"My sleeping space is very simple. The most important thing for me is to protect my neck and chest from the cold at night. I use a cardboard box and slip my body inside when I sleep. It helps me to keep warm that way. The columns here are excellent for sleeping! I can rest my head on the inclined ground between the columns and they are wide enough to protect me from the cold wind at night."
Space is written in the Chinese language as 空 间 or ‘empty space’ if translated directly. 间 consists of a small sun inside a door- a sliver of light entering an interior space through a gap in the door. For me, this says a lot about the relational and contextual nature of space. It is not an abstract, continuous and uniform space where objects are located as commonly understood. At the same time, 间 also means interval or pause. 间 therefore relates and connects the temporal and spatial dimensions.
Anting New Town in Shanghai, designed by Albert Speer and Partner from Germany stands as an out of scale, empty and vast project devoid of humanity. Although the project was completed almost 10 years ago, the public square is empty of residents. There are no shops as imagined by the architect and the projected number of residents failed to materialize. The town is gradually falling into disrepair and the dream of a vibrant new town turned into a nightmare for the developer, architect and the few residents who remained.
Distinguishing the concept of emptiness from simplicity, Japanese designer Kenya Hara gave the example of the design of Western and Japanese kitchen knives. The Western version, which is ergonomic and simple to use, has only one way of holding the knife. It is conceived with the user in mind in a limited way. So much so that a huge amount of resources then become invested in designing knives for a plurality of uses and/or users, flooding the world with yet more unnecessary artifacts.
On the other hand, the Japanese knife has a universal grip, and is empty of any didactic message of use. It allows the user the opportunity to develop unique ways of holding, specific to a task or one's eccentricity. The problem with a user-centered design mentality is the narrow definition of what it means to be human, the tendenacy to over-design and the limitation of a person's capacity to creatively adapt and improvise. By designing Emptiness, the Japanese knife engages a deeper relationship between user and the artifact.
The Sungei Road Thieves Market is one of my favorite spots in Singapore and one of the few places that have remained since my days as a teenager. It started as an informal place to sell stuff but had since evolved into a self-sustaining ecology of commerce for many migrant workers in the city-state. Another interesting phenomenon is the sprinkling of empty sites that are nestled among the stalls. They have been empty as far as I can remember and the stalls, instead of locating within the sites, line the perimeter of the fenced up vacant lands. The stalls gradually expanded and snaked around the various empty lands, using the fence creatively as a place to display their goods. The market is also one of the few places left where the less well-off members of the community can find an opportunity make a living by selling used goods .
Nestled amidst the chaotic and bustling city of Bangkok are semi-built casualties of the 1997 Asia financial crisis. These 'Ghost Buildings', as they are called in the city are now surrounded by high-rise developments. Walking through the abandoned spaces overgrown with plants, one cannot help reflect on the collective misplaced ambitions and plans during the economic boom era, not unlike what the world went through prior to the Great Recession experienced now in the United States and Europe. These 'Ghost Buildings' serve as an enduring reminder of the perils of unsustainable and uncontrolled growth.