That which is absent often speaks more powerfully than that which is present.
A life spent working in opera has taught me the value of absence: that silence can be as emotionally devastating as the mightiest crescendo, that stillness can convey far more energy than movement, that something implied can be as explicit as something expressed.
Art and photography frequently utilise the absence of one thing to highlight another. The term “Negative Space” refers to the space around and between subjects (positive spaces). The viewer’s eye can be more acutely focussed upon the subject of a picture by de-emphasising this negative space around it, blurring out details, or even removing them entirely.
It is a concept so firmly entrenched in the design world that we see hundreds of examples of it every day without realising. Every road sign, shop sign, and corporate logo utilises the technique. Negative space can even be manipulated to cause tricks of the eye such as the “Is this a vase, or two silhouetted faces?” pictures we all know so well. This is known as a figure/ground reversal, where the viewer is left in doubt as to which part of the picture is the subject, and which the background.
All memorials are in some way influenced by this idea of negative space. They commemorate times, events, places, deeds, or persons long since past. Their purpose, then, is to present us with a visual cue to remind us of something missing. One could argue that, in some way, memorials are positive spaces built to focus our thoughts and feelings on negative spaces.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the National September 11 Memorial in New York.
A poignant, eloquent, and spiritual memorial, it consists of a plaza containing two vast, sunken reflecting pools, situated upon the footprints of the fallen towers, and over 400 white swamp oak trees. The memorial’s creators Michael Arad and Peter Walker called their design Reflecting Absence, and it is a masterclass in the practical application of the use of negative space. Effectively, what they have done is to flip the technique on its head, almost like a figure/ground reversal (vase/face picture). By drawing our attention to what is visible, they are emphasising what is not.
The pools themselves are double-tiered, the top tier featuring waterfalls on all four sides which cascade into reflecting pools, containing seemingly bottomless wells at their centre. Their recessed sides are sunk so deep into the fabric of the plaza that it powerfully evokes the shape of the missing towers above. Next to the memorial, One World Trade Center was constructed to the same roof height as the North Tower, again evoking the scale of the fallen towers.
The names of the deceased are inscribed into brass plaques surrounding the pools on all sides. Relatives place white roses into the names of their lost loved-ones on the occasion of their birthday.
A solitary callery pear tree which survived the devastation speaks to the indefatigability of the human spirit. In the midst of such terrible devastation it survived, against all odds, to bring hope to all who now visit the memorial.
The overall effect is that one can imagine, with very little effort, that the towers are somehow still there. I had the feeling as I turned away for the final time, and it was by no means a disconcerting sensation, but instead deeply comforting, that I could just glimpse the Twin Towers out of the corner of my eye, still soaring up majestically into the brilliant, frosty morning sky.