Archive for the ‘Visual Literacy’ Category

Credit Valley CVH clown

How healthy is this place? How does it make you feel? In what ways does the design affect social interaction?

cvh conversation

As we move through our daily lives, what elements in our habitat come together to feed our psyches—or starve our spirits?

Social media encourages people to instantly communicate their feelings about a place. We can now be part of an ongoing, multi-directional, open conversation, rather than being confined to formal design theories and official architectural criticism.

As we participate in these conversations, we build awareness for how design affects our state of mind. Social media also shows us global examples of what’s possible, thus exposing gaps in our own built environment.

For instance, recent visitors to Credit Valley Hospital (designed by Farrow) took photos and commented on the design’s impact:

CVH tweets

One of these tweets was posted by Robert Wakulat, a partner with Wakulat Dhirani LLP at the Centre for Social Innovation, who reports he has always had some sense of how places affect his state of mind, having lived in Europe and Japan to contrast with Toronto. He says, “Twitter provided an outlet to express those feelings…If anything Twitter has accelerated that awareness…After seeing what I liked or made sense in foreign contexts, it became more frustrating to see the ways in which Toronto was lacking.”

He further reflects, “I do think social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) creates more instances of being wistful for the progressive ideas or heritage-honouring choices that other cities make. It also allows a conversation to take place between Torontonians following each other on what we like/dislike.”

Robert also believes that “following people on Twitter who contribute to publications such as Spacing Magazine (e.g. Shawn Micallef) keeps him in touch with the positives and negatives of what exists in our city.”

Indeed these exchanges also serve to highlight spaces that lack human qualities, such as:

how healthy_1

Some designers have expressed concern that greater public participation will ultimately lead to “crowdsourcing design to the lowest level of taste.” However, we believe greater powers of observation and wider engagement in design issues are prerequisites for social, economic, psychological and physical health, as explained in our recent SAB magazine article. 

-Sharon VanderKaay

Rarely does a design project begin with a well understood “higher purpose” statement that addresses how it intends to feed our psyche.

The purpose of both art and architecture as depicted in Alain de Botton’s recent book Art as Therapy should be “to help us lead better lives–to access better versions of ourselves.”

Art as Therapy

The needs of our psyche in de Botton and Armstrong’s view include (paraphrased):

– to remember what matters

– to see the hopeful side of life

– to gain perspective

– to amplify our best qualities

– to understand what we are most proud of

– to discover missing bits of ourselves as individuals

– to see how the imperfect can be attractive

– to see the things that affect us (but are not noticed)

The authors say we need better critics who will help us practice Enlightened Capitalism. That is, society needs more people who help us make choices that are in line with the true needs of our psyches.

de Botton previously wrote The Architecture of Happiness, which I summarized in the post “Design for Empathy.”

– Sharon VanderKaay

Why do so many people expect so little from the design of their buildings?

Architects have been talking about “educating the public” for decades – how much progress have we seen?

My guess is that, over the years, exposure to boring architectural theory has caused the public to lose interest in the whole subject. The resulting knowledge gap affects what actually gets built, which all too frequently, is soulless and stress-inducing. As Alain de Botton explains in The Architecture of Happiness, we need to engage in conversations about how physical surroundings affect our moods and emotions. In his view, some places drain our sense of optimism and purpose, while others have restorative powers that “reunite us with what makes us human.”

When de Botton’s book was published in 2006, I was struck by his heartfelt rationale for why we should care whether or not places show empathy. Recently I re-read Happiness, having noticed egregious examples of the emotional neglect he cites during the intervening five years.

Here are seven questions inspired by The Architecture of Happiness that can serve to raise our awareness and expectations for our surroundings:

1. Does the design demonstrate empathy for the deepest human needs of people affected by the space?

2. What does the design say about our values?

3. Does the design improve our state of mind?

4. Does the design embody our highest aspirations as whole human beings?

5. Does it have character and personality, or is it anonymous?

6. Are we thinking beyond what style it is to consider what emotions and messages it conveys? For example:

  • openness or arrogance?
  • welcome or threat?
  • boring or interesting?
  • enduring or disposable?
  • optimism for the future or nostalgia for the past?
  • hostility, turbulence?
  • serenity, reverence?
  • a sense of the eternal, infinity, peace?
  • harmony with nature?
  • dignity?
  • uplifting the spirit?

7. Are these questions asking too much from our architecture?

Let’s change the conversation so that citizens and decision makers can see, as de Botton says, “that it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.”  This is a far cry from current expectations, which too often are restricted to questions of taste, engineering and project management.

– Sharon VanderKaay

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