Architectural remainder

Canterbury Cathedral

Visiting Canterbury Cathedral today for only the second time in 35 years I was unsurprised to observe that this important building still has a bent plan. No one would ever think of correcting or straightening the choir and the ambulatory of this item of prime Gothic heritage. But this time I noticed the prominence of the heavy pulpitum that separates the nave from the choir. The visitor can see the roof vaults above this ornate stone barrier, but in spite of a narrow central doorway it prevents a clear line of sight from one end of the cathedral to the other, and thus occludes the kink in the plan.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral choir and rood screen (right)

This screening device brings to mind the constant necessity to make adjustments in architecture, and to cover its flaws. Colin Rowe asserts that architecture has to deal with “the conflict between the absolute and the contingent, the abstract and the natural; and the gap between the ideal world and the too human exigencies of realization.”

In a previous post I suggested that this need of architecture to adjust to discrepancies is shared with music. Musical instruments must be slightly detuned across each note to spread the disharmony caused by the progression of octaves when overlaid with the progression of fifths. The necessity for such adjustments is an embarrassment to the ancient concept of the “music of the spheres,” that the universe accords with perfect harmonic ratios. At the very least, these problems direct the scholar intent on establishing relationships between architecture and music (space and sound) elsewhere than harmony, beauty and perfect ratios.

Architects and others in the practical arts make frequent reference to the language of tuning and detuning: calibration, tolerance, drift, slippage, the gap, and the remainder. The pythagorean comma in music is a remaindered quarter note (approximately) that must be spread amongst the ordinary notes in a scale series to make them transportable, ie to facilitate modulation between keys. The remainder is an embarrassment at the margins that after all gets redistributed to bolster the existence of the authorized and the legitimate.

One has to look hard for any celebration of the remainder in classical architectural discourse, though there is evidence in South Indian architecture. In his analysis of the Vâstu Mandala, Adrian Snodgrass indicates how the discrepancy evident in calendar cycles, and expressed in rituals and architecture, kept things moving: “as there is a remainder there is no end, the cycle recommences, and time continues on. The residue is thus the seed of the next cycle … No further motion is possible without the discrepancy between one cycle and the next.”

Perhaps remaindered spaces carry properties inherited from the enigmatic progenitor of all space, chora, “which is eternal and indestructible, which provides a position for everything that comes to be, and which is apprehended without the senses by a sort of spurious reasoning and so is hard to believe in,” according to Plato in Timeus, and as championed by Jacques Derrida.

Drawing attention to those left over spaces, the interstitial non-places, the spaces between unaligned grids, those other spaces that don’t conform, the geometrical surpluses, is a recent tactic. But so often this is where the action is. The remaindered can’t necessarily be planned for, and so is often ignored.


  • Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Chora. In J. Kipnis, and T. Leeser (eds.), Chora L Works: 15-32. New York: Monacelli Press.
  • Plato. 1997. Timaeus. In J. M. Cooper (ed.), Complete Works: 1224-1291. Indianapolis, Ill.: Hackett.
  • Rowe, Colin. 1976. The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Esssays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Snodgrass, Adrian B. 1990. Architecture, Time and Eternity: Studies in the Stellar and Temporal Symbolism of Traditional Buildings, Volume I. New Delhi, India: Aditya Prakashan.


  1. Ann says:

    Interesting to consider in relation to Star’s work on the orphan, or the bit that is always remaindered in any categorisation system. Do you know her work? I don’t know how well that particular facet is covered in Sorting Things Out (Bowker and Star 1999), but it’s a lovely read anyway.

    1. rcoyne99 says:

      Thanks Ann. I’ll look into it. I guess work on recording and computing “typical” or “prototypic” as opposed to statistically significant groupings of various kinds would seek to preserve outliers in the calculation. I’m thinking of work on neural networks and other cognitive models. Interesting.

  2. yujia dong says:

    I am a little bit confused by the term “remaindered space”. but how could a space remaindered. The space exist before we build the architect. Using the architect, we “create “space through enclosing, dividing and shaping the it. The space only becomes “remaindered space” when we make it. moreover, I think that the remainder space is very subjective related to personal experience and needs.

    If there is no remainder, the architects will be perfect. It seems to me that every human created thing (opposite to natural things) is impossible to be perfect. someone may argue that nature has errors in the evolution, just as the unexpected genetic mutation. but the nature could do much more complicated creation which is far beyond human’s ability, such as life.

    though I never think that human being could create something perfect, I always obsessed with the feeling that the geometrical shapes are perfect, etc dot, line, triangle. Now I think, It is maybe that these shapes are abstract and they never really exist in the reality. we cannot make comparison to our imagination, because they are part of our imagination. there we have no reference from the reality. does it mean that geometry is hyper-relaity?

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