Celebrating Emptiness: Life and Ideas to fill the Void

Duke-NUS GMS Atrium_1

Celebrating Emptiness: Life and Ideas to fill the Void
by Kuan Chee Yung

Many architects are so busy designing buildings that define a certain saleable space (i.e., saleable Gross Floor Area) that open spaces and larger volumes where human interactions, or even interactions with the environment, can take place are lost. This article is a reaction to the obsession of packaging and selling space, and creating iconic buildings that function as objects at the expense of creating spaces for human interaction, and sharing the poetic power of open spaces. In one project that I did, the atrium was lost due to ‘efficiency’ and assigning ‘space standards’ to specific users, leaving no neutral open space for user interaction, freedom of use etc. I was the QP (Qualified Person) for the project and regret losing that atrium to bean counters and pencil pushers as I could not justify it was a critical ‘creative’ space. I “won” later with another project for the same client, but that’s another story for another day…

In this day and age where space is controlled and is thought of as a commodity, it is tough to put a finger on why we need open spaces, and once convinced of its necessity, how to restore value to such spaces.


CPG’s years of existence have arrived at a baker’s dozen and I’ve only been around its hallowed studios half that long. During these 6+ years I’ve tried to understand how to design ‘for creativity’ in schools, master plans and business parks – in short, setting the correct stage for the so-called ‘Knowledge Industry’. In the process I’ve played around with many building forms and manipulated all sorts of space programming only to realize that they are as ineffective in getting creative folk together as herding cats with a super-soaker. So what works?

Before I hammer out a shopping list of “creativity spaces”, allow me to propose that we must first create spaces that express life and freedom of ideas. This can be achieved in a typical room, but choreographing a creative atmosphere that relies solely on the inter-personal dynamics within a room is like being trapped watching an idiot box where the show is only as good as the players. And if you’ve experienced first-hand Asian-styled education, you’d know that a room is often stifling due to hierarchy demands and folks guarding their ideas. So in the interest of breaking out of a box, we’ll move out of the room.

Strange but true, I now believe that it is not the rooms in buildings I’ve worked on that housed spaces for creative pursuits, but the quality of voids sculpted in particular contexts and proportions that may be more successful in sowing the seeds of free thought and creativity.

Take for example, the atrium at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School (GMS) building. Folks from NUS’s School of Medicine who recently visited the site mentioned that there is a sense of inspiration and freedom about the space. I understood immediately what they meant because a similar space is found in UC Berkeley’s Stanley Hall, often considered the best basic science research building in USA. In this GMS atrium we meet the best minds on their way to Lecture Theatres at the ground floor, look up and see students studying in breakout spaces and raise our eyes further up to see world-class researchers chatting outside their labs. The story about the beginning of learning, to the application for knowledge for a greater good is linked by a void. It’s hard not to be inspired while standing within the atrium.

Now zoom out away from a building to a campus master plan. What we have been happily master planning in NUS (National University of Singapore) & NTU (Nanyang Technological University) since the 80’s are all wrong, as we’ve only created pavilions almost randomly placed on an undefined hill-forest terrain linked tenuously by non-too-impressive covered walkways. I’ve visited Stanford University and UC Berkeley to witness how cloisters with quads tend to evoke the collegiate atmosphere much better than any iconic building like Gehry’s Stata Centre at MIT would. That said, do note all the quads have a 1 to 1 proportion in terms of height of the defining halls versus depth of quad and the arcade ways around the quads are often as wide as 6 metres. Students are seen stopping all over the arcadeway system to talk and many spill into the quad to study when the sun is low. These spaces are actually more important than the buildings and are often what students remember most about their colleges. Hopefully, we can begin transforming NUS into a series of ‘academic greens’, as shown in the NUHS (National University Health System)/NUS Academic Medical Centre master plan on the left.

Finally let’s tackle a city-scaled plan. I’ve sheepishly asked Bernard Tschumi once what was he trying to achieve from a master plan like Parc de la Villette. To my surprise, he laughed and said that he just wanted things to happen spontaneously and merely planned a ‘stage’ for it. No deconstructivist mumbo jumbo from him! He also mentioned – while gleefully scrolling through a Google Earth view of Paris – that the real creative life of the city is the cafe at the corner of the defined street-block, the balcony of the home above the street and the private courts where there are gardens where one could seek solitude. It didn’t really matter what kinds of buildings bordered those spaces. What mattered was that these voids – with features like canopied street, balconies and hidden organic shaped courts – existed for people to fill with activities and artworks. That was how Mediapolis was conceived.

My take on creating knowledge is that every individual human brain has about a hundred billion neurons and is capable of amazing ideas. It is arrogant and foolish to think that we can cram a bunch of brains into a room and grow creativity. Instead, what actually happens is ‘group-think’, which is a dumb-down process instead of a creative one. Allow the individual to move freely from void to void, meet another amazing individual while contemplating a boundless emptiness and new ideas will pop up as they often do.

So go forth and enjoy designing good voids!♦

3 Responses

  1. Interesting Read. Recent ‘star’ architects have provided plenty of theatrical architecture especially in China and Singapore. Architecture is seen as a flamboyant pursuit. Perhaps we should return to Leon Battista Alberti, Ten Books of Architecture,1452, take stock and design that which matters. Pursuing the ‘end game’ of Architecture is for the frivolous. We see the history of architecture in this region, traversing from Internationalism to regionalism, searching for our identity, and suddenly stirred into chaos by deconstructionism. Then reinventing the brutalism of Le Corbusier’s work with new coat and material. In the process we celebrated the individual and became less pragmatic and socialistic. We too measured architecture with prestige and monetary value. The term history and context became alien notion, relegated into oblivion. Perhaps we should reclaim history and context as they serve as beacon in the life as Singaporean.

  2. Pauline Ang says:

    On groupthink: The value of privacy and solitude has increasingly given way to an open, collaborative environment at the workplace. “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (New York Times, January 13, 2012) by Susan Cain makes a compelling argument to the contrary – that talented and motivated people produce their best work when they work alone. Here’s an excerpt of the article:

    “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.”

    Susan Cain is the author of the forthcoming book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

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