Friday, October 10, 2008

The Emotional Cost of Drywall

I was just in a newly finished space a few days ago. A lecture hall designed to seat about 100 or so folks. It was just completed (smelled like paint and carpet glue...), and perfectly clean. I looked around -- fresh, bright, new carpet, 100 new comfortable chairs all around, high-tech presentation gear installed -- and I thought, "This feels like a place to wait for jury duty."

It's hard to make the economic case for good spaces. (After the past couple of weeks, it's hard to make the economic case for much of anything beyond bare survival...) But if we believe that architecture has emotional importance, that we can inspire people to learn and achieve through the richness of the place they inhabit, then we need to study carefully what makes a place emotionally resonant. It has something to do with form, but only just a little, I think. Rather, it has to do with the way in which we can lose ourselves in a place, where we're repeatedly rewarded by interesting details and information-rich materials.

I've made this case before, but I really think that we start architectural education from the wrong end. Do small, simple, real things. Detail a window opening. Work to make the floor material encounter the base of a wall in a deep and compelling way. Eventually, once you're good at that, we'll let you maybe put a room together. After a while of that, we'll let you put a suite of rooms and connecting spaces together. It would be several years before I'd let my students muck around with building massing and form. Because that's not what makes places beloved.


smunger said...

Herb, I have a personal story which I can relate that centers around this sort of idea:

My wife and I rented our first apartment when we got married in the West side of Toledo. It was a 1928 house which was sub-divided horizontally so that the upper floor and the lower floor were separate apartments with stairs leading to a common, but sub-divided basement.

Katey's father came over to visit one day, and although he had never been in the house, he came upstairs, and didn't get two steps inside before he remarked that he recognized the plaster work and that his grandfather had been the one to do the coving and the ceilings.

Independently, Katey's grandmother said that she recognized her dad's "fish scale" on the ceilings during a separate visit.

The point is that there was a living legacy to the building and the architecture because of the craft which went into the building. While we may have some empirical feeling of the superiority of plaster to drywall in conveying space, the reality is that the craft which went into making the space creates an almost tangible sense of space which you just don't get with board, tape and paint.

Architecture is an ephemeral art, and is as much dependent on the ability to convey and reveal multiple artisans working together, as it is about erecting edifices.

Working from small details up to the whole is an interesting method, and may be a way to reveal the subtitles of connecting craft first to space and then to form.

Tom Parks said...

Have you shared this with Heinrich? Just a thought...... It shows that that you're engaged in thinking about design and its meaning at an everyday level. And that you're still out there. Which I'm glad to know.