Emptiness and Surface

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

Recent theoretical engagements with ruins in anthropology have examined questions of whether an abandoned or empty structure is a ruin to be venerated as the physical remains of order (often of a bygone age) or rubble, which is often categorized as waste or something unworthy of salvage (Stoler 2013; Gordillo 2014). Here I contribute to these discussions by focusing on the materiality of exteriors and—to borrow a word from physics—the surface tensions that may constitute an empty house and create conditions of suspension that partake in defining how emptiness is perceived. More specifically, I focus on how minor changes in the facade (or outer surface) of an empty building partakes in defining whether it is seen as temporarily or permanently empty.

Consider the following empty house, located on the Croatian coast. It is a traditional Dalmatian stone house from the fifteenth century, one among many in the Bay of Kaštela. Its outer facade is heritage protected, which means that it cannot simply be demolished or renovated in any manner chosen. Although possibilities for destruction and renovation are inherent in the structure, neither can readily be activated because of the protected surface, that is, the materiality of its facade. I have followed the attempted renovations of such houses since 2016. Through this I came to know Tina, a local woman who has been renovating homes since she began renting part of her own family residence to tourists in 2014. This experience led Tina to buy an empty house to renovate and rent as a holiday let. She subsequently sold the house to a foreigner and bought another to renovate, at the same time assisting foreigners in renovating ruined properties. This entailed gathering a group of workers, assisting in legal matters concerning potential ownership issues and, most importantly, navigating the renovation through the complex heritage regulations regarding the surface and through this facilitate moving the house out of its current state of emptiness.

One afternoon, as I dropped by Tina’s house, I found her pouring over a stack of interior designs beside a woman from the United Kingdom. The woman, Andrea, bought a house in the village over a year ago but had gotten stuck with the renovations. She had originally received a good offer from a group of local builders and craftsmen, but they returned to her later saying that the weather had further damaged the house to an extent that much more than expected needed to be done. She had come to Tina for help. Aside from the increased price, one of her obstacles was that she wanted to save as much of the interior of the building as possible and to reuse much of the existing material, but the workers just wanted to build everything from scratch. Their main concern, it appeared, was the exterior surface of the building, not the interior.

What struck Andrea the first time she entered the house was that it appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry. Although people in the village do not look favorably on living next to an empty house, they still look after it. But it was most likely the heavy lock on the front door that had kept it from being looted. Framed photos still hung on a wall on the second floor, black and white images from a wedding. Andrea noted how, when she first came, the table in the kitchen was set and there was a suitcase full of personal items that had been left behind in the living room. After buying the property she had collected many of these items, along with tins and utensils, and put them all in the small garden shed to keep them and return them to the house once it had been renovated. But one day, the workers cleared out both the shed and the main house and threw everything away believing it to be trash, restoring what they saw as order to the derelict building (Dzenovska, this series).

Although it may be seen as insensitive or clumsy for the workers to dispose of all the interior items, this is part of the principle of gutting, which is usually the first step of renovation. Owing to heritage protection, the exteriors of stone houses cannot be changed. The stones themselves can be cleaned and new wooden windows can be installed if they look similar to the originals, but the “shell” of the house has to look the same. This is not the case for the interior where the house is emptied so that it can be filled again. Andrea never saw her house as completely empty, for her it had merely been vacant (Gille, this series). But her workers had seen the house in a different way. They read the outside as ruin with preservation value and the inside as rubble or trash (Gordillo 2014).

Ironically, renovation of stone houses does not always mean that someone will permanently live there. Since many newly renovated houses, such as Andrea’s, are bought as vacation homes they do in fact remain vacant for most of the year, certainly during winter but also during summers such as 2020 where international travel restrictions have caused a steep drop in the number of tourists. And many of the houses continue to look very similar to when they were permanently empty. That is, the difference in appearance between a house that is vacant (temporarily empty, but inhabitable) and one that is a ruin (permanently empty and uninhabitable) is slight. But through minor renovations of the surface, Tina’s workers change the materiality of the exterior sufficiently enough to no longer imply that a given house is abandoned. Or said differently, the surface tension has been broken just enough to lift the house out of its suspension.

Works within the field of contemporary archaeology have shown the significance of focusing on the uppermost or outermost layers of material structures (e.g., Byrne 2007; Dawdy 2016; Frederiksen 2016). In the case presented here, it is exactly that which takes place on (or in relation to) the surface—the minor changes of a facade, and the major discussions about it—that partake in defining the kind of emptiness a house signifies. As noted by Dzenovska and Knight (this series), an empty house is rarely completely empty—there is usually still something inside. Yet during reconstructions of empty houses in the Bay of Kaštela such interiors matter little as it is the exterior surface of a house that defines whether or not it is considered permanently empty, or simply vacant.


Byrne, Denis. 2007. Surface Collection: Archaeological Travels in Southeast Asia. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press.

Dawdy, Shannon Lee. 2016. Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frederiksen, Martin Demant. 2016. “Material Dys-Appearance: Decaying Futures and Contested Temporal Passage”. In Materialities of Passing, edited by Peter Bjerregaard, Anders Emil Rasmussen, and Tim Flohr Sørensen, 49–65. New York: Routledge.

Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.