A Breath of Fresh Air: How a change of place can change your perspective
In his book “The Architecture of Happiness: the Secret Art of Furnishing Your Life”, the philosopher Alain de Botton states that the “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 actually be”. This idea that we assume different personas in different situations and environments is foundational to The Meadow. The space is designed with the belief that nonlinear and innovative thinking is engendered when we both literally and figuratively “step outside the box”. Standing in direct contrast to not only a typical corporate office but also the busy urban streets around us, The Meadow is inspired by nature, with each room embodying the spirit of tranquil landscapes, the openness of a secluded field and the beauty of the great outdoors. We have all been given the advice to “go outside and get some fresh air” when struggling with a difficult problem or assignment, but what is it exactly about a change in scenery or particular environment that invites such clarity? De Botton argues that memory plays an integral role in why we find certain spaces more inspiring than others, and why some will evoke aspects of happiness in ways that others will not. For him, our surroundings have the powerful ability to elicit our sentimental vulnerability, unconsciously recalling moments of happiness from the past, or even aspects of our “true selves”.
De Botton states that all of us have within ourselves many different “selves”, not all of which “feel equally like ‘us’, so much so that in certain moods, we can complain of having come adrift from what we judge to be our true selves”. He continues that the “authentic self” [acknowledging the complexity of the term], or that creative, spontaneous self, which we all so covet and fetishize, is not called upon at will. Instead, our ability to tap into it, as it were, is informed by our surroundings and the places we happen to be in at the time. As a result, we surround ourselves with beautiful objects, paint colours, wallpaper, and so forth as a form of compensation against the psychological vulnerability of our own mind. Such decorative elements act as a kind of lifeline to these most desirable versions of ourselves. In this way, architecture has the ability to rebalance the myriad versions of our character, standing in as an identifier or memorial to the identity with which we wish to associate ourselves.
De Botton continues to ask why we feel the need to ornament buildings or objects with decorative motifs and the like. This debate was famously manifested in the 1930s with Modernist architecture and The Functionalist school of thought, whose credo “form follows function” gave rise to such buildings as the Bauhaus in Germany, the Guggenheim museum in New York City and the Century Building on Swanston street here in Melbourne. They believed that all ornamentation that did not contribute directly to the functionality of the building was superfluous. To that end, much of art and architectural history can be understood as a cycle of decorative versus minimalist design theories. In 1907 the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer argued that this cycle is predicated on the idea of absence, insofar as the artistic output reflects what is lacking in society at the time. He proposed that if there is chaos within the justice system and other governing bodies, then the harmonious and rhythmic unity of abstract and minimalist art would rise in favour. Should society be relatively ordered and predictable, realistic art would return as a fantastical way for citizens to imagine themselves in incredible situations. Case in point: the Renaissance, with its strident hierarchy of kings, queens and nobles, gave birth to some of the most admired realistic art, while the turbulent post war period in America was home to many of the most revered abstract expressionists in modern art.
Returning to the idea that we are different people in different spaces, de Botton suggests that certain places encourage certain types of behaviour. The seminal art historian, Carol Duncan has argued a similar concept in her book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. She states that the neo-classical exterior, the stepped entrance, grand columns and even grander interiors of most Western museums built over the course of the late 18th and early 19th century, convey a sense of reverence and awe, and visitors are expected to enact a set of ritualistic performances as a result. When we walk through a museum or gallery we speak softly, if at all, stand in contemplation, walk quietly throughout the space and place a sense of trust in the institution. A belief that what we are seeing is legitimate and a credible signifier of culture, and by adopting such customs, we understand ourselves to be cultured, or civilised, as well. This behaviour is similar to the manner in which we enter religious buildings, wherein we follow a socially constructed set of rules of conduct in order to not only show respect to a higher power, but also to be seen as pious and righteous by those around us. For de Botton, the opulence and physicality of churches throughout history are designed purposefully to arouse faith, persuade all those who may be in doubt of its teachings, and associate beauty with both honour and God. As such, by equally admiring and attending such institutions, be it the church or museum, an individual’s’ goodness and virtuosity is publicly reaffirmed.
So the question arises as to how these ideas of architectural happiness translate in the workforce? While the centrality of the church has decreased in recent years, the idea that we adopt specific behavioural identities in specific places has not. To work in a corporate financially oriented office, we wear attire considered to convey a sense of authority, assertion and a “I mean business” attitude, while at home we dress much more casually. This outfit gives us legitimacy and influence. In the same way, a typical office space with its minimalistic decor, cubicles, monochromatic colour palette, cleanliness, and repetitious furniture signify the seriousness of the profession, wherein logic, reason, control and economic wherewithal are paramount. By contrast, artists studios, a cafe, advertising firms or a writer’s room are often represented as dishevelled, colourful, unconventional and eclectic.
Cinematic renditions of such spaces casts them as mutually exclusive, as entirely separate entities, as left brain versus right brain. Here at the Meadow, we believe that these places and professions should not only coexist, but should work in conversation with each other. By entering a new space, different aspects of ourselves and our memories are given the opportunity to develop, generating new ideas in the process. Working within the same context every day, be it the office or places commonly regarded as “creative”, we stagnate our identities, closing off the potentiality for personal growth. For de Botton, architecture is the key to accessing and understanding our most “authentic” selves and thereby giving way to happiness. At the Meadow, we feel that a simple shift in space can result in a shift in perspective, perhaps not leading to untold happiness, but certainly making it possible to contemplate the similarities and differences around us, and most of all within ourselves as well.
Andy Warhol, Self Portrait, 1978.
de Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness: The Secret Art of Furnishing Your Life. Penguin Group: London, 2006.
Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside public art museums. Routledge: New York, 1995.