Recently I picked up a book at the Harvard Book Store, The Language of Houses by Cornell professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Alison Lurie. It's a light breezy read, in the same vein of Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness, and it delves into the non-formal qualities of building design that most architects don't think about. It got me thinking about the meaning of building forms, which is a topic I have been pondering for a long time but couldn't quite articulate. Lurie expertly breaks down different building typologies - churches, schools, houses, and offices - and how they impact us psychologically. I think that, beyond aesthetic appeal and building science, Lurie's understanding of architecture as an "artifact of culture" presents a refreshing way to critique buildings honestly and without pretension. Here are some of my thoughts on the same subject: What do buildings really say?
Architecture is an expression of our values. It tells us about who we are, what we believe in, and what we find important.
Just for a minute, don’t think about the fact that over half the planet now lives in urban areas. Don’t think about how the average american
spends 87% of their time indoors (according to the EPA). Don’t think about how buildings contribute to over two thirds of all greenhouse gases emissions in the world.
Think back to your first house, or the one you first remember. It could have been a small detached home, or a vast country estate, or a tiny apartment in the city. Do you remember how the air feels like? What was the view out the window? Was it looking out onto a calm green lawn, or up in the air, clustered among other tall high rises? Was it very open to the outdoors, and there were balconies or verandahs, where you can rest peacefully and watch the sun set?
Do you think about how the place influenced you as a person?
We own our objects, but in many ways our objects rule us. Our home, and our belongings, are an extension of our inner self, a way to make sense of who we are, to remind us of where we come from, and the things that give us meaning. A picture frame, a pillow, a bookshelf - these things mark our personal territory and give us a sense of peace and safety. They tell us to be calmer, to be smarter, and to be more generous.
Buildings are no different. Like our objects, buildings have character, and over time they give us meaning through our memories. Buildings say things about the people who built them - about their values and hopes - and also the people who use them everyday. Their character almost tells us how to behave: a solemn church tells us to be quiet and introspective; a peaceful bedroom tells us to sleep and relax; a market hall tells us to be boisterous, loud, and curious; a clean, orderly office tells us to be efficient and organized. Buildings, and the spaces we create, shape our behavior, just as we personalize and shape them, day after day.
Instead of thinking about how the building looks like, why not think about how the building should influence the behavior of its users?
Cities, like buildings, shape our collective behavior, because they are created by and for all of us. Cities are the most visible and visceral expression of our values, and what communities believe are important. There is an inherent DNA in cities, created and collaged together by people, history, nature and culture. An old European town with many church spires tell us the importance of organized religion in that community in a certain era, just as an American downtown, with its multitude of banks and corporate office buildings, express the importance of business and capital.
What is tallest building in your city? Is it an office building, a church, a hotel or a luxury apartment? The type of building it is can tell you a lot of what that city, or country, finds meaningful. It is no accident that New York’s most recent boom in high-rise condos coincides with an era of sky high inequality, and the great consolidation of private wealth, in America; or that the Burj Khalifa of Dubai, owned by the royal family, express in equal height the great depth of the country’s oil reserves; or that, in historic Rome the tallest building is still St. Peter’s Basilica, the epitome of papal power and the Catholic Church.
It is this belief that, cities are expressions of common values, that allows us all to be hypercritical of how our new cities and new districts are built, planned, and designed. As much as contemporary buildings are funded by private owners, and that they have evolved to become immensely complex financial and scientific machines, urban buildings are inherently public projections. And as such, they deserve our attention and our critique because they become part of our everyday world. They affect all of us, far beyond blocking the view out our window, when they create microclimates, when they impact climate change, when they raise rents, or when they alter traffic. How do these objects represent the owner, or the people who live in them? What is their attitude towards us, the public? What does it say, about our shared values or history or technological prowess, that a select group of people, namely developers and architects, have decided to build buildings that looks and feels a particular way, in the public realm, for all to see? What is our responsibility as architects and design professionals to be good stewards of our everyday environment?
Architecture is invisible until it affects you, personally.