It is evident that nature in our daily life should be thought of as part of the biological need.
– A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander
Every morning we walk the dogs in Warren Park in West Rogers Park. It isn’t at all like most Minnesota parks—those pristine, lush green spaces, patrolled by a small cab white Ford truck with green and blue lettering that reads Minneapolis Park Police, where the drinking fountains work, the bicyclists share the path, the dogs are all on leash. We’ve walked together for years. My partner doesn’t believe in working out indoors. She contends regularly and righteously that exercise is all around us as she bounds up every available set of stairs and proclaims like a pedestrian evangelical that she would never in her whole life get in a car again if she didn’t have to! The urban environment is her natural habitat.
Walking isn’t part of my genetic makeup. I come from thicker Italian stock. We like our hair and pasta bowl heaped high. But most days I get up with my chipper, perky girlfriend and walk the circuit. My draw to walking in Minnesota was the Mississippi River, regular eagle sightings, the sounds of the University of Minnesota crew team chanting from the water. But since coming to Chicago, I’ve made do with international cricket games, the guy on rollerblades pulled by huskies every morning, the piñatas and roasted corn carts.
White space is wasted space.
– A client
In graphic design, the client view is that white space is wasted space. Clients want to get in as many iterations of their message as possible, from page edge to page edge—fill it up! White space is wasted space is a blank is nothing, where no message is being communicated. The designer perspective is that white space is intrinsic to the message, is part of the delivery of the message.
There’s an urban garden in San Francisco called The Crack Garden. It’s a giant slab of concrete into which existing cracks have been enlarged and new cracks introduced. Plants and flowers are cultivated in the cracks. The project narrative states, “The design is conceived as an intervention that functions as a lens, altering perception of a place rather than completely remaking it.”
In design, white space signifies elitism, refinement, modernity. It is thin, angular women, thin, angular typefaces; chilly white spirits, the elegant bird wing Milwaukee Art Musuem Quadracci Pavillon designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Warren Park is an urban green space but most days the green is less apparent for the abandoned newspapers and tossed plastic bags rolling like tumbleweeds across the chewed up soccer and ball fields. We dodge the shards of broken beer bottles, trying to avoid trips to the emergency vet for a sliced paw pad. The white utility trucks chug along the paths—the clean up crew—but mostly the trucks emit choking fumes and the crews can’t keep pace with the litterati.
White space on the page is a breath, a break in the walls of gray text. Rather than the absence of content, white space gives meaning. It can propel the narrative forward, pause the narrative, open up a passage or a scene, invite the reader in. The reader enters the text through the white space and participates in the aesthetic process.
Lydia Davis, the short story writer and translator, most recently of Madame Bovary, uses white space eloquently. In her short story, “Marie Curie, So Honorable a Woman,” Davis tells the well-worn story of Marie Curie, who discovered radium. The story consists of 45 short sections with brief descriptive titles such as “Character,” “Poverty,” “Research,” “Teaching at the Sorbonne.” Each individually titled section addresses a new subject in chronological order, from Curie’s birth to death. The main episodes of Marie Curie’s life are well known to most fifth graders: brilliant woman pursues a career in science against the grain of her times, poverty, and her own intractable character. She marries another scientist, Pierre Curie, and they discover radium. He dies, then she dies from effects of the radioactive element. The sections in Davis’s story serve to build a narrative urgency to a story that everybody already knows, that holds no surprises. The spacing between sections serves to visually and rhythmically signify a break in the story, and also the omission of exposition and transition. The sections aren’t really “snapshots” or standalone scenes. There is a momentum implicit to the sections; a suggestion that something more will be said, a reference will be revealed, meaning will be made clear. But that doesn’t happen. What is omitted takes on significance. And as the reader, the imaginative act is to create that significance.
Sometimes all we want is respite from traffic and the sound of other voices, to inhabit the white space in the book, to listen to the silences, each space a mystery, descending light from the stars.
– Vanishing Point, Ander Monson
In the narrative of the city, the breath, the “respite from traffic and the sound of other voices” is in the green space. As a city resident, my imaginative act is to “alter my perception” and create a new definition of green space for Warren Park.
I walk in the park. I can go but not back. We can’t return. Nobody gets what they want. I don’t get the Mississippi bluffs, the groomed bike trails, the good dogs trotting obediently at heel on loose leashes, their rapt faces upturned toward what they love best—you only you—the dogs pant. I’ll see where I go, seeing as I go the scrappy crabapple and dogwood trees soon to burst into bloom, mud splashing on the dogs’ legs; all the children are running. I’m walking away from where I was. I trust the motion, which implies faith in the green space, where what is omitted is a crack, an opening, a white breath in the gray city.
This post originally appeared on Is Greater Than.
Exhale sound by otherthings from Freesound (https://www.freesound.org) under Creative Commons Sampling Plus 1.0 License.