of empty places

The following piece, themed creative writing, was published in 2015, Edinburgh. It is a contributing entry to the beautiful short book titled ‘Enounters’, curated and edited by Rowan Mackinnon-Pryde, and originating from Landworks, Fergus Purdie, and made possible by Architecture+Design Scotland. The publication as a whole offers “contemplations on the creative process… reflection and projection…”

One cannot be in two places at once. Therefore if one is somewhere, there must be a coupled empty-somewhere, somewhere else. Everybody has an empty body twin.

A brief investigation into empty places quickly leads to a study in tangents. The empty place; it’s character, location, shape, and it’s presence can all only be inferred, rather than directly observed. Below are enumerated a mix of literary and casual tangents. Each tangent shares a common purpose – they each attempt to describe something with nothing.

A theory of empty places begins to resolve for the reader in a similar way that a circle can be drawn by only drawing tangents.


Tangent 01. Places and eyes

“The lasering, [then], took about an hour, involving dozens of minute cauterizations, and I left the hospital with a heavy dressing over the eye, to protect it until the anesthesia wore off. Around 9 p.m. that night, I removed the dressing, not knowing what I would see, or not see. I saw a huge black opacity partly obscuring my central vision… It seemed to expand, contract, pulse – but its edge was razor sharp. I stuck a finger into it, and the finger vanished, engulfed by a black hole.” (Sacks 2010 p. 172)

In the book ‘The Mind’s Eye’ neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks keeps a diary during a traumatic period, when he has surgery to remove cancerous tissue from his right eye’s retina. One of the results of the operation was that if Dr. Sacks’ peripheral vision spotted something interesting to look at, and his reflex was to turn his eye upon it, that thing became invisible – obscured by the “razor sharp” black hole in his vision.

Dr. Sacks then found, following a couple of days after surgery, that his ‘black hole’ began to take the form of colour, then patterns, then textures as cued from the peripheries of his vision (and his normally functioning left eye).

“Whether the brickwork was exactly the same as the original I could not be sure, but it was good enough to form a plausible simulacrum of the “missing” wall… Once when I looked at a sky filled with fat wooly clouds, the pseudo-sky generated within the [black hole] contained thin wispy clouds.” (Sacks 2010 p. 175)

Dr. Sacks’ vivid hallucinations and psycho-projective infill resisted a void – the brain and body demanded sensory input where it expected such, and in it’s absence the brain created it. Is this an example of human nature’s rejection of emptiness?


Tangent 02. Hidden Places


Tangent 03. Places and Memory

“Memory loci [aka topoi] should not be too much like one another, for instance too many intercolumnar spaces are not good, for their resemblance to one another will be confusing. They should be of moderate size, not too large for this renders the images placed on them vague, and not too small for then an arrangement of images will be overcrowded. They must not be too brightly lighted for then the images placed on them will glitter and dazzle; nor must they be too dark or the shadows will obscure the images. The intervals between the loci should be of moderate extent, perhaps about thirty feet, ‘for like the external eye, so the inner eye of thought is less powerful when you have moved the object of sight too near or too far away’ ” (Yates 2014 p. 23)

In Frances Yates’ book ‘The Art of Memory’ we read that students of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece saw places (known as the topos or topoi) as not only physical, visitable locations, but also as a memory place, a place for “the inner eye of thought” where we can ‘walk’ and associate memories as metaphysical images and objects.

The sampled text above is of an unknown teacher talking to students circa 84 BC. The teacher is describing the place where we are to store, organise and recall our memory images, objects and words. In current times this mnemotechnic is associated with Memory Palace, or the Memory Theatre.

Many aspects of this are striking. Firstly, there are the strikingly vivid, almost metric rules for the memory place. Secondly, the transcendance of a thought into a memory-object to be stored in a memory-place, albeit imagined objects and places, is a very powerful concept. This is the most convincing historical rational basis for allegorical imagery being present throughout human history.

Thirdly, the Greek word ‘topos,’ meaning ‘place’. Topos is the etymological root of the English word ‘topic’ meaning “a matter dealt with in a text, discourse, or conversation; a subject.” (OED 2015). We should then consider a topic as both a subject and the memory-place where the subject is stored. What better bridging metaphor could we hope for when discussing the spatial-mental constructs of memory?

Permit a short thought experiment. If we take the Ancient Greeks and our own experiences as some proof of concept of this memory ‘Method of Loci’, then of what nature is the place where a memory once sat but sits no more? Is the suggestion that one has empty places in ones mind where once memory-objects occupied the corridors and shelves of our memory palaces? Is forgetfulness the capacity to count one’s forgotten memories by counting empty plinths, nooks and “intercolumnar” spaces in our mind?


Tangent 04. Continuous Places

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” (Brook 1996 p. 7)


Tangent 05. Places and Signs

Since 3000 BC the ancient Egyptians had used the decimal system, they counted in tens. 10 is an important number in history since we have 10 fingers – calculations were cheaper using fingers than rare paper in yesteryear. When it came to counting zero, our fingers would disappear.

In mathematics Zero is a concept as well as a numeral, but as a number it doesn’t exist. Our modern English word ‘zero’ has etymological roots in the Arabian word ‘sifr’ (pronounced ‘cipher’), which in pre-Islamic times had the meaning ‘empty’.

“In Arabic the meaning of the word “sifr” describes an empty state which one did not expect. The emptiness described by the word “sifr” is in all cases an abnormal situation. The name “Sifr” given to 0 expresses exactly the role that the 0 must play in the representation of the numbers with the help of the numerals… It does not represent the emptiness, it fills the emptiness.” (Boucenna 2006 p. 3)


Tangent 06. Places and Desire

“So we are standing in front of the [wall projection], gazing at it. And the first thing that we notice is that it is gazing back at us. But how do walls gaze? … A closet does not just occupy the space of its volume and the space needed to pass by it, open its doors and use it. It occupies the entire space projected by its front just as a person occupies all the space that falls into his or her cone of vision.” (Turnovský 2009 p. 95)

Does an empty place become unempty if our cones of vision fall on it? In his essay The Poetics of a Wall Projection, Turnovský explores history, language, semantics and least-of-all, architecture, by meditating on a protruding wall configuration. The wall is in a house which philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein designed.


Tangent 07. Places and the Sky

On Friday 13th February 2015 an evening lecture was jointly hosted by Architecture + Design Scotland and Landworks. Two Dutch landscape designers, Tomas Degenaar and Joost Emmerik, compared the national identities and topographies of Scotland and the Netherlands. Topographies, topos, -graphia, places, scratches, lines.

A key proposition was that Scotland identifies with the dramatic landscapes of the highlands, meanwhile most Scottish nationals live anywhere but the highlands, i.e. lowlands (“Nederland” literally means “lower land”). Recent census data can back up at least one of these claims : Glasgow city had an average of 3,395 people/km2, while the Highland Council area had an average of only 9 people/km2 (BBC 2012) (The Highland Council 2015). The Scottish Highlands can be said to be practically empty.


Tangent 08. Invisible Places

“When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the capital, the traveler sees not one city but many, of equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over a vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty” (Calvino 1997 p. 56)


Tangent 09.



Tangent 10. Places and Names

It should first be explained that the notion of empty places as a starting point for a piece of writing arrived from nowhere. That is, insofar as an email arrives from nowhere. Also, the phrase ‘empty places’ as a title presented itself to the author as if from a randomly generated essay subject. We must briefly backtrack as, of course, we sincerely think much more highly of our editor’s powers to sow rich seeds for discursion. Nevertheless, the concept we should underline is that : out of nowhere can come something.

Nowheres and empty places share some traits – they both contain nothing and they both are species of spaces that can’t be observed directly, since our presence would render the special quality of the place inert. Nowheres and empty places are not to be confused with forbidden places, though there is some overlap. Forbidden places are anti-habitable places like the centre of our Sun, or inside the perfect Mars Bar. Note : ‘anti-inhabitable’ is a more aggressive form of ‘uninhabitable’.

We can not physically be in an empirically empty place, we can’t find a nowhere, and we can’t survive a forbidden place.



BBC, 11 things we learned from the Scottish 2011 census, BBC News, [On-line], available http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-20754751 17th December 2012

Boucenna, A., Origin of the numerals : Zero Concept.Ahmed Boucenna

Brook, P., The Empty Space, Touchstone, 1996

Etymonline, Etymology Online, [On-line], available http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=topography 15th March 2015

Calvino, I., Invisible Cities, Vintage, 1997

OED, Oxford University Press, [On-line], available http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/topic 15th March 2015

Sacks, O., The Mind’s Eye, Pan Macmillan, 2010

The Highland Council, Highland profile – key facts and figures, The Highland Council, [On-line], available http://www.highland.gov.uk/info/695/council_information_performance_and_statistics/165/highland_profile_-_key_facts_and_figures/2 15th March 2015

Turnovský, J., The Poetics of a Wall Projection, Architectural Press, 2009

Yates, F., The Art of Memory, The Bodley Head, 2014.

Image : Artist/Scientist unknown, from Queen Mary University of London, School of Physics and Astronomy, [On-line], available http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/alumni/donat_20.jpg 15th March 2015. Image used with permission from Queen Mary University