I’ve been jaded with the architecture industry. Finding myself immersed in an insular community with deep competition between ego-driven personalities, I went through the training and licensing process vigorously to only emerge with the question, “Is this really what it’s all about?”
The humanitarian design community was a welcome relief. Tackling wicked issues drew people from all walks of life who wanted to share, collaborate, and grow together. I’ve slowly immersed myself over the years in this community of do-good designers and distanced myself from traditional practice.
At times I miss the strong sense of community backed by centuries of experience and traditions–the sweet comfort of a well-oiled professional machine.
The Royal Arts of Academy’s exhibition “Sensing Spaces” reawakened the potential of architecture within me and bridged the gap between traditional practice and humanitarian values. Experiencing experimental and sensual spaces made me remember why I was drawn to the profession in the first place–to create joyful, inspiring, and enlightening spaces for everyone.
As I wandered through a dark space with a looming mass above me, I saw people craning their necks to stare in awe at the massive structure designed by Grafton Architects dangling 8 feet above the floor.
The spindly pyramid structure lit from below by Kengo Kuma made each person catch their breath and slowly take in the outlines transpiring in the dark room. I moved around the object to find new forms. Small plastic sleeves captured the ends of 18 inch bamboo rods, allowing the form to rise with flexibility and nimbleness. Openings emerged to create vantage points to other faces examining the structure.
In a bright space, colorful rods poked out of a white honeycomb structure that slithered through the opening of two rooms. People lounged on chairs within this colorful porcupine structure designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré staring up at the flexible straws dangling from above. Kids found open spaces 2 feet above the floor while adults were braiding the straws together into mini-wreaths, flinging them up to the top of the structure.
The last space was a mesmerizing labyrinth of dark wood branches and bright light designed by Li Xiaodong. Walls stacked with wood planks and infilled with perfectly cut branches rose up, breaking the swaths of a white-lit floor. As I moved along the illuminated surface, I discovered gnome-sized hideouts were nestled between the spaces. Nearing the exit, I heard the sound of crunching and rubbing–a pool of smooth rocks with people treading through. Couples sat in the corner, quietly whispering to one another. A group of teenagers sat in a circle laughing. A toddler was picking up the stones, one by one, and dropping it back onto the sea of rocks.
This is the essence of architecture: people enjoying, thinking, moving, experiencing, interacting, and contemplating space. Money, politics, and laws are important to create spaces, but we shouldn’t let this drowned out the true purpose of the profession. Whether it be a new hospital, a penthouse refurbishment, or a bus stop shelter, at the core of our work is to improve other people’s experience with space. May we never forget this.
Image source: Katie Crepeau, author