“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;

But it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel;

But it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the vessel depends.

We pierce doors and windows to make a house;

and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the utility of the house depends.

Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the utility of what is not.”

Tao Te Ching


We inhabit the spaces in-between. These are the spaces between walls, columns, hedges, or any other physical boundary. In a basic figure-ground diagram these are considered the negative spaces.  However, I find that term to carry a value that does not adequately represent their importance. I affectionately refer to them as spaces in-between. The design and development of the spaces in-between is the true measure of a project’s success or failure.

I’ve long been enamored with the Lao-tzu quote above and use it when teaching design studio classes in the UCLA Extension Landscape Architecture Department. As students begin their initial space making exercises, I often joke that as landscape architects we are in the practice of creating nothing. The intent is to maintain focus on the negative spaces within a composition, as these are the habitable spaces within the built environment, the spaces where people live, work and play.

More often than not, the objects, patterns, and forms within a design are the recipients of adoration, celebration, and awards. However, these elements are merely supporting players in true spatial development of landscape architecture. The objects, patterns and forms are a response to the styles and preferences of their time, but it’s the negative space, the void, and the development of the space in-between that determine a project’s success or failure.

Landscape architects are especially skilled in designing the spaces in-between, as we are consistently provided sites located between buildings, roadways, fences, walls, forests and streams. Successful landscape design is guided by the contextual conditions that are ever changing and unique to each site. They challenge and influence our spatial development process. We strive to respond to them and maximize the space in-between to create an environment to be utilized for any number of programs, users and lifestyles.

At Duane Border Design we embrace the negatives, the voids, and the in-betweens. We use them to our advantage as we build spaces to meet the needs, programs, and lifestyles of our clients. Our work resists the temptation to focus on the objects, patterns, and forms of site design prior to establishing a something within the nothing, in the void, because these spaces in-between provide opportunities to live, learn, and engage with the natural environment. These principles are not responsive to trends and style, but endure in the memories of all who experience the spaces in-between.