Architecture and Spirit

When I was around four and five years old, I lived right next to the ocean, literally within 20 metres of where I slept the waves rolled and crashed.  My views went forever – the horizon was the limit.  Today whenever I am near the ocean I feel sane, I feel as if I can breathe properly and I feel as if my soul has enough space to expand and grow.

So from that experience I constructed my own pet theory of ‘soul space’ – the sense of safety, of strength and a place where you can come back to physically, mentally or emotionally when you need that security. For my theory I postulated that where you live when you begin to really notice the world around you, and see yourself as part of it, is when ‘soul space’ occurs.  From the limited number of friends I have discussed this with, there seems to be a general agreement that this could be possible. For me, any ocean and any area where I can see forever creates that feeling.

After 10 years in China, watching the construction of ever more and more high-rise towers I began to wonder what happens to ‘soul space’ when children grow up confined within those tower walls?  Every city and town is rapidly replacing single story homes, small villages and farm houses with high-rises.  People who have lived close to the land all their lives are encouraged to move into huge slabs, with views of the next-door slab of housing, and the one after that.

What impact does this hive construction have on the inhabitants? Where and how do they find the soul space that allows them to grow and have a broader view of the world and their place within it, if their world is limited to a few walls, views of more walls, a minute garden with “No walking on the grass” signs and concrete play areas?

Nan Ellis in Architecture of Fear believes that this urban development has destroyed much of our urban heritage, disrupted established communities, displaced people from their homes and businesses, increased social segregation, diminished the public realm, harmed the environment and created eyesores.

Do we need this massive construction?  No, not even in China with its massive population. No matter where I travelled in China, I saw blocks and blocks of new apartment buildings sitting virtually empty.  Some areas have entire ‘ghost towns’ where no-one lives.  Empty buildings everywhere, but the construction continues.

However, even if all of this construction was necessary, what of the effect on the people?  Alain de Botton,  in The Architecture of Happiness says , “We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within.”

What moods and ideas are contained in the hundreds of apartments created exactly the same? Of building after cloned building?  Do we become moulded to be the same, losing creativity, individuality and soul?  Richard Sennett would agree.  He argues that “the homogenization of contemporary culture is aided and abetted by the failure of modern architecture and urban planning to accommodate the physical and sensory needs of the human body.” (Flesh and Stone)

“Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design.” (Alain de Botton)

Without this soul space, what happens to us as humans?



Posted by DeborahH

Leave a Reply