The Unsaid—On the Spatial Conception of Ma 間
In the West, the unsaid often registers as a missed opportunity that connotes a loss of something that could have happened in space and time. There is a desire to cultivate a logical and linear historical narrative, like that of Locke and Descartes. In architecture, we might find the narrative of style described through terms such as neo-classicism, revivalism, and post-modernism – one stylistic movement calling upon the past and regenerating in the future (neo- ; post- etc) constantly picking up calls. Ring, Ring, Ring! ‘’Hello, it’s me. The messy Baroque is gone, let us bring back Grecian architecture!’’ These architectural styles hold a clear preference for a set of rules that defines the stylistic pursuit.
What intrigues me, is that on the opposite end of the spectrum, the vulnerability of the unsaid, emptiness, and stillness are regularly praised in Japanese culture. Consider [ring … ring … ring …..] and the call ends. The dots occupying the silence are best described as ‘’Ma’’ 間 - emptiness, void (aka the between world). For us to be able to fully experience a ring, there must be silence, and the length of the silences distinguished the importance of the rings in between them- in the missed call, the pause after the last ring is the most emotional. The concept of Ma declares there is no urge to go against the flow nor an urge to make a statement – like floating the river, it does not fight, but rather is the emptiness that allows phenomena to manifest in their most natural state. Its power lies in stillness and being. Fundamentally, the meaning of Ma transcends time and space, its existence is universal and boundless. The Kinji (Chinese character) of Ma [間] is made up of two parts: - the gate [門] and the sun [日]. The combination of the two characters poetically illustrates a spatial moment when sunlight or moonlight shines through a gateway. 1 ] Ma holds phenomena and events.
Does this mean that Western architecture fails to understand the concept of Ma? No, it does not. Ma does not speak to stylistic pursuits, aesthetics, or forms- rather it is omnipresent in all great works of architecture. The Pantheon is a perfect manifestation of Ma. The sun shining through the gate (oculus) reaches the space underneath the dome – and in this instance, this call from the sun transcends the void into a between world that evokes an active, ever-changing, and immediate awareness that sees time, space, and nature as totality. It also heavily relies on the imagination and sensory experience of the human mind to fully immerse its witnesses. 2 Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Jean Nouvel’s Louvre in Abu Dhabi, Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum do not speak to each other stylistically, yet they all possess a sensitivity to create a generous spatial void that allows the between world to come into being. This between world is always changing, fluid, temporal, poetic, and spiritual. Ma manifests through human experiences when nature and objects become a totality.
Looking beyond architecture with a capital A, we are now in an important moment in history to make space for architecture of lowercase ‘a’. And it is up to us to take the responsibility to define what is and what is not in the spirit of ma.