American architects struggle for simplicity

Fear of empty spaces drives wave of overbuilding

Last summer, I handed a young architectural intern a sketch to be drafted up on the computer. It was a site plan for an agricultural research facility comprising 130 acres, about 80 acres of which were necessarily to remain open farmland. A week later, as promised, I received the computer drawing. But lo and behold, the crisp white sweep of farmland had been completely filled up with a meandering web of plazas and pedestrian malls in a galaxy of arbitrary shapes–pinwheels, checkerboards, crescents, what have you. Setting aside the fact that these busy forms would only have made sense from the air, they would also have made for some rather difficult farming. When I asked the intern why she'd added all those features unbidden, she replied: "The plan looked so empty, I thought the client would want to see more things in it." This is a problem that afflicts all creative people, so much so that we even have a Latin name for it: horror vacui, or fear of emptiness. Herbert Muschamp, ...