several hundred to several thousand civilian lives. The massive occupation of the square, a strange fulfillment of Mao’s ambitious vision, was subsequently eradicated thanks to the simple navigation of its vast avenue and unobstructed interior. Designed intentionally as a blank slate, is was ever so easily erased.
Figure 8. Hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protestors gather in Tiananmen Square on in June 2, 1989. The “Goddess of Democracy”, a 10-meter-tall statue erected in Tiananmen Square on May 30, 1989, meant to rival the Monument to the People’s Heroes, can be seen in the background.
Figure 8. A truck full of protestors and supplies makes its way through the crowds at Tiananmen Square on May 17, 1989.
Despite the overwhelming emptiness of Tiananmen Square, the site remains far from neutral. As space rather than place, the Square is ultimately designed for an imaginary “people”, a virtual mass of bodies whose conceptualization bears little understanding of what a body might actually be. Like the other examples discussed in this paper, the void works to be filled. In this case, however, the creation of the (political) imagination becomes so immense that it smothers what is actually there. The symbolic gesture of the space, as a vision of a socialist future, becomes so large, so unwieldy, that it overwhelms human agency. Presence is rendered absent.
How this is done relates to the degree at which silence is allowed to resonate within the built environment. In the case of Tiananmen Square, the silence is deafening. Order is maintained through the swift suppression of affective habitat. Efforts to fertilize this affective sterility through decoration, signs, or protest art are ultimately diminished as a consequence of scale. Thus, attempts to soften the site remain largely ineffective. Bodies and objects are not allowed to speak on their own here, only listen. Any attempt to do otherwise will not be heard. Today, Tiananmen Square exists largely as tourist site, with locals preferring to inhabit the comforting enclosure of the nearby hutong alleys. Any possibility for the establishment of a rich identity of place is robbed by the site’s inherent and sustained nature as, first and foremost, materialized symbol.
Figure 10. Groups of people wander about Tiananmen Square in the afternoon.
These observations allow us to understand that the power of voids should not be underestimated. Nor should they be perceived, as the first two examples might suggest, as inherently benevolent. The power of the void lies in our own power to fill it. As objects of imagination, the inhabitants of our voids are decidedly virtual, moving across temporal and geographical zones with ease and proficiency. Both absent and present, here and there, now and then, they open portals of simultaneity which allows us to embody past, present, and future all at once. While the existence and effects of these objects, by means of their dialectical nature, remain inherently ambiguous, their occupation in our minds, bodies, and landscapes forever begs the question: What might we imagine?
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