What does the physical world around us do to our conversational lives? How do the spaces around us affect our inquisitiveness? Is our creativity hampered or helped by the three dimensional environment? These questions have been popping up regularly for me over the last couple of years. While I do not have a specific answer, let alone the answer, my last post looked at one perspective, and this second post takes a different viewpoint…
Part Two: We make of the world what we will…
Can space be more or less conducive to the content or style of our conversations? In experimenting with the effect of space on conversation, using Joslyn Art Museum as the laboratory, I found that whether seating conversational partners beneath Titian’s Giorgio Cornaro with a Falcon,placing them in a sterile corridor, or situating them outside the Museum’s restrooms had little discernible difference on the depth or vigor of their conversations.
Perhaps the mindful design or other engineered suitability of the space is irrelevant. Instead, could it be our attitude to the space that needs to adapt, not the other way around? In her book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz embarks on repeated excursions of her New York City block, to discover with the aid of others how mutable our perceptions can be, and how kaleidoscopic are our surroundings, if only we attune ourselves to what is already there for us to be engaged by.
Maybe the environment is always ready for us, but we are ignorant of it. In walking a Denver downtown street with a friend of mine, Stan Bonnes, it took his observant eyes as an outsider artist to spot the false teeth wedged into the city sidewalk. If only those teeth could have talked…
Quoting at length from Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness (p.20):
Architecture may well possess moral messages; it simply has no power to enforce them. It offers suggestions instead of making laws. In invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse….
In its ineffectiveness, architecture shares in the bathos of gardening: an interest in door handles or ceiling mouldings can seem no less worthy of mockery than a concern for the progress of rose or lavender bushes. It is forgivable to conclude that there must be grander causes to which human beings might devote themselves. However, after coming up against some of the sterner setbacks which bedevil emotional and political life, we may well arrive at a more charitable assessment of the significance of beauty – of islands of perfection, in which we can find an echo of an ideal which we once hoped to lay a permanent claim to. Life may have to show itself to us in some of its authentically tragic colours before we can begin to grow properly visually responsive to its subtler offerings, whether in the form of a tapestry or a Corinthian column, a slate tile or a lamp. It tends not to be young couples in love who stop to admire a weathered brick wall or the descent of a banister towards a hallway, a disregard for such circumscribed beauty being a corollary of an optimistic belief in the possibility of attaining a more visceral, definitive variety of happiness.
Glad you are quoting Alain de Botton, Stuart. I like that book. Somewhere in there he says, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” I sat in the Library’s Main Branch downtown yesterday, and someone pointed out the architectural style was “Brutalist.” It seems an odd style for such a forum of discovery, and may not be seen by some as conforming to the task of architecture as put to it by de Botton. In any event, it seems that we cannot leave it all to our built spaces; rather, we need to make an effort as well to take our aspirational selves into our environments.
It is vulgar to reference the Matrix? We too are the physical environment!