Book Review: The Empty Room—Fragmented Thoughts on Space

By Reza Aliabadi (Actar, 2020)

In this pocket-sized manifesto, Persian-Canadian architect Reza Aliabadi explores the idea of emptiness as the essence of architecture. In a culture that prioritizes form-making—the flashier, the better—Aliabadi calls for architects “to pause, take a moment, go inward, search for the essentials, and hope to rediscover a principle which is at once basic, even generic, and timeless.” His touchstone is the idea of an empty room, formed by subjective experience and inhabited by individual and collective memories. “I believe that is what architecture is all about—how to treat the emptiness,” writes Aliabadi, “It is to construct a perception, to create a void, to respect the space and not fill it up.”

This idea is embodied in the spare, spacious format of the book itself. On each spread, the right page presents a quote on emptiness, slowness, silence, or space by thinkers ranging from Mario Botta to Lao Tzu. Facing it on the left is an aphoristic, loosely connected reflection by Aliabadi. A short prologue and epilogue bookend the volume. There are no illustrations, and apart from a back-cover quote by the late John Bentley Mays, no promotional references to the work of Aliabadi’s Toronto-based firm, Atelier RZLBD. “Why repeat similar thoughts over and over, and juxtapose them with many affirming quotes?” asks Aliabadi. “Well, I guess, the point was to soak in and be saturated in this very idea of the empty room, rather than just tasting it. After all, to get drunk, you have to keep drinking.”