“And thus, the intrinsic significance of our craft lies in the philosophical fact that we deal in nothing. We create emptiness through which certain physical bodies are to move…It is only the crass layman who thinks that we put up stone walls. We do nothing of the kinds. We put up emptiness.”
– Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
Vacuum is what lies in the vast expanse of space, or should we say that it is what ‘permeates’ around everything. In most of the cultures, the world (or ‘order’) as we know is believed to have originated from emptiness, or void, or nothing. This points to the fascination of a human with ‘nothingness’ since the very beginning.
The fascination has now developed significantly in both science and spirituality. Both psychologists and spiritual masters preach the notion of an ‘empty mind’- one that is free of thoughts as the pathfinder to joy, tranquillity, and happiness. Dr. S Ranganathan writes, in his article ‘Empty space and free mind’ for The Hans India, how the concepts of physics provide support to the above notion. The principle of the ‘vacuum-cup’ is based on air exerting pressure in all directions- when the outside air tries to get inside the cup, it is unable to do so as the cup is firmly stuck to the wall but ends up providing strength and firmness to the cup.
However, humans have mixed emotions about ‘emptiness’. According to a study by neuroscientists at the University of Waterloo, it is hardwired to focus on other humans. “When you see a setting with other people, those people swamp your response. We really zero in on the faces, especially in pictures.” Many other relevant studies point out to the same: human perception is ‘human-centric’. If there are humans in an image, a painting, or a photograph, our brains make it extremely tough for us to get a sense of the place.
Those interested in photographing spaces use this understanding in a sense to try and avoid humans in their shots. In his book ‘Courts 2’, photographer Ward Roberts documents basketball courts from Hong Kong, Hawaii, Melbourne, and New York. The ‘empty’ courts are painted in pastel colors which cast a distinct glow that would not have been possible with players in the photographs.
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics say that images that hint towards civilization by showing signs of human life without capturing actual humans invite the viewers to “project experiences into there, the memories and thoughts about what might be going on.” Looking at images of places with no human figures in it, we feel a sense of ownership towards those places.
Ed Vessel, a neuroscientist at the institute noted how large empty public spaces like cathedrals or community halls have the power to overwhelm the senses. “Those sometimes take our breath away because they give us a moment to contemplate the history or the potential or the way that people might move through those spaces,” he says.
But as mentioned earlier, the idea of the ‘empty space’ is not a universal one- not in the sense that it doesn’t exist everywhere, but it is not received the same way. Maroç Krivê in his paper ‘The idea of empty space’ mentions the industrialist and urbanist point of view from a post-modern, capitalist perspective- it is the space that is either obsolete due to abandonment of the use/function, or if it lacks something essential. He also talks about the paradox of empty spaces- “the production of obsolete space and its redevelopment are determined by the same process of spatial restructuration.” The ‘emptiness’ of space results from its very conceptualization as one.
The paper focuses on the Pro Kaapeli movement in Helsinki- a fight to preserve the Sea Cable Hall at the Cable Factory from its which was to be changed in-lieu of the post-industrialist urbanization of Helsinki. The original idea was to reassign purposes to the industrial sector and the largest factory in it- The Cable Factory. When the team appointed for the task visited the space they turned against the idea- they wanted to preserve the space for what it was- vast and empty; and not for any historic value, but simply to embrace its existence. In an interesting turn of events, this led to a ‘movement’ of preserving large factories by ‘culturizing’ them.
Space is not created, only interrupted. All spaces are considered ‘empty’ until they are inhabited- that is to say assigned a function to and may be altered in volume. Sometimes emptiness is itself the function of the space- when it is a space to impact the mind. Sometimes emptiness is the residue of the space, the elderly stage when it has served the function assigned at its conception.
If form follows function, what happens to the form after it has served its function? Spaces sometimes outlive their functional lives. Devoid of function, are they to be deemed ‘obsolete’? What do we do, then? Do we run around to look for a new function, a new value for it to live for? Or do we marvel at it to have outlived many of its companions, if it has, and display it to the world in all its glory?