Spaces that Make Us
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
After a long day of interviewing countless new architecture-school graduates, my dad, who is principal of a medium-sized, but award-winning firm in South Texas, told me a story about one of the candidates. “I love the new student center,” he recalled a bright-eyed architecture student raving. “When I’m in it, I feel happy – and I look around at all the other kids hanging around, and they’re happy too.” And then the clincher: “That’s why I’m an architect. Because I want to design buildings that make people happy.”
All of the candidates my dad interviewed were competing for just a few open positions, knowing that even if they landed one they were signing up for a tough slog with little financial reward. Maybe this particular kid was just better than others at weaving a good narrative that could get him a coveted job at a good firm. Or maybe the fact that I grew up playing hide-and-seek under drafting tables, sharpening Prismacolors and prancing around wobbly two-by-fours at half-built project sites inclines my appreciation of places and spaces toward the dramatic. Either way,and even so, his words strike a chord with me.
I remember the first time my dad told me why his firm designs buildings the way they do. “There is natural order in the universe, and you can tell when a building is in line with that order,” he said. “It makes sense. It feels a part of the landscape. It makes the place better.” He and his four partners, who have been in business together since they were 28, believe at their core that, yes, buildings can make you happy, but that even more than that, buildings can help make you more whole.
It’s strange to think that an external space could have this type of impact on the deepest places of our souls, and yet it makes perfect sense. The Hebrew tradition states that at the dawn of time, in the midst of creative passion, God built a space that was different, set apart — an ordered collection of the wildness He had already made – as a home for the first man and the first woman. He planted a garden filled with “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” It was more than a utilitarian space. It was created to be aesthetic. It follows that the world’s first humans were made with eyes that could be pleased; the desire to live and work and worship and eat in beautiful spaces is in our human DNA.
Following this line of thinking, it doesn’t feel so crazy that I sometimes erupt with silent hallelujahs when I enter a space with lines and planes that feel just right. It doesn’t feel so crazy either, that I sometimes shudder with anxiety in rooms or buildings whose materials and walls seem to be in outright defiance of the land they occupy. Good, beautiful spaces become again what I believe they have always been: another language through which the soul of the universe is expressed.
What this all really leads to is the belief that, at the end of the day, things matter. Places matter. Design counts. All is not random. If we listen to our souls, we know when the order of the universe is at peace – or at least in process of being set right – or at war.
Of course the tension exists – we won’t always be able to live and work and eat and worship in cathedrals and gardens and well-worn studies and light-filled patios. Like my dad, I believe good spaces can make us better. The medium becomes part of the message. We know it is possible to fight human trafficking in a white-walled space with metal desks in a plot of land filled with other high-rises full of white-walled rooms and metal desks. Certainly it’s possible. But is it harder than doing the same work in a place that’s been restored, or built in accordance with the land where it sits, using interesting materials and filled with hints of the far-off lands where the ‘real work’ is being done? Yes, it’s harder. Because we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can live in vacuums. We’re lying to ourselves if we pretend the places we occupy don’t affect the things we produce and the well-being of our souls.
Still, as we tweak and create the little pieces of space that we have, we, in small ways, bring heaven to earth. We need spaces pleasing to the eye. When we build them and invite others in, we invite them to experience a piece of the way things are meant to be.
Hanna SchmidtPhoto credit: The University of Texas at Austin Student Activity Center, photo via Overland Partners