Sunday, April 22, 2012

Architecture and Happiness

I frequently meet people who tell me that they hate modern architecture.  Typically they start to rant about the "modern" office building where they work, one of those soulless buildings that suck all the joy out of life.  I try to point out to them that this may be "modern" architecture, but it's not good modern architecture.  I am always struck by how strong the negative reaction is.  Unfortunately, I recently had cause to visit one of these lifeless buildings.

It was time for my yearly physical at my doctor's new office, a 1960's building probably built by a developer.  I think this qualifies as the ugliest building I have ever been in.  Not only were the ceilings low (I'd be surprised if they were much over 7') but there was very little natural light and the few fluorescent fixtures did nothing to brighten up the space.  Everything was painted beige and the ceiling looked like it was spray-on fireproofing, also painted beige.  I made some deprecatory comment about the space to the receptionist and suddenly all three receptionists started complaining to me about how much they hated the space.  One told me that she had to regularly go to a perimeter office to see the sky and another said, "At least you get to leave after half an hour, we're stuck here all day!"  From my doctor and her assistant I heard similar complaints.  Everyone was miserable in this building.  When I was done I tried to leave but instead got lost in the warren of hallways (good thing there was no quake at that very moment).

Charming Doctor's Office (I'm kidding)

Who designs these horrific buildings?  Did the architect take pride in creating spaces that made so many people unhappy?  There is clearly no doubt that architecture has an effect on our quality of life (psychologists have done studies that bear this out, though they test quantifiable things such as amount of natural light or color, not necessarily the entire gestalt of a building).  I can't help thinking that the old buildings that people prefer are more palatable because architects had no choice but to provide tall ceilings for large windows since there was no electricity to generate light.  The general public doesn't seem to notice when spaces are good, they just accept it and go about their business.  But when a space is bad, they notice and we modern architects get blamed.  Is it any wonder that the masses think that a good space has to be neo-colonial or neo-Victorian when the "modern" buildings they spend their work days in make them so unhappy?

Our built environment is with us all day, every day, subconsciously  effecting us.  Our built environment  can give us pleasure.  I will always remember with great fondness the Art Center hillside campus building, where I spent three years.  It is a Miesian box designed by  Craig Ellwood in 1974.  The building is a long and low black steel building, spanning a ravine. The tectonics of the building have been exposed to reveal the precisely crafted steel beams and columns.  My favorite space was the cafeteria.  It is a jewel-like space encased in glass walls on two sides with dappled light filtering in through the trees outside.  I spent a great part of my day in this building and it taught us budding designers a lot about what good design means. The building was an inspiration to us, it spoke of craftsmanship, quality and joy.  Is it any wonder that Art Center graduates are known for designing products or graphics with similar qualities?

Locally, one of my favorite buildings is Herzog and de Meuron's de Young Museum.  As is all too familiar to those of us who practice in San Francisco, there was the usual outcry against the "modern" building when it was first proposed.  The tower in particular, which projects out of the trees in Golden Gate park, was pronounced an extra special abomination by the public.   However, now that it is built, it has become a city icon.  While I don't think all the spaces in the building are great, there are enough wonderful spaces that demonstrate to the public how exciting modern architecture can be.  The hated tower is now  a required stop on any visitor's tour of the city.  At the top, the walls are all glass presenting a vertiginous drop to the beautifully detailed roof below.  I particularly like the wedge shaped courtyard that compresses the visitor as you descend to the lower galleries.  And while vertigo and compression may not exactly be positive adjectives, this building challenges us to design architecture that isn't simply banal or worse yet, depressing.  It inspires us to create truly exceptional and emotive spaces.