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Donatella Mazzoleni » 11.Towards an aesthetic of emptiness

The last stage

A greater theoretical understanding of the anthropological structures of the imaginary has provided us with the tools to recognize the organizational criteria which naturally operate within the iconic material we have gathered together during our course of study.

Having these tools is vital for developing creative modes of architectural thought.

This is what gives us the courage we need to abandon our use of a limited rationalism and concentrate our efforts instead on the development of analogic thought.
It enables us to believe that it will be possible to develop a form of creative thinking within architecture that can successfully deal with the issues thrown up by the contemporary world, without lapsing into the kind of “barbarisms” we see today, which risk losing all reference to  tradition or consolidated theory.

After all this theory, we will check the usefulness of what we have learnt in a further practical session.

Developments in this lesson

We will take a break for distraction and rest, then we will perform one last experiment in the hope of an epiphany.

In this advanced experiment, we will improve our skills in the area of sin-esthetic perception of space. We will practice specific techniques to improve our conscious application of all our sensory apparatus (acoustic, kinesthetic, tactile, olfactory as well as visual) when it comes to perceiving and representing architectural space.

This practical session, like the others, cannot be reproduced on these web-pages since an experience is not translatable into words.

The last stage is an evaluation of our results.

This brings us to the end of the learning journey we set out to complete:

Preparation – Nomadic research – Serendipity – Accumulation – Attempts at design – Analogies – Distraction, rest – Epiphanies – Evaluation

Exercise 3

Exercise 3
(visual perception – tactile perception – acoustic perception – sinesthetic perception)

Representation of “coverings in space”


Representation of “emptiness in space”


Towards an aesthetic of emptiness

The third exercise entails returning to the same architectural or urban space after a set period of time to enable our perceptive attitudes to decondition and reposition themselves.

This generates a series of images which enable us to measure to what extent the individual student’s ability to perceive and represent that particular space has developed over time.

This exercise almost always produces examples of serendipity and epiphanies.

Even if these don’t happen, the experiment produces results which are extremely important for the development of creative skills within architecture: the realisation that the focus of the conscious mind can be taken off the solid outer wrappings of the architectural-urban space and that perceptive skills and representative ability can be tuned in to the “emptiness” of space instead.

We finish our work by experiencing the aesthetics of emptiness .

Towards an aesthetic of emptiness

«Emptiness, infinity: two concepts that the human mind has never got its head round. Infinity, or rather a spatial and, at the same time, temporal “entity” which we can never completely grasp. The infinite emptiness of the cosmos which we inevitably and futilely try to fill with an absolute, inexistent “fullness”. But, while infinite emptiness is a sterile and negative concept, there is also a “positive emptiness” like the invaso of a church or theatre or any latent space which is activated by the fullness of what lies around it or what defines it. This “creative” emptiness, which may actually only be a pause between two “fullnesses”, two objects or two sounds, constitutes a “between”; what lies in the middle of two or more distinct entities. And is this “interval” space that is referred to by the Sanskrit term “sunyata” (for Zen aesthetics derived from Mahayana Buddhism): an “emptiness” as stated by the great Zen expert, Daisetz Suzuki in his seminal Zen and Japanese Culture). In other words: emptiness, as a spatial and temporal factor in the generation of aesthetics, enables us to savour the space between two columns in a Greek temple or between two phrases in a piece of music and suspend, if only for a moment or for a tiny portion, the incessant consecution of our Dasein».

(Gillo Dorfles L’intervallo perduto Skira, Milano 2006)

Towards an aesthetic of emptiness

«Oriental thinking (…) shows a deep-rooted and constant mistrust of ideas which are the result of theorizing, and shows a similarly deep-rooted preference for modes and circumstances which allow for a more direct relationship with experience, avoiding intellectual or cultural mediation. A relationship with reality is therefore considered preferable to a relationship with concepts, or at least with those concepts which claim to substitute reality».

«The central nucleus of Taoism and Chan and Zen Buddhism is made of emptiness. Not the concept of emptiness but the experience of emptiness. This means that underlying any of the activities designed for teaching certain arts, or for understanding the artistic forms produced, there needs to be an experience of emptiness not a theory of emptiness. And this experience is only possible through practicing a certain type of meditation».

(Giangiorgio Pasqualotto Estetica del vuoto. Arte e meditazione nelle culture d’Oriente, Marsilio, Venezia 1992, 2004)


The aesthetic experience of emptiness broadens our cultural horizons and increases our imaginative ability.

A) if we create a “space” around the wealth of memories and concepts we have acquired, it helps us move beyond our personal and cultural condition and develop a more instinctive, wilder attitude (new “barbarisms”) with which to face the contemporary world, and also makes us more amenable to culturisation;

B) by helping us take the focus of attention away from the strictly individual and personal, it fosters a more sensitive attitude towards the environment;

C) by encouraging us to focus attention on the spaces to do with relations it directs the individual conscience towards different types of imagination-networks.

The aesthetic experience of emptiness prepares the project designer for working in conditions which encourage personal creative output but also enables him/her to spark off that collective process in architecture whereby, after a long period of voluntary effort on the part of numerous different people (commissioners, financers, designers, builders, users) and after a long, complex material construction entailing a different organization of the environment, it suddenly “happens” (or it doesn’t) and meaning is bestowed on the place, that is, there is a collective recognition of a new meaning attached to living in a certain place, and the perception of a new form of beauty.

Final self-assessment

The end of the agogic journey
(Preparation – Nomadic research – Serendipity – Accumulation – Attempts at design – Analogies – Distraction, rest – Epiphany) –


Our learning journey ends with an evaluation of the results.

Self-evaluation of what you produced from your experience on this course is extremely useful.

Students need to gain the awareness and skills to be able to evaluate their own work  successfully and this plays a decisive role when it comes to the teacher’s final assessment.

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Progetto "Campus Virtuale" dell'Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, realizzato con il cofinanziamento dell'Unione europea. Asse V - Società dell'informazione - Obiettivo Operativo 5.1 e-Government ed e-Inclusion