ON TEACHING THE DESIGN OF SPIRITUALLY/POETICALLY EVOCATIVE ENVIRONMENT
Heinrich Hermann, associate professor of interior architecture at RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design), earned MArch degrees from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and Cornell and a PhD in history and theory of architecture from Harvard. He practiced in Austria, Germany, and the United States before founding Hermann Design Studio in Concord, MA, in 2002. He also taught at Cornell, Virginia Tech, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard, Cranbrook, and Northeastern.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12- Autumn 2009
For many the most rewarding architectural experiences were encounters with exceptional spaces, buildings or environments that deeply moved and inspired them through a palpable sense of the poetic and the spiritual. Regrettably, the day-to-day environments which many of us live and work in are rarely endowed with such properties.
This raises a number of questions. What about these works makes them so inspiring? Why are they so rare? Do works of this kind offer specific benefits for one’s emotional and physical well being? Are such qualities restricted to religious buildings or can they occur in secular environments as well? What would be required for more architects or designers to be able to create works imbued with such qualities? Is it possible to teach awareness of how to design such qualities, and what pedagogical methods might empower a student to create such environments?
Given the deep appreciation felt by so many for the environments referred to above, and their rarity, the need for finding ways to increase their number would seem self-evident. Recent advances in neurobiology, though, seem to suggest that the kinds of qualities conveyed by such environments might actually contribute vitally to our physical and emotional health and well-being. While this can be understood at least by implication at this time, it might become scientifically proven fact in the near future.
I am referring to findings about the complex interrelation between the senses, our emotions, and our immune system, and the close link between the health of the environment we inhabit and our personal health, as recounted in Esther M. Sternberg’s book Healing spaces: the science of place and well-being.1 Among the studies she cites on measurable connections between certain properties of space and our physical and emotional well being is the 1984 landmark study by Dr. Roger Ulrich, who demonstrated that window views in a hospital setting could affect healing. From a pool of patients that had all undergone the same operation, those looking out at a grove of trees healed more quickly and needed less pain medication than others looking at a brick wall2. Findings like these give one pause and add urgency to the need for more poetically/spiritually evocative environments and effective methods for teaching how to design them.
It is encouraging that the rate of progress is increasing and this important concern is recognized by both architects and neuroscientists. This lead to the founding, in 2003, of The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture,3 which seeks to build bridges between architecture and neuroscience and understands itself also as a knowledge bank making advances in neuroscience available to architects.
A theoretical framework to build on
When thinking about teaching the design of spaces and environments that inspire us, it seems indispensible to offer students some foundational knowledge of what is involved in enabling works of architecture to elicit corresponding responses in visitors or users. For that to happen, they need to not fulfill merely our physical needs but to address us on the emotional and spiritual levels too.
The foundational framework I offer my students is informed by my research over many years4 which led me to developed the premise that the spiritual dimensions evoked by a work reside ultimately in the work’s capacity for temporarily freeing the perceiver’s mind during the encounter from the concerns of day-to-day reality, and for refocusing and turning it inward. A contemplative state may result that may, in turn, lead to a sense of partaking in a greater harmony of all being. I propose to students three fundamental ways in which architecture may elicit contemplation-inducing poetic/spiritual responses.
In the first, architecture may facilitate a perceivable link between a human being’s finite existence on earth and the seeming infinity of the cosmos beyond, as illustrated beautifully by Louis I Kahn’s courtyard framing the cosmic panorama in his Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-65).
In the second, architecture may shape strategically inward oriented space that supports the inward-turning of the mind, as can be observed in the church and crypt volume of Le Corbusier’s Monastery-Church of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, near Lyon, France (1953-60).
In the third, architecture may employ archetypal cultural symbols of the collective human past, manifested memorably by Gunnar Asplund & Sigurd Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, Sweden (1915-40).
Rarely do the three modes appear in pure form. Works illustrating one tend to contain aspects of the respective others, as e.g. different parts of the Woodland Cemetery could be used to illustrate the first two modes as well, just as the Salk Institute and La Tourette contain archetypal symbols and the strategic interiorization of La Tourette is integral to certain components of the Salk Instittute.
The contemplative state that may be triggered by a work and the restorative calmness that may result from it depend on one’s degree of receptivity to the spiritual/poetic realms5 and on the depth and duration of one’s experience. It may enable one to transcend, to varying degrees and not necessarily in the sequence listed, one’s customary perception of the finiteness of space of one’s earthly existence, the finite time-frame of one’s life span, and the human tendency to focus on one’s own (smaller) self and may perhaps help in recognizing all of humanity as one’s true, larger self.
As the Salk Institute proves, poetic/spiritual qualities can be fully manifest and felt in secular environments. Moreover, we all know they are not exclusively tied to large spaces or vast scale. Even the flickering of a candle in an intimate corner might transport one into a state of reverie. When approached with a searching mind and a willingness to find and realize opportunities, every building task holds the potential for at least some moments that could be deeply inspiring because universal principles associated with the poetic/spiritual are latently present everywhere.
The wider physical context of our existence (the vast expanses of the universe) surrounds us e.g. not only at the Salk Institute but everywhere. We don’t perceiving it as an inspirational dimension, though, by a numbing
overexposure to sensory stimuli. Stilling our minds enough to be receptive – perhaps through even only capturing the poetry of light slowly bathing a wall – requires skillful design. Other universally present qualities are the memories of fundamental life situations, of one’s individual existence and of the collective human past. We can tap into rich bodies of archetypal forms and symbolic meanings, including the primary life-sustaining symbols of sun and water, and allow them to imbue our designs. Similarly present is the potential poetry of the dialogue between nature and the man-made, which can be captured and made a source of reverie, even in abstracted form, or minimally present in the choreographed interplay of light and shadows.
Many students and architects would likely make sustained efforts at manifesting such dimensions in their designs, provided they had a clearer understanding of how that might be achievable. While it is certainly also required to have the creativity needed for designing spiritually inspiring environments, knowing ways for bringing such qualities into being is equally important.
Years of interacting with students have convinced me that designing poetically/spiritually evocative environments is teachable to at least some extent. Ideally, teachers would be able to pass on to students important deeper insights gained in their own sustained design and research work. Likewise, they could make students recognize the relevance and importance of these insights not only for all people affected by the students’ works but also for the students themselves, via the higher degree of satisfaction that ‘touching the souls’ of those whom they design for can offer. Therefore the challenge is to convince students that they don’t have to resign themselves to being merely observers of transcendent qualities in rare works but that they should aspire to create works of related qualities themselves, and to help them gain the kind of knowledge that would enable them to do so.
While a teacher’s insights may carry some authority with students, they will be welcomed much more readily as truthful if backed up by convincing evidence. And no better evidence could be offered to students than a range of exemplary works for investigation that embody these qualities abundantly and palpably and back up the teacher’s insights. This would follow in spirit William James’ observation that “To learn the secrets of any science, we go to the expert specialists … and not to commonplace pupils. We combine what they tell us with the rest of our wisdom, and form our final judgment independently.”6 Architectural masterworks are the ‘expert specialists’ of the discipline, ready to reveal their secrets, provided we are persistent enough to uncover them. Students can investigate these works as case studies and confirm their ‘truthfulness’ (or not).
In such investigations students may transgress beyond the surface of a work’s appearance and gain deeper understanding of why it evokes the spiritual, comprehend the ideas and principles underlying it, and understand the strategies employed by designers that produce uplifting work. A student’s internalizing of this knowledge of underlying ideas, principles, strategies and devices would constitute a genuine learning of lessons that could thereafter be applied in completely different situations, and thus serve very different building tasks. It could empower students to imbue works of their own with qualities like the ones discussed.
In contrast, merely prescriptively approaching these qualities (as in ‘if you do this then that will follow…’) would rarely, if ever, lead to inspiring results, nor would the mere imitation of certain features within celebrated works. On the other hand, while creativity will always be indispensible for producing evocative works, even students with moderate abilities may be empowered to design better by this process than they would otherwise be able to, with greater knowledge, clarity and conviction.
What follows recounts briefly two courses at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island (RI), in which I explored how designing spiritually/poetically evocative environments might be taught: the semester-long advanced design studio ‘Structures of the Poetic,’ and a segment of the theory seminar ‘Investigating Interiority.’
‘Structures of the Poetic, embodied in a research and meeting center in Pawtucket, RI’ 7
Patterned on the Rockefeller Foundation’s retreat in Bellagio, Italy, the project asked the students to design an informal, stimulating setting to foster deep thought and debate by visiting researchers about education, religion, psychology, and improving world order. The mostly-secular program included rooms for thirty scholars, private studies, lounges, a small library, meeting rooms, dining facility, some garden areas, as well as a chapel and one or more meditation rooms.
This new center had to be created by transforming a four stories high brick warehouse with a six story former stair tower (remnants of a formerly much larger paper mill) and an adjacent parking lot in the heart of Pawtucket, RI, (Fig. 1).
To establish awareness of the range of desired qualities for the center I introduced the students to the theoretical framework touched upon earlier for them to build on, and explained the concept of trigger-strategies and -devices. To push them beyond the possible abstractness of my theory and to make them begin living and breathing the reality of the subject matter, I had each of them investigate one exemplary work from between mid-20th-Century and the present, from which to distill their own bodies of insights.
I challenged them to gain a deeper understanding of the work in their analyses and interpretations, through identifying the ideas, principles, strategies and devices the architects had employed to render their buildings capable of eliciting the desired responses. Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel on the MIT campus, just an hour north of Providence, served as example for illustrating how one could explore a building by sequentially identifying its underlying key idea (achieving an otherworldliness, within a cylindrical volume), strategies used for implementing the idea (bringing about that otherworldliness through strategic interiorization and avoidance of direct views out [compare to the interior of the Church at La Tourette], providing a primary, immaterial focus of attention in form of shaft-like light from above, and refracting it toward the assembly, etc.), and the actual devices used in the service of achieving the transcendent quality of the space (i.e. physical components and building parts).
The students then proceeded to identify how ‘structures of the poetic’ helped to determine the character of space in exemplary works by Alvar Aalto, Luis Barragan, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Le Corbusier, Louis I. Kahn, Fumihiko Maki, Rafael Moneo, John Pawson, Alvaro Siza, Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, and Peter Zumthor. They focused on light, proportions, dimensions, views, surface qualities, and on the structuring of the building’s choreography of encounter, i.e. how it beckons one along, allows one to linger and so on, through thresholds, vistas, framing, and twin phenomena such as contraction and expansion. As an example from that phase, one student identified spatial and lighting strategies in John Pawson’s work (Fig. 2).
In these first studio weeks I also presented my own designs for spiritually charged spaces, including a long-term Buddhist retreat center, and explained my design concepts as they related to the individual, the overall community, and the site throughout the day and the seasons8. I conceived of all phases of the studio, especially this one, as both an individual and a collective learning experience. Students presented their research to the entire studio and all students received, in turn, digital copies of each individual student’s report which, in their accumulation and diversity, was intended as a rich ‘tool chest’ for use in their future designs.
With their just discovered sets of ideas, principles, strategies and devices ‘in hand’, the students now employed these in designs of their own. For example, Fig. 3 shows Youngmin (Ryan) Cho’s sketch project for an artist’s retreat whose inspiration was Carlo Scarpa’s choreography of light and movement in his expansion of the Gipsoteca Canoviano, in Possagno, Italy (1955-57).
The final assignment, carried out in six weeks, was like a regular studio project with a given host building and its associated site, except that the students were asked to probe the given program and site for opportunities for imbuing their Center with contemplation-inducing qualities, and to make good use of their ‘tool chest’ in the process.
In Ryan Cho’s final project, the choreography of movement with strategic insertions of zones of repose became a dominant theme (relating to his earlier Artist’s Retreat), as did water and its reflective qualities (Fig 4 to 6). One entered earthbound, moved upward passing generous views to the city and the horizon beyond (Fig 7), and arrived at a chapel in the tower after a visual reorientation to the sky’s vault above (Fig 8). His habitable glazed volume overlooking the city beyond the brick wall (Fig 7) probably owes something to Scarpa’s Gipsoteca Canoviano.
‘Investigating Interiority’ 9
This course is required for all students in the Department of Interior Architecture,10 and intended to provide them with both a balanced theoretical/philosophical grounding and wide perspectives on their opportunities and potential role within the field. It also helps to prepare them for their two-semester-long ‘degree project’ sequence.
In part I understood its purpose as helping students to lay the foundations for achieving mastery in shaping interior space. I therefore focused on a variety of affective properties of interior space and the corresponding ideas, principles, strategies and devices that can produce them. The poetic/spiritual dimensions naturally are an important sub-group. There were two major assignments in this course. The first focused on the close study, analysis and interpretation of a choice of different exemplary buildings covering a wide range of types. The second immersed the students in a wider field of study (e.g. ‘Interior architecture and retail’) which, after a broad overview, needed to be narrowed to a comparative study of two buildings exemplifying paradigmatically different approaches.
Pertaining to the poetic/spiritual realms I offered parts of the theoretical framework introduced above and challenged the students to try to extend their observations beyond the obvious. In the first assignment, after choosing a building type and a representative example by one architect (and a contrasting second work by the same architect that pursued differed goals from the main work), I similarly asked the students to distill the work’s underlying ideas, principles, strategies and devices.
I illustrate this effort with two excerpts from Andrea D’Amato’s analysis of strategies employed by the Korean architect Byoung-Soo Cho in his C-Shaped Metal Roof House (1989-93), to accommodate its occupants in inspiring ways. The first is on his methods of safeguarding the privacy of the house’s interior space (Fig 9), and the second on the poetry of his ‘grounding’ of the house through (manmade) nature (Fig 10).
In contrast to the design studio though, the seminar format did not allow for asking students to apply their just-gained knowledge to designs of their own. The hope is that their insights and way of expanded thinking will pay ample dividends in their degree project.
My aim was to introduce one approach to teaching the design of spiritually evocative environments that helps students gain a deeper understanding of spiritually charged spaces, not only of their effects, but also of the actual ideas, principles, strategies and devices employed by the creators of the works toward eliciting contemplation-inducing responses in users and viewers.
I suggested three interrelated efforts for accomplishing this. The first was giving them a theoretical framework (I use the one developed by me, but there could be others) as foundational orientation and to offer a workable vocabulary for communicating their thinking and probing. The second was immersing them deeply in closely studying on their own works that embody qualities they seek to embed and reveal in their own designs (and having each student present their findings to all others to maximize learning by all). The third was having students apply the learned lessons and insights in creative design works of their own and helping them become alert to latent opportunities within any design effort for accomplishing degrees of inspiration and upliftment.
The future findings to be expected from probing the overlap between architecture and neuroscience referred to earlier should help with improving current theoretical frameworks for teaching and with developing more precise (while broad enough) methods of inquiry into physical and affective qualities of the built environment, including the special category we so appreciate and refer to as poetic/spiritual in nature.
1. See especially Sternberg, Esther M. Healing spaces: the science of place and well-being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
2. Ibid, 2-3, referring to Ulrich, R. S. (1984). “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery.” Science, 224 (4647): 420-421.
3. going back to a proposal by the founder of the Salk Institute Jonas Salk, to the American Architectural Foundation in Washington, DC, “that someone in the architectural world should be looking at human experiences with architecture from a scientific viewpoint.” In Eberhard, John Paul. Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), vii.
4. Hermann, Heinrich. “Spiritual Dimensions In 20th Century Architecture: A Study of Three Paradigmatic Works by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, Le Corbusier, and Louis I Kahn.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1995 (on the spiritual/poetic in modern architecture and architectural ideas, principles, strategies and devices linked with it). “On the transcendent in landscapes of contemplation,” in Contemporary landscapes of contemplation, ed. Rebecca Krinke (London: Routledge, 2005), 36-72, is based on two of its four chapters.
5. In a fitting parallel, on the cognitive/emotive apprehension of art, the philosopher Nelson Goodman stated that “the work of art is apprehended through the feelings as well as through the senses. Emotional numbness disables here as definitely if not as completely as blindness or deafness,” in his Languages of Art (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1976), 248.
6. James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin, 1982 ), 486.
7. 11 students, including 5 RISD graduate, 2 RISD undergraduate, and 4 international exchange students, from New Zealand, Peru, and 2 from Switzerland.
8. “The Forest Refuge: A Long-Term Buddhist Retreat Center for IMS in Barre, MA,” in WORK in progress, Issue 6, Spring 2002, Department of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, 22-25.
9. 24 students, including 18 RISD graduate, 2 RISD undergraduate and 2 international exchange students from Italy and New Zealand. Two graduate students who had taken “Structures of the Poetic” also attended this seminar.
10. RISD’s graduate program in Interior Architecture has a primary focus on the reuse, interventions in and expansion of existing structures. In spite of its relatively small size it is highly regarded and was voted best in the country in 2009 by US News & World Report and ranked the top graduate program by Design Intelligence in 2006 and 2007.