Anyone who has ever taken an art class quickly learns that whites are as important as blacks, negative space is as important as positive (sometimes more so), empty shapes are as important as solids – spatial perception requires both. It is that ability of the brain to determine the shape of objects and their position in space based on the way that light falls on an object and reflects off its surfaces, and the resulting shadows it casts.
In vast landscapes where there are few objects to see, there is an inability to judge distance and space. Probably the opposite of that, having too many objects crammed together without any space between – as in a dense city environment – causes just as much deadening of perception.
When we first searched for our future home, there were two neighborhoods that held interest for us. The one we chose was, in the 19th century, a textile-mill town built on and up steep hills of a gorge created by an active, picturesque and formerly industrial river. The other neighborhood possibility was a low-lying flood plane adjacent to a larger and commercially-trafficked river. Aside from the natural topographical differences, the other more meaningful attribute at that time was housing stock. Both neighborhoods were probably of a similar vintage with working-class rowhouses as their currency for shelter, but what we noticed right away was that in the hilltown, there was a good balance of houses to green areas – whether it was small caged yards, grassy strips along curb-lines or quite a few wooded lots, mostly on the unbuildable steepest slopes but also some just interspersed, breaking up the monotony of house mass. This, as opposed to the flatter neighborhood that had almost an equal number of empty, demolition-scarred lots in proportion to the number of houses. There were vast tracts of land separating one or two lonely looking houses, and you knew that they had not been built that way. Plus, whatever green space existed was empty, weed-covered lots that sometimes extended for entire blocks. If not for the disrepair and the age of the buildings, there was something suburban about the large swaths of emptiness: kind of like Detroit has become as a result of all its missing housing and destroyed neighborhoods.
We determined that too much desolate, open space, in city terms, does not make for a livable or desirable environment (and, too, in suburbia but that is a different issue).
Fast forward twenty-five years. Development has become rampant in both neighborhoods. The flatter one, having a huge amount of developable space, has been able to absorb, so far, any project that shows up. There will be limits, however.
That brings us to the hilltown, which was pretty much well-developed by the mid-20th century. In fact, then, you could not give away the houses here, the area was so undervalued. Sometime in the late 20th century, the fates reversed and properties’ values increased tenfold. Then, every scrap of land, no matter how small, started to have potential for income-production. As the buildable scraps of land became new housing, no matter how compressed into a site they were, the scramble for fast turn-around in a ballooning market overtook common sense or sanity. It was a new kind of gold rush in them thar hills. And despite the downturn of the real-estate market in the past handful of years, the erection (and we don’t use that term lightly) continues. It has reached a point now that is absurd – absurd because much of the old housing stock is empty and languishing, waiting to be bought, and, most absurd is that the very thing that attracted us to this area, the balance of hard surface to green, is disappearing rapidly, reversing the livability factor and making every block a continuous, relentless hard-surfaced canyon.
Too much positive space, almost zero negative space – the only negative space left being streets for cars. In the greed and pillaging of the land, the very qualities of living on it have been diminished. It is one of those theorems of inverse proportion in which the popularity of a place can become its own destruction. Humans are weird that way.
Our arslocii theory has been that placeness occurs when the object and the site enhance one another, creating a greater whole. Without negative space balancing the built environment, there is solidity without respite, no relief, no shadows, no place you would want to be. Just as the vast tracts of empty land are discomforting, so are the overbuilt canyon walls. In some ways, the city is becoming not unlike expressways with their sound barrier walls – chutes that we are pushed through like cattle – having no connection to any of the surrounding landscape, not knowing where we are and having no distinct landmarks. Creating a nowhere.