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Monday, January 12, 2009


The Empty Room is a ghostly presence in contemporary culture. For, despite our aspirations to minimalism and reductivism, these are simply not natural states of being. Rooms are rarely empty; the architectural photographer a master of furniture moving in order to simplify the vision. Even abandoned spaces aren't empty; urban explorers find spaces filled with rubbish and remnants, not scrubbed corridors and spotless spaces.

The empty room still has a grip on our minds, a symbol of both loss ("Whisper your name in an empty room") and release from material constraints. Martin Creed's Turner Prize installation in 2001 defined empty space with a blinking light, an installation that perplexed and infuriated in equal measure, the implication being that absence of content implied absence of ideas.

This is one of the great hang-ups about modernism, which tends towards the minimal, as opposed to the overstuffed. This was theoretically a reaction to the excesses of Victoriana (I, II, III, and IV, V). In the modern era, the empty room came to symbolise both poverty and wealth. These diametrically opposed conditions come together in John Pawson's design for a monastery in Novy Dvur, Bohemia, an ideologically confused project where a visual shorthand for sybaritic emptiness is reappropriated as spiritual simplicity.

Novy Dvur is beautiful, sure, but it raises the question as to whether or not the idealised, reductivist object actually exists. Simplicity, the building implies, is hard won and only a few deserve it. According to Deyan Sudjic, 'it is also true that the monks asked Calvin Klein to design their robes. He agreed, but they changed their minds when they realised that it might not be a good idea to be quite so stylishly turned out and to attract quite so much publicity for it'.

While minimalism represents the logical extension of the International Style aesthetic, less has long since ceased to be more. In an ironic rerun of the overstuffed Victorian interior, to be modern today is no longer about presenting an absence of things, but a presence of things. True, they're usually entirely different things to the ones the design reformers got so worked up about (although ironically it's taken 100 years or so for the purveyors of trinkets and other ornamental baubles to finally expire. See Ian Jack on 'how the display cabinet killed Wedgwood), but it's stuff nonetheless. Now, modernism is conveyed not through empty space but through objects, leading to the creation of what we'll call the modernist treasure house, tracking the rise (in both appreciation and value) of modernist ephemera, a semi-ironic accumulation of space age optimism, mid-century objects and corporate identities and atomic era futurology, etc. etc. Functionalism has become funky.

So out of clinical modernism has emerged a new eclecticism. Arguably minimalism peaked too soon, before the desire for perfectionism in interior design and presentation could imitate the glossy perfection of the computer-generated image. Other genres of design haven't been so lucky - check the automotive hyper detailing community if you want to see how the 'original object' can be transcended and elevated towards a Platonic ideal with the judicious and lavish application of specialist cleaning fluids: this Lamborghini cleaning in particular. Without the means or technology to generate CGI-generated perfection in the late 80s and early 90s, the minimalists had to go ahead and create it from scratch, with predictably less than perfect results (save in the photographs).

Perhaps there's a parallel with the environment of the computer game. The first virtual rooms were necessarily bare (as World Builder attests), leaving their furnishing to the player's mind, extrapolated from minimal description. The opening scene of The Hobbit ('You are in a comfortable tunnel like hall'), as seen above, distilled several hundred pages of Tolkien into a few hundred pixels. The first games were about emptiness; with imagination overlaid on top. Today, the gaming environment is as baroque and OTT as the most overbearing Victorian drawing room, lilies gilded with clock cycles rather than the craftsman. We remember emptiness, even aspire to it. But what it actually looks like is fast fading into the past.



*

A post about empty spaces - or lack of - feels like a suitable place to put Quondam, Stephen Lauf's epically impenetrable 'online collage', a real labyrinth of a website. Here, for example, you'll find information on the First Virtual House of the 20th Century, Robert Venturi's Franklin Court. Not just an empty room, but an empty house.

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