Why Restraum?

15 March 2023

The concept of the empty canvas has a certain attraction. It enables us to create the new and erase the old. Yet in reality, empty space does not exist independent from what is already there.

In architecture and design, restraum refers to the space around or within things. This concept of empty space is more akin to reality. Sometimes there is a lot of it; in the cities of the modern world, space is at a premium. Creation means either building upon existing structures, and improving what is there already—or destroying what’s there to create something new. Destruction costs time, energy and money. It also removes something that was there before.

Think about the Palast der Republik that was in the centre of Berlin. Seemingly because it was a symbol of the repression of the DDR regime, it was replaced by a replica of the palace that was there before. Was the old building destroyed because of these sentiments? It likely was removed because it took the place of the Berliner Schloss that was largely destroyed during World War II. You have to wonder when the current replica will be destroyed for the next piece of utopian architecture.

Zweifel, Palast der Republik, 2005 - Naraelle Hohensee
The Palast der Republik in 2005, three years before it was torn down.
Photo: Naraelle Hohensee, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

We somehow believe the digital world is different: that there is unlimited space, that we can create without destruction, and that we can keep what was before. Yet it is increasingly clear that digital products are rooted in the physical world with all its limitations. Digital endeavours cost real resources: they need money and work to exist, if only to keep the servers running.

If digital structures take up space just like their physical peers, the whitespace they leave is restraum. It’s the unimagined becoming imaginable; the unrealized being realizable; the conceptual turning visible.

Maybe the restraum is what counts: the space we leave when making other things. Maybe we obsess too much about what we produce. Don’t get me wrong: I do not claim we should stop producing. Instead I believe the concept of restraum is a very powerful perspective to more clearly see what has actually been made.

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one

Breathe (In the Air), The Dark Side of the Moon, Roger Waters