Hidden in the overwhelmingly cluttered aspect of London are infrequent slices of negative space. Places which have emptiness as one of their primary features. There are tiny gardens, parks, terraces and balconies—these are mostly for the use of residents. There are also “official” negative spaces. Places like Horse Guards Parade, St James’ Park and Trafalgar Square. Places that are considered to be historically and/or culturally significant and so are classed as inviolable. They are used to full capacity only infrequently (usually for national or international events) and cannot be built upon or fundamentally altered. In between these two, between the residential and the sacred negative spaces, there is another category: negative spaces for the high-status individual.
When walking down Oxford Street and Regent Street one sees the typical international luxury brands that make a point of having a storefront on the world’s premium real estate. But down the adjoining side-streets there are also marbled hotel lobbies and commercial buildings accessible only by those with the right pass, an appointment, or a lot of money. I was in London before Christmas and I walked down these streets, past glass-fronted atrium after glass-fronted atrium. I looked into them and saw nothing. That is, they were deliberately bare.
I assumed that the space these companies were preserving was meant to act as a reprieve, an antidote to the masses scuttling outside the confines of the building. A soothing ointment for a client’s ordeal-ridden interaction with everyday busyness. I stand by that assumption. But these spaces, taken alongside residential and sacred negative spaces, also provoked a question: if negative space is recognised as so important by so many different parts of society and culture, why do we continue to let it slip away from us?
I have a pet hypothesis and it goes something like this: Great Thoughts require Great Space. The best way to understand why this is (or could be) is to bring in another ‘s’—“status”. Consider:
Low-status people—here labelled “have-nots”—have an abundance of negative space. The unemployed and the retired, especially so, but the working class also. Sure, they are subject to regular demands on space and time, like jobs, families, friends, etc., but that is mostly self-generated and self-sustained. An imagined community, like a country, a subculture, or an academic discipline, is not demanding everything from them. That changes when they graduate from being a have-not to being a have-a-little.
The “have-a-littles” are in no-man’s-land. They are subject to the same regular demands as the have-nots, but they also start to feel the demands of imagined communities. They have accumulated agency, but not enough to buy complete autonomy, and so they are the busiest of the lot. They have more status than the powerless but they are still at the beck-and-call of the powerful. This is where the path ends for most. Only a few make it out of have-a-little-land into the ranks of the “haves”.
The “haves” have an unusual amount of agency, and so purchase autonomy. They outsource both the regular demands of existence like cooking and child-rearing, but also institute hard-limits on the proportion of their life they devote to their imagined communities.
Now, the have-nots and the haves have the most negative space in their lives, albeit for different reasons. And, historically, it is from this dual-pool that many Great Thoughts have arisen. If we go back to antiquity it’s notable that many of the greatest thinkers were numbered among the nobility and leisured classes. Or, alternatively, they were slaves, former slaves, or people of otherwise menial status.
The previous hypothesis is speculative and based on anecdotal data—the impressions I’ve formed from reading a bit of this and that. But what I think is less speculative than “Great Thoughts requires Great Space” is that there is a shift in the curve. It’s moving upwards. Consider a revised version of the above graph.
Negative space is being corroded across every aspect of western society. The have-a-littles never had much in the first place, but the haves and the have-nots? The haves are, more than ever, being consumed by a global consciousness. Someone who starts a company and sells it no longer retires—not indefinitely anyway. They just choose another type of busyness, usually one with the potential to have either a more global impact (investing in biotech or energy research, for example) or a more focused local impact (funding education for specific towns or cities, for example). No matter how they accomplished it, “making it” is quickly followed by social pressure to contribute to the effort to make it better for everyone else.
The have-nots are seeing their negative space diminished in another way. First, via advertising. Banksy/Sean Tejaratchi wrote:
“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”
On a similar note, Scott Galloway has said that “advertising is a tax on the poor”. Hop on a tube-train or a bus. What is plastered on the interior. Ads. Watch regular TV or read a newspaper. Ads. Of course, a person can go ad-free, but it’s gonna cost ‘em.
Add to the omnipresence of advertising in the lives of the have-nots the obliteration of the friction required to access and consume media. Podcasts, audiobooks, radio, streaming services—these are the never-ending accompaniments to people’s lives. What is the result? An existence characterised by the absence of negative space.
SKYLINES AND SCHEDULES
In The Architecture of Community Leon Krier talks about city growth and planning. One of the key ideas in the book is this: a city should have a certain fractality to it. Instead of explicit zoning a city should contain quarters, each of which houses residential, commercial, governmental and industrial elements. A city shouldn’t be a great landmass split into pieces and assigned a function, he argues.
Krier is a proponent of human-scale urbanism, which is perhaps best understood by a reference to a classic Christmas movie. As Peter Bajurny says:
“The real hero of Home Alone is the commuter railroad era urbanism that allows Kevin to meet his needs (grocery store, pharmacy, park, church) within walking distance”.
The Architecture of Community contains many intriguing and important ideas, especially as we make the move into an age where the structure of our online communities is becoming an increasingly societal concern. The book also contains some elegant and simple sketches that accentuate Krier’s thinking. One of which is this:
It’s used to highlight the difference in different urban growth strategies. Look at the skylines in the diagram above, though. There are essentially three: full, empty, and varied.
Now combine that with a person’s day-to-day activities.
A life completely devoid of activity is, for most, not a life. But a life made up only of activity isn’t a life either. We need the variation. We need action alongside reflection, motion with stillness, to do and to be. But modernity is pushing us towards a life cluttered with doings, with busyness, no matter what part of the socioeconomic scale we occupy.
Governments recognise that negative space is associated with sacredness and significance. Corporations understand that space without explicit purpose is a signal to high status consumer groups. Shouldn’t we, as individuals, recognise the importance of negative space and act to reclaim it?
If you agree that we need to take back some negative space, then the next question on your lips might be, “How?” The answer is tied to the concept of time.
I’ve said that the varied approach is best, that what we need is a mixture of negative and positive space, a blend of action and reflection. But over what timescale?
Do we spent decades doing and then retire to a life of being? Do we allocate negative and positive space the same way we allocate holiday during a working year, giving ourselves an arbitrary number of weeks per annum as negative space? Do we go smaller and say that two weekends every month are devoted to negative space? Perhaps every Sunday is now sacred, a day devoted to nothing but itself? Or do we modulate the negative-positive space ratio over twenty-four hours? There are advocates and arguments for each of the above. My personal favourite is the last: daily.
Our bodies, for the most part, synchronise on a twenty-four hour clock. I believe our behaviour should do the same. There’s a reason why it’s easier to do something every day than it is to do it three times a week. We’re daily creatures. The same is likely to apply for the reclamation of negative space.
I have a rather funny relationship with meditation and mindfulness. It’s been a bigger or smaller part of my life for several years. But one thing that got me interested in it was reading all the testimonials about the transformative effects of a daily meditation practice. I’ve experienced similar effects, if not to the same profound degree. So I would argue that taking up meditation, AM and PM, is the simplest way to reclaim some negative space in a life.
There are others though, and they don’t have to involve folding a foot atop the opposite thigh and chanting mantras that re-align the universe. When I think through the things that I do regularly and ask myself, “How often do I do only one thing?”, the answer is, “Not often.” When I do the washing up, I’ll have some music on. When I eat breakfast or lunch alone, I’ll watch some TV or read a blog. When I do a movement session I’ll chuck on a special playlist.
What if I didn’t do that? What if I made an effort to do one thing? To wash up with no distractions. To eat food with no audiovisual stimulation. To not turn on the TV when I get home. To leave the radio turned off when I drive. To not disconnect from the world while on the train or bus. To leave the headphones out and listen to real life going on around me. What I’ve found, and what you too might find, is that whilst doing the above I start to think.
If you reduce the mind’s operation and model it as input-process-output, it’s possible to say that modernity is emphasising input and output at the expense of processing.
I want to do the opposite. I want to dial back input, take more care with output, and give myself more time and space to process. Would you like to do the same?