Archipelagos of Detritus: The Need for a Theory on Spatial Waste

December 7, 2015

Essay by Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.


We are already familiar with the waste that urbanization brings along and leaves behind: closed mines and dried lakes, unfinished urban developments and urban voids, polluted land and landfills. All these spaces constitute residues of several different processes of urbanization. Although still requiring more, most of these spaces have received some attention from architects, engineers, landscape architects, and urbanists via theoretical and practical frameworks for rethinking, reusing, and reimagining them.1, 2

In this text I focus on another type of waste, a spatial typology that as a whole has not received as much attention: spatial waste, literally, or what I call archipelagos of detritus. With this term I refer to the scraps of space that emerge in our space-hungry civilization every time we create, colonize, or inhabit space—of any type and in any medium.3 These mostly uninhabited spaces are holes within the continuously patterned environment and they tend to emerge in one of the following four ways:

1. As imprecisions. Some scraps of space emerge as a consequence of the imprecise, inefficient, and anomalous implementation of urbanization. For example, gaps (mostly uninhabitable small and thin slivers of land) appear due to a surveyor’s error or a mistake in a deed description.

2. As obsoletes. These residues can also appear via the spatial obsolescence that results from functional changes. For example, white space (unused frequencies of the radio spectrum) appears due to technological shifts in broadcasting technologies.

3. As separators. We inhabit by spacing and separating: our social spaces require gaps between things. For example, setbacks inbetween buildings, planters separating cars from pedestrians, crawl spaces under houses, even the space under our beds. As by-products of territorial proxemics, these interstices become waste mostly due to their small impractical sizes.

4. As excretes. In the process of opening up space, our construction techniques require transferring material, in many cases literally spouting it as waste through different types of machinery. Spoil islands or snow mounds are two examples of by-products that emerge as a consequence of the creation of spaces needed for the built environment (canals, parking lots).

These residual spaces must always be referred to in plural, as they are neither singular nor unique instances within the capitalist environment. Rather, they systematically emerge as sets of multiples, defining archipelagos of disconnected, leftover patches of space. They happen by accident and on purpose: they are both flotsam and jetsam.4 Archipelagos of detritus are a permanent fixture of our territorial development: they have a pervasive and by now almost natural and irremediable presence. Despite their existence, they tend to remain hidden as residues of the productive tissue we call urbanized landscapes. Only in certain moments do they gain visibility and are rediscovered, giving insight into our modes of inhabitation, leading to new spatial appropriations or becoming sources of the desired (i.e.: ecology, beauty, public space) and refuges of the unwanted (i.e.: weeds, vagrants, ugliness).

Biology has long understood that humans produce waste through excretion due to our biological functions and as the means for promoting homeostasis and achieving successful internal stability.5 However, we are still in need of a theory that explains how humans produce spatial waste due to our functions of inhabitation and as the means for achieving successful spatial stability. Through ethnographic and spatial analysis, this theory would explain why we do not seem to be able to inhabit without producing scraps and residues of space: archipelagos of detritus happen, initially originating from the development of our methods for inhabiting the world but now perpetually fueled by industrialization and modernization.

There are not many precedents for a theory of this kind. Lars Lerup’s text “Stim & Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis” could be a useful—and maybe the only—precedent for such theory. He uses the terms stim and dross to respectively refer to “points of stimulation” (i.e.: inhabitable space) and to “the ignored, undervalued, unfortunate economic residues of the metropolitan machine.”6 Together, these two substances constitute what he calls the “holey plane,” the surface of the urbanized landscape that is filled with holes as “fissures, vacated spaces, and bits of untouched prairie”:

Patently unloved yet naturalistic, this holey plane seems more a wilderness than the datum of a manmade city. Dotted by trees and criss-crossed by wo-men/vehicles/roads, it is a surface dominated by a peculiar sense of on-going struggle: the struggle of economics against nature. Both the trees and machines of this plane emerge as the (trail or) dross of that struggle.7

Alan Berger’s understanding of the holey plane is a precise portrayal of the power, uniqueness, and unprecedented aspect of Lerup’s work: “It reconceptualizes the city as a living, massive, dynamic system, or a huge ecological envelope of systematically productive and wasteful landscapes.”8 In this seminal text, Lerup richly describes the existing tension between these two substances and ends the article with the following statement:

The inadequacy of the binary opposition of Stim & Dross is becoming evident (the legacy of our stale language and its profound grammatical limitations). Only in the hybrid field of stimdross may we begin to rethink and then to recover from this holey plane some of the many potential futures.9

At the urban scale, then, stimdross could be considered a useful precedent for a theory that would explain why we are unable of inhabiting without producing spatial residues.

In this text I have collected some of the scraps of space that systematically and inevitably surface as by-products from our daily construction and occupation of space. The following archipelagos have been included in this inventory: highway interchanges, spoil islands, micro plots, snow mounds, white spaces, crawl spaces, and disk fragments. They have been listed in order of size, from large to small, with typical sizes ranging from 100 acres (typical footprint of a standard four-leg all-directional highway interchange) to 0.00006 sq. millimeters (the physical space typically occupied by 4 KB, the smallest size of a data fragment in Windows 7). Due to the different methods of documentation that are required by each of these sets of spaces, each of these archipelagos is catalogued through a specific atlas and examples of these have been referenced in the text. The purpose of this text is not to criticize these remains. In many ways they cannot be criticized, similarly to how we cannot criticize skin flakes, crumbs, or fallen leaves. As it happens with these residues, we can only observe these detritus and categorize them as symptoms of some underlying condition.

Due to the prevalence of these remnants, this inventory could be as long as a list of our everyday spaces. For this reason, this collection is obviously incomplete and could be continued. The scraps I have selected show, however, a breadth of sizes and contexts, evidencing that this waste production is an inherent quality of our skills—or lack thereof—for colonizing space: regardless of the space we are designing or occupying, we will produce some type of spatial residue. Despite its incompleteness, this collection is an ethnographic cross-section of our industrialized means of spatial inhabitation.

Highway Interchanges

The land enclosed and locked in by highway interchanges generally becomes a dead zone disconnected from its surroundings. Despite the fact that the overall square footage of these dead zones can be very large, these patches of land do not even appear to have a proper name—probably due to their perception as scraps. These inaccessible patches of land include a variety of spaces and objects required by transportation safety protocols such as, for example, gores (area between the highway and an entrance or exit ramp generally defined by two wide solid white lines guiding traffic entering or exiting the highway), gore noses (tip of the gore usually incorporates retroreflective flexible signaling posts and impact attenuators), safety zones, or vehicle recovery areas. But, they also include large extensions of terrain cut off from the surroundings by the highways’ sinuous layouts. Safety sight lines and setbacks as well as demands for maintenance-free grounds generally prevent much from happening in these spaces—including, in most cases, vegetation taller than two feet.

Built during the 1930s as part of the Public Works Administration and opened on October 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first long-distance limited-access highway in the United States, “an unbroken ribbon of concrete cutting through mountains and across valleys, bypassing towns. No stop signs, no intersections, no speed limits.”10 Despite it being the first highway of its kind, its designers seem to have been already aware of the unavoidable detritus this transportation network was about to produce as it can be concluded by the pochéd drawings of the turnpike interchanges that illustrated one of the first publications distributed to the public.

These spaces, which are seen daily by millions of people throughout the world, appear for the most part to be hidden from our visual field. Only in some rare cases do these dead zones gain visibility as when they are landscaped in particular ways or when they include a sculpture or another form of art installation. In some exceptional situations, when it has been possible to reconnect these patches of land to their surroundings, these dead zones have been reclaimed as urban parks, such as Barcelona’s Nus de la Trinitat designed by Batlle i Roig.

Atlas: Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, The Pennsylvania Turnpike11
Typical sizes: 1–100 acres12
Spatial type: Separators

Spoil Islands

Spoil islands are artificial islands that appear in waterways as by-products of the material accumulation resulting from channel construction and dredging. For example, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Florida was created in the late 1950s. The spoil resulting from dredging was used to create 137 spoil islands spread across four counties (Indian River, Brevard, St. Lucie, and Martin). Depending on the accessibility, ecological value, and historical human use, the islands are designated in three main categories that dictate their accessibility and use: conservation, education, and recreation.13

In Spoil Island: Reading the Makeshift Archipelago, Charlie Hailey has precisely described the duplicitous nature of spoil islands as a spatial remnant full of potential to be rediscovered: “Spoil islands are overlooked places that combine dirt with paradise, waste-land with “brave new world,” and wildness with human intervention. Seemingly mundane by-products of dredging, these islands are the unavoidable residue of technological process. At the same time, they are readily adapted for other, often unintended, functions and demonstrate the potential value and contested revaluation of landscapes of waste.”14 He aptly calls them “topographic blind spots.”

Atlas: Charlie Hailey, Spoil Island
Typical sizes: 10,000–800,000 sq. feet15
Spatial type: Excretes

Snow Mounds

In large parking lots, like those placed next to shopping malls or transportation hubs, accumulated snow is not plowed all the way to the edge. Due to practical concerns resulting from long plowing distances, in these cases snow is plowed into sizeable mounds located in the middle of the parking lot. In their efforts to open up parking space, these everyday maintenance practices—practices with no artistic or design ambitions and only focused on practical concerns—produce peculiar landscapes, clearly visible in the middle of these highly frequented parking lots. Despite the fact that these large mounds of snow are generally seen as leftover space or something unwanted, these snowed-in parking lots can also be seen as beautiful, unintended, accidental landscapes defined by usually overlooked piles of snow.

Atlas: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, “White Space”16
Typical sizes: 10–8,000 sq. feet17
Spatial type: Excretes

Crawl Spaces

There are three kinds of building foundations for single-family homes: a slab on grade (shallow foundation), a basement, and a crawl space. Shallow foundations use the ground as formwork for the foundation slab. In these cases, no spacing exists between the ground and the inhabitable space as concrete is poured directly onto the ground—slab on grade. Basements are inhabitable spaces located below grade. Generally, their flooring is also built in direct contact with the ground—no spacing exists between the basement’s floor and the ground. Crawl spaces, however, are a different type of foundation: in this case, the first level of the home is separated from the ground, leaving an uninhabitable space (crawl space) in-between the ground and the floor. These spaces are generally no taller than 18 inches and, while relatively common, they do not have a good reputation: “Many building experts recommend against crawl spaces because they have the water problems of a basement with almost none of the storage space, at much higher cost than a slab.”18

In some cases, however, the introduction of this interstice can be necessary and beneficial, as in sites located in Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) as categorized by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). In these cases, the crawl space can protect the inhabitable space and, consequently, it is the elevation of the crawl space in relation to the exterior grade that determines the insurance premiums to be paid by home owners: “Crawlspaces should be constructed so that the floor of the crawlspace is at or above the lowest grade adjacent to the building. Buildings that have below-grade crawlspaces will have higher flood insurance premiums than buildings that have the interior elevation of the crawlspace at or above the lowest adjacent exterior grade.”19

Atlas: Morton Newman, Standard Handbook of Structural Details for Building Construction20
Typical sizes: 830–1,328 sq. feet21
Spatial type: Separators

Micro Plots

Surveying errors or mistakes in deed descriptions can produce gaps and overlaps between tracts of land. “Overlaps and gaps may be found when surveying or locating defects found in titles. The term hiatus, compound hiatus, confusion, point of confusion, area of confusion, and gore are used to express overlaps, gaps, and indefinite ownership areas between adjoiners.”22 A hiatus is a gap or unaccounted area, “usually a strip of land between two tracts where the two tracts do not adjoin because of faulty descriptions.”23 Similar to a hiatus, a gore is “a sliver of land usually of triangular shape between two tracts, resulting from failure of land descriptions to adjoin.”24 Opposite to a gap, “an overlap is an extension of a written title over and beyond another written title.”25 Overlaps and gaps (gores and hiatus) usually remain hidden, undiscovered by the inhabitants of the surrounding lots. Only when new survey maps are drawn do these spaces arise.

In 1973, the architect-trained artist Gordon Matta-Clark purchased fifteen lots in New York City. These lots, probably gaps he called microparcels due to their extremely small size, constituted his art piece “Fake Estates,” a commentary on land ownership: “What I basically wanted to do was designate spaces that wouldn’t be seen and certainly not occupied.” He was interested in “something that can be owned but never experienced.”26

Some gores, however, can be very large and even be populated by a handful of residents as attested by the few that can be found in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Moxie Gore in Somerset County, for example, is almost 12,000 acres and has seven registered residents.27

Atlas: Gordon Matta-Clark, “Fake Estates”28
Typical sizes: 2–827 sq. feet29
Spatial type: Imprecisions

White Spaces

White space refers to the frequencies of the radio spectrum that have been dedicated to broadcasting services but remain locally unused. White space is necessary for technical reasons—as a safety zone to avoid interferences between different broadcasts—but they also appear due to technical obsolescence—a switch from one broadcasting technology to another one that uses less spectrum causes the emergence of white space. As scrap of radio spectrum, the nature of this newly emerged space is always uncertain and in question: does it need to be recommercialized via auctions or can it become publicly accessible and free to use?

For example, the switch from analog to digital television has enabled the emergence of white space. In the US, in particular, most of the white space emerging from this switchover was located in the 700 MHz range. Following a series of public discussions, political lobbies, and lawsuits regarding the need for public open access to the newly freed airwave space, the 700 MHz band was finally auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the Auction 73 that took place in 2008 and collected a little over $19 billion.30 Google, who was one of the main advocates arguing for the newly freed airways to gain open access to the public, has continued its efforts to open up other bands and they have recently reported interest in the white space located in the 3.5 GHz range.31

Atlas: Google, “Spectrum Database”32
Typical sizes: 700–50 MHz (42.9–600 cm wavelength)33
Spatial type: Separators, Obsoletes

Disk Fragments

In computer hard drives, disk fragmentation happens over time as files are modified and deleted. The changes made to a file are often stored in a disk location different than the original file. Due to continuous use, data fragments end up in positions that are not immediately adjacent to one another, leaving small slots of unused storage space in-between them. From a practical point of view, these slots of storage space are in many cases also unusable due to their small size. These disk fragments can only be retrieved by defragmenting the drive with disk defragmenter software and consolidating all empty fragments into a sizable and usable slot of storage space.

Atlas: Any disk defragmenter software such as, for example, Microsoft Windows Disk Defragmenter, Diskeeper, AVG Disk Defrag, or UltimateDefrag.
Typical sizes: 4 KB–64 MB (0.00006–1.075 sq. millimeters)34
Spatial type: Imprecisions, Obsoletes


The initial impetus behind this article was triggered by a lecture on spoil islands delivered by Charlie Hailey, a guest speaker for the course “Theories of Urbanism, Landscape, Ecology” taught by Pierre Bélanger at the Harvard Graduate School of Design during the fall of 2014. During the Q&A period at the end of the lecture, I pointed out that Charlie’s research on spoil islands resonated with other similar catalogues, such as Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake States,” and I asked him if he had explored this connection. He responded that he liked the connection between both collections but that he had not explored it. I want to thank Charlie and Pierre for that inspiring event that has ultimately led to this inventory.

1 Several authors have dedicated multiple efforts to this venture. For example, see: Alan Berger, Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).
3 There are multiple similarities between these spaces and the ones that Lars Lerup calls dross. However, there are also several differences between these two terms (dross and archipelagos of detritus). It would require a lengthier text to properly address them but, in summary, dross seems to exist only at the urban scale and it is a continuous and exclusively physical substance while archipelagos of detritus are disconnected patches of space that exist in any medium and at any scale. See: Lars Lerup, “Stim & Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis,” Assemblage 25 (1994): 82-101.
4 “Flotsam and jetsam are terms that describe two types of marine debris associated with vessels. Flotsam is defined as debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck or accident. Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress, most often to lighten the ship’s load.” See: “What are flotsam and jetsam?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed January 12, 2016,
5 Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Excretion,” accessed January 10, 2016,
6 Lerup, “Stim & Dross,” 93.
7 Ibid., 88.
8 Berger, Drosscape, 37.
9 Lerup, “Stim & Dross,” 99.
10 “America’s First Superhighway,” PA Turnpike, accessed January 5, 2016,
11 Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, The Pennsylvania Turnpike (December 1940). 16-page booklet printed by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission presumably for public information.
12 Typical sizes for these patches of land vary wildly depending on the type of highway interchange being considered. According to the number of roads connected as well as the layouts used, the Federal Highway Administration classifies interchanges as following: diamond, full cloverleaf, partial cloverleaf, trumpet, three-leg directional, fourleg all-directional, semi-directional, single entrances and/or exits (partial interchange), single point interchange (SPI), and other (i.e.: double crossover diamond, displaced left turn, diverging diamond). See: “Interchange Type,” US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, accessed January 6, 2016,
13 “History,” Spoil Island Project, accessed January 9, 2016,
14 Charlie Hailey, Spoil Island: Reading the Makeshift Archipelago (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 1.
15 Typical sizes have been estimated from the map “Indian River Lagoon Aquatic Preserves Spoil Island Project,” Spoil Island Project, accessed January 8, 2016,
16 Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, “White Space,” Places Journal (November 2009), accessed January 6, 2016,
17 Snow mounds’ footprints were estimated by the author when shooting “White Space.”
18 “Crawl Spaces,” Green Building Advisor, accessed January 13, 2016,
19 “Crawlspace,” FEMA, accessed January 13, 2016,
20 Morton Newman, Standard Handbook of Structural Details for Building Construction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993).
21 These figures represent the average footprint of all new single-family homes built in the United States during the period 1973–2014. These sizes have been estimated based on the data available from the Census Bureau. “Characteristics of New Single-Family Houses Completed: Square Feet,” United States Census Bureau, accessed January 13, 2016,
22 Walter G. Robillard, Donald A. Wilson, and Curtis M. Brown, Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 336.
23 American Land Title Association, “Glossary,” accessed January 8, 2016,
24 Ibid.
25 Robillard, Wilson, and Brown, Evidence and Procedures, 337.
26 Pamela M. Lee and Gordon Matta-Clark, Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 103.
27 Emily A. Schroeder, “Who lives in Misery Gore,” Bangor Daily News, August 23, 2015, accessed January 9, 2016,
28 Gordon Matta-Clark passed away before he could complete his work on “Fake Estates.” To date, the most complete account of this incomplete art piece can be found in Jeffrey Kastner, Sina Najafi, and Frances Richard, eds., Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (New York: Cabinet Books, in conjunction with the Queens Museum of Art and White Columns, 2005).
29 Based on the information collected in Kastner, Najafi, and Richard, Odd Lots, 2.
30 “Auction 73: 700 MHz Band,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC), accessed January 6, 2016,
31 Drew Fitzgerald, “Google Wants to Make Wireless Airwaves Less Exclusive, Cheaper,” The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2015, accessed January 6, 2016,
32 “Spectrum Database,” Google, accessed January 6, 2016,
33 These wavelengths are typical unused television frequencies that emerge due to the implementation of new digital television broadcasting technologies. As mentioned, in the US most of the white space emerging from this switchover was located in the 700 MHz range.
34 These sizes have been calculated assuming a typical storage density of 300 Gb/sq. inch for a hard drive run by Microsoft Windows 7 set up with default defragmenting settings.