Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Concepts on Negative Space

A survivor of an earthquake in China, may 2008, creates an informal tent and creats positive space around him. Web download.

Positive space is the one conceived as a void, then wrapped in a built shell erected to define and contain it. Negative space is created by hollowing out a solid that already exists. Hollowed out caves in primitive times would be the first example. In urban space we find the same classification: negative space would be the open space left over after a construction, what is remaining. Positive space would be then the spatial shapes that have been deliberately designed under a preconceived plan.

Vincent Scully states that during the Middle Ages, space was seen as negative, it was the interval between two objects (buildings) or the hollow within them (Piazzas and streets).
The use of negative space is a key element of artistic composition. In negative space drawing, instead of drawing the shape of the object, only the space around is drawn, with or without any pattern detail. Though the object is like a silhouette, it cannot be outlined, if so, it would not be a correct negative space drawing.
In landscape, Japanese use the term “ma” (empty space between two structural parts) for garden design, and in Arts they use the term “notan” to explain the relationship between negative and positive. It is based on the principle of light-dark, the popular example is to cut out a square, adding a white backing paper, then identical shapes are cut out on each side. The Dutch artist, Escher made positive and negative forms interact, so both of them have the same level of importance. In minimalistic visual arts and architecture, the concept of negative space also refers to the empty space that surrounds the object and it never affects its signification, but rather reinforces the theme. Same happens with photography, negative space is acquired by placing one object in an uniform background (a plant in a desert, a rock in the water, a dancer in the dark…). The observer is then concentrated on the object, the effect is like the application of a zoom, and the dead space transmits a feeling of solitude, isolation or calm.

Horses by M. C. Escher.

Not all spaces could be so easily classified. There are some cases where space has to be deconstructed to understand it from humans actions and manipulations of this space.
This negative and positive space has direct parallels to theatre space. William F. Condee suggests that the design of the formal Italianate theatre, that employs perspective scenery on the stage, shapes a negative –empty- space around the auditorium, which becomes in turn wholly positive because “every cubic inch is charged as it floats between spectator and performer”. From my point of view, I prefer a comparison between the formal theater and the modern performances of underground or psycho-geographical groups to establish the difference. In formal theatre the building shape is absolutely needed, specially for acoustics issues, the space has to be positive, and what he calls “floats” loses importance if the public is static. On the contrary, when people interact with actors, the stage and the buildings are not containers any more, the relevance is on the act of performing in itself, the show and public participation, the space becomes negative.
In literature and movies we find empty space when the context raise the feeling of placelessness and indefiniteness; some authors are more explicit, and leave empty spaces in between a poem or a few seconds of black out scene; music is more obvious in the use of abrupt silences.
Sometimes the absent object becomes the object of attention, if so, the object is not a material thing that could be touched or an action is directed. It is a conceptual object of perception where the imaginary and real collide. In Eric Grohe’s murals, the real is a wall, but the observer’s imagination constitute a space, positive if we think about the architectural painting, but negative indeed, there is no space at all –in the sense I propose here-.

Mural at Miller Brewing Co. By Eric Grohe. This is a mural painting, it is not architectural space.
It is a mural, not a cross street. By Eric Grohe.

The best example I could find in sculpture, that involves architecture too, is the work of British leading contemporary artist, Rachel Whiteread. She is best known for her negative-space casts of rooms and houses. In her interior spaces, viewers discover the void-made-into-object. But they cannot see through the building, so interior scenarios are imagined and emotional value is added. She has also made casts of particular parts of rooms and furniture, as the area underneath a chair. Critics have often regarded this type of work to be reminders of death and absence because they seem to emphasize the fact that the objects these sculptures represent are not themselves there. Negative space is a manifestation of the hidden, most of the times referred to the memory of objects and spaces.

“You leave space for the body, imagining the other part even though it isn't there”. (Henry Moore)

House in London. By Rachel Whiteread, 1993. (Demolished)

Condee, William F. Filling the Empty Space:Inclusion and Exclusion in Theatre Architecture. In Scenography International. Issue 2. Architecture and Practice.


  1. Lo remarcable de Escher es que no sólo muestra el otro espacio, el "negtivo", el que no se usa, sino que lo llena, ese espacio, con sólo una figura que es además compleja puesto que es la figura de un caballero y su caballo (no son elementos de geometría plana simples como pudieran ser polígonos regulares o no). Y lo llena completamente sin dejar ningún espacio libre , ni positivo ni negativo y los dos espacios así creados alternan y conmutan su positividad/negatividad cada uno de ellos. Una gran obra de Escher.

    Saludos a la arquitecta.

  2. Así es Anónimo, interesante pensamiento. Amo a Escher por la complejidad y belleza de sus espacios. Saludos al Anónimo.

  3. excellent article Myriam, and I love your artwork elsewhere on the site. I'm delighted to have found this blog just today. Happy New Year from a fellow architect! Paul

  4. excellent article Myriam, and I love your artwork elsewhere on the site. I'm delighted to have found this blog just today. Happy New Year from a fellow architect! Paul

    1. Thank you Paul, I'm happy you like it! Have a great 2017!



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