Precarious Exterior: Emptiness in a Spaceless Universe

(Workshop conducted at University of Thessaly, Volos, with Aristide Antonas)

Emptiness within city centers today has become something of a truism synonymous with a certain tautological ‘failure’ to maintain completeness. From Santiago De Chile to Newark to Detroit to Los Angeles to Thessaloniki, this incompleteness is always an embarrassing discovery and cause for desperate strategies in which to fill it up. Empty space, unoccupied space, uselessness, voids have, like every other spatial category within the urban, become simply an economic index embedded in a much larger calculus of perpetual urbanization–both deficits and sites or parcels of future profit.

If we can assert that the city, as a historically and politically situated formation, has today been eclipsed by a process of relentless urbanization predicated on expansion, circulation and infinite connectivity–an order perpetually filling out empty space–, how can we re-imagine the persistence of emptiness that is constantly produced within it? In the urban, every space must be accounted for, known, qualified, quantified, measured, risk assessed, valued, inspected, calculated, speculated, zoned, programmed prepared for its eventual urbanization. In this sense, even spaces that are ‘empty’—spaces both within the ‘city’ and outside it are always already urbanized, not only in the ‘virtual’ way that Lefebvre described, but in the real, practical way that there is no space on earth that is not known, either as resource, zone, built, unbuilt, developed, developable, navigable, barren, etc. This is, for me, what the urban means.

Indeed, if the urban is a spatial order whose completeness aims to extend across the entire surface of the earth, what could the notion of ‘exteriority’ even mean to its inevitable advances? Does the exterior reside rather as a condition of its interiority? What could this mean? By posing these questions, the broader ambition of our seminar will be to construct an archaeology of the urban around the distinction between interior/exterior. We will do so in particular by examining a site of Thessaloniki’s centre known at once for its intensity of nightlife activity and for the vacated buildings which stand above it. We will treat the spaces that we encounter as a conceptual site in which to experiment with the silence of exteriority held in the midst of the cacophony of the urban interior below. For us, the network of spaces we will explore is neither vacant, nor negative void space, nor an opportunity for their future infiltration, but rather the precarious promise of an exterior within the blinding continuum of the urban-everywhere–a radically other space inscribed in yet excluded from the pure interior that surrounds it.

The seminar will proceed as a parallel series of lectures and an ongoing experiment with design installation. The lectures will introduce concepts, histories and strategies which will at once destabilize and provoke these processes of design taking place alongside. The aim will be to persistently work to frame a problem in relation to the contemporary world, while developing spatial, formal and material strategies in which to directly engage with the particularities of the site.

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