What is the essence of an absence as a presence in a place?

Critical Practice Paper 2 

«I lost track of time, becoming lost in that other way that isn't about dislocation but about the immersion where everything else falls away»[1]

I felt lost in a city, not because of its unfamiliarity to me, and I have loved this sense of loss. To me, as an over rational person, that was the most unconsciously desirable aim.

Getting lost is not only a matter of geography; it is a reminder of our being, here and now, in connection with our surroundings.

From this point of view, it is an identity issue: we are here and now because we are in a specific place and time.

Exploring the city as an urban wanderer opens out a wider perspective upon the meaning of “walking”. In fact, the sense of those places that give an essence to our being can only be gained on foot.

«I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about tree miles an hours. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.»[2]

Walking allowed me to achieve a loss of control; to slow down those frenetic rhythms that overwhelm my life, immersing me in a frozen atmosphere where past and present are folded into each other.

The action of walking through the suburbs of London without a specific “where to go” projected my rational thoughts into a completely unknown dimension.

There was something missing along that journey. Aims, voices, places.

That walking was pervaded by absences.

Borders, liminal and unusual spaces, those that lie far from the vivid core of London, are so poetic and life embracing to me.

Their decaying appearance hides silent plots built over the years throughout people's actions. They are left behind by most, but witnesses and guardians of their memories.

Here is where my imagination flows, losing a physical connection with the environment, traveling around unfamiliar realms.

Here the unfamiliar enchants me, challenging my ratio and pushing me to an unconscious desire of an unknown journey.

My walks through the city, stimulated by echoes, smells and latent atmospheres, became the place of my thoughts, their transition and destination.

Because, when you give something to a place, somehow, it gives it back to you.

People pour their passions into the city and when the city moves into ruins, it embraces those passions becoming their keeper.

I read the city as a continuous flow of experiences, an over all pattern of textures, lights, smells and sounds, all temporary and unpredictably absorbed by people.

People leave tracks of their passage through movements, actions and activities that generate the “image” of the contemporary city as a sequence of layers and events leading up to a memory of a past experience.

This image is not ended; there is not final result, only a series of phases.

«As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the Bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.»[3]

As Italo Calvino poetically describes in his Invisible cities (1974), every citizen, wandering around his city, has had long association with some part of it and his image is soaked in memories and emotional meanings.

For this reason, I believe that urban exploration is a spatial poetry.

It is a romantic practice, in the 19th Century sense of the word. It values beauty, feeling and content rather than order, function and underlying form.

19th Century Romantics are concerned with individual freedom and the uncontrollable following of personal fascination rather than the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, mainly pursued by the upper class during the 17th Century in Europe.

Nowadays we perceived contemporary ruins from a different point of view.

Going into them makes us aware of our own society limits: decay is everything our culture tries to ignore because of that idea of social success based on the absence of it.

«Ruins shatter the myth of rational progress and permanency. What was once built to testify to a singular and eternal present becomes the symbol and proof of its mutability.»[4]

In contemporary ruins, there has not been attempt to keep up appearances and the scene is one of disorder and disarray.

What is aesthetically fascinating about contemporary ruins is their lack of a formal design. Their beauty lies in a process of assembling materials and objects that carry different meanings and semiotic charges.

This surprising and unpredictable conjoining emerges when they are related to each other.

Inside ruins, objects fall out of their previously assigned context to recombine in arbitrary combinations, a random, disordering which is shaped by where things land or have been thrown. 

In the ruin we confront an alternative aesthetics, which condemns the seamlessness of much urban design and opens possibility for appreciating beauty from otherwise.

Ruinous surfaces offer a random display of colours and textures. The process of decay also releases all those hidden conduits of energy and matter from their confinement behind walls.

Liminal and abandoned spaces own the energy to evoke absences, material and immaterial, bringing them to life.

In fact, people experience loss in different ways and afterwards, whether it is material or spiritual, they tend to transform it in a new entity.

This transition consists in a back and forth process of accepting the absence.

Loss. Absence.

Everyone, in his inner self, has a cognitive map of loss and absences. Some of them live in our mind as ended entity; some others are “in limbo”, waiting to become remote memories or to generate new presences.

Even though the word loss, by its nature, has a negative meaning, being related to a lack of something, it is worth being unfolded under its cathartic aspect.

In this sense, it can be considered as a constructive step in the process of shaping our own identity.

Moving back to our past, exploring hidden drawers of our soul, is not an easy goal to achieve without regrets or nostalgia about something that is gone.

In this journey, the time plays a significant role: the more a memory of a loss is pervading and recurring, the more it monopolises our thoughts.

The environment we are surrounded by is also relevant to go back over an absence: our senses are surrounded by visual, sonorous, tactile and olfactory stimuli, that people inevitably associate with memories.

Marcel Proust has treated this theme in his In search of lost time (1913/1927). The theory of involuntary memory was based on the assumption that sights, sounds and smells trigger our memories.

«An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.»[5]

In his Poetics of space (1958), alluding to the same evocative strength of the five senses, Gaston Bachelard applied the method of phenomenology to architecture, encouraging architects to base their work on the experience they will engender rather than abstract rationales.

«Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home…. Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts -serious, sad thoughts- and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.»[6]

Moreover, in his The poetics of reverie: childhood, language and the cosmos (1960), he explored the psychic productivity of the imagination and its relationship with memory.

«A reverie cannot be recounted. It must be written, written with emotion and taste.»[7]

A reverie is the door that gives access to our soul and consciousness through poetry:

«Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.»[8]

I found the practice of deconstruction, applied to philosophical and literary language, and deconstructivism, from an architectural viewpoint, effective and consistent methods of spatial analysis.

In his deconstructionist works published between the sixties and the eighties, Jacques Derrida claimed that all aspects of experience and existence are relegated to a moment called “the present”.

The idea of presence always implies more than one moment. Presence is the main predicate for a text’s meaning, despite the fact that this meaning is always absent and in need of reconstruction though reading or interpretation.

Gaps, absences and deficiencies are subordinate to a principle of presence. Indeed, it is not possible to imagine an absence without reference to the principle of presence. Memory precedes and exceeds the present moment, which we will have remembered.

The sign is irreducibly secondary.  It always refers to something else.  Sometimes the something else that a sign refers to is actually itself, but this doesn’t mean that the sign’s meaning is primary.  What is primary is the signifying aspect of it.  The sign comes before its referent (sign) in so far as this sign means this sign.  And that, of course, is secondary.

 «There is no outside text»[9].

So the sign is at the beginning.  We never arrive at a meaning independently of some aspect of text, through which we must pass before cancelling it out as unwanted rhetoric.

Following the same theoretical principle, an American site-specific artist named Gordon Matta-Clark, performed a literal spatial deconstruction, by removing the facade of a condemned house along the Love Canal, and moving the resulting walls to Artpark, in his work Bingo (1974).

In his artworks, he used neglected structures slated for demolition as his raw material. He carved out sections of buildings in order to reveal their hidden constructions, to provide new ways of perceiving space, and to create metaphors for the human condition. When wrecking balls knocked down his sculpted buildings, little remained.

Matta-Clark’s structures broke the visual and symbolic boundaries normally associated with the architectural “box” by allowing light to penetrate spaces in unexpected ways, revealing unexpected scenarios.

My practical aim, inspired by an analogous methodology, is to “deconstruct” a specific site in the city looking for its absences, in order to reread and reinterpret the space through its essential and primary elements.

During one of my journeys the silent atmosphere of a place, a suburban garden cemetery in the West London, captured my attention.

Despite its being an icon of stillness and eternal sleep, the Victorian Brompton Cemetery embodies a sense of transition and temporariness.

People “passing by”, together with the Cemetery’s own “community”, create a sense of melancholy, coexisting in the same time and place.

Their physical distance seems to be filled by Nature that looks after ruins, bringing them far from the oblivion.

We are surrounded by places that tell stories. Some of them raise those particular stories to a sole existential experience where the dialogue between the Earth and the human nature is embodied in a dilapidated stone.

Inhabitants of headstones and catacombs are hedged in by Nature in its effort to re-join their physicality to the Earth and their soul to the Atmosphere under the guise of fresh gems.

A cemetery, by its nature, is a place of absences. And what really fascinates me is its being representative of people’s attachment to their human physicality.

Brompton Cemetery is the emblem of their purpose to keep their dead closer to this world, by materialising them in a tangible and concrete form, as the headstones are.

Moreover the ritual of “giving something to the dead as a gift” has a long history among different peoples and traditions.

The cult of death, as a cultural phenomenon and a collective practice, has faced with the issue of beginning and end.

In the philosophical treatment of life as preparation for death, or the contemptus mundi of the early Christians, or even in the dance macabre of medieval and baroque Europe, death remained a question of the psyche, the nous, the soul, the species.

The Egyptians believed the spiritual nature of man was tied to his material body. For the one to enjoy eternal life, his body had to be preserved in this world.

And not only preserved, but provided for.

«They cleansed it and embalmed it with drugs, spices and balsams; they anointed it with aromatic oils and preservative fluids; they swathed it in hundreds of yards of linen bandages; and then they sealed it up in a coffin or sarcophagus, which they laid in a chamber hewn in the bowels of the mountain. All these things were done to protect the physical body against damp, dry rot and decay, and against the attacks of moth, beetles, worms and wild animals.»[10]

They did not believe that the body in the tomb would ever come back to life in this world. They believed that it had to be preserved so that its spiritual essence could continue its existence in the next world.

The notion of death among Eastern cultures differs greatly from that of a secularized Western world, which frequently considers death as the end to be avoided.

In his The hour of our death (1981), Philippe Ariès explores European attitudes toward death and dying over the last thousand years, together with the meaning of death to the individual and community, from the Middle Ages until nowadays.

In medieval Europe, Christianity had domesticated this monster by establishing a comprehensive set of beliefs and practices that Ariès calls the "tame death." Death was merely a transition to eternal life. The individual was understood as an integral part of the community and not as autonomous and isolated. Therefore, death and dying were communal events, supported by specific prayers and practices that "tamed" the unknown.

The communicability of death and decay reached a peak in the middle of the 19th Century. By that time, a large number of private and commercial burial sites had emerged in both Britain and France. Such sites were located almost uniformly on the outskirts of towns or cities, away from the traditional churchyard sites.

Being one of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries that opened between 1833 and 1841 in the countryside around London, Brompton Cemetery has been built over a market garden consisted on a flat and treeless rectangle site half a mile long.

Benjamin Baud’s inspirational concept was to create an immense and immersive open-air cathedral with a central nave (Central Avenue) that runs to the high altar (the domed Chapel) through the prominent colonnades of the Great Circle.

Today, wandering around this garden cemetery has a different meaning and taste from the past, making us aware of the evolution of the human’s perception of death.

In the centuries that followed its foundation, Ariès's "tame death" changed result from the gradual replacement of community-oriented personal identity with today's radical individualism and the gradual sequestration of death to a position behind the scenes, so that dying and death become remote from ordinary experience.

Nowadays we encounter "invisible death".

Death is no longer "tame" because we deny its existence so, effectively, we no longer develop personal and communal resources to give it meaning.

Death's invisibility enhances its terror.

For this reason, I have asked myself many times what is the current relevance of a place pervaded by abandoned and dilapidated gravestones that enhance death's meaninglessness in our culture's loss of spirituality.

This place means transition to me, in the metaphysical sense of the word.

It reminds me that the essence of human remembrance, under the guise of headstones, being legitimated by someone still alive, dies together with its own creator.

And what is left behind is just a headstone.

In its temporariness lies its essence.

In its being representative of a cyclical process lives our human experience about presences and absences.

Its hushes emerge through lights and shadows among the Victorian walkways and the deep arcades, its voids are the most eloquent part of the speech.

This is where the intangible became tangible and the evidence of an absence made a new presence.

And you, what mark of your presence would you leave after your passing away?


Aries, Philippe. (1981). The hour of our death. Oxford University Press, New York.

Bachelard, Gaston. (1958). Poetics of space. Beacon Press, Boston.

Bachelard, Gaston. (1960). The poetics of reverie: childhood, language and the cosmos. Beacon Press, Boston.

Calvino, Italo. (1974). Invisible cities. Harcourt Brace & Company, Orlando.

Derrida, Jacques. (1976). Of Grammatology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Dickens, Charles. (1861). “The City of the Absent”, in The Uncommercial Traveller. Chapman and Hall, London. 

Franck, Karen A., Stevens, Quentin. (2007). “Social practices, sensual excess and aesthetic transgression in industrial ruins”, in Loose space. Possibility and diversity in urban life. Routledge, Oxon.

Lynch, Kevin. (1960). The image of the city. Technology press, Harvard University press, Cambridge.

Norberg-Shulz, Christian. (1980). Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. Rizzoli, New York.

Proust, Marcel. (1913/1927). In search of lost time. Vintage, New York.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2003). A Field guide to getting lost. Penguin Books Australia Ltd.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2003). Wanderlust. A History of Walking. Verso, London.




[1] R.Solnit. (2003). A Field guide to getting lost. Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 36.

[2] R.Solnit. (2003). Wanderlust. A history of walking. Verso, London, 10.

[3] I.Calvino. (1974). Invisible citiesHarcourt Brace and Company, Orlando, 11.

[4] D.Trigg. (2006). The Aestetic of Decay. Nothingness, Nostalgia and the absence of reason. Peter Lang, New York.

[5] M.Proust. (1913/1927). In search of lost time. Vintage, New York, Vol. I, 50.

[6] G.Bachelard. (1958). Poetics of space. Beacon Press, Boston. Chapter 2, Section VIII.

[7] G.Bachelard. (1958). The poetics of reverie: childhood, language and the cosmos. Beacon Press, Boston.

[8] G.Bachelard. (1958). The poetics of reverie: childhood, language and the cosmos. Beacon Press, Boston.

[9] J.Derrida. (1976). Of Grammatology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

[10] E.A Wallis Budge. (2008). The book of the Dead. Penguin Classics, London. XI Chapter.