In Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel there’s a nice architecture moment that illustrates how deep feeling and attachment we develop with get when comedian Midge visits her former family home. We discover she’s been saving her new-found income to buy back the New York apartment where she grew up, and on the cusp of purchase she makes an impromptu visit. Stopping off after a late-night performance she sweet talks the doorman into unlocking the empty apartment and tiptoes through the unfurnished rooms.
In a dream like scene she remembers all the events that have happened in these now empty rooms – birthday parties, her wedding day, newborn babies, quarrels, reconciliations. In Midge’s mind these rooms are alive, with people and moments. Her attachment is so deep she talks to the home like an old friend, telling it she’s coming back. It’s a moving moment, washed in dim light and nostalgia – and shortly afterwards things get very complicated – but it illustrates a deep truth about architecture…that places and spaces matter to us profoundly.
Buildings and homes in particular, are so much more than bricks and mortar; they are the canvas of our lives. Homes hold stories – memories and moments tangle with the place where they happen in ways that are deep. Place and identity mingle until we cannot separate them. Places become part of us.
As British architect Rowan Moore says “…the space we occupy is not neutral to us. We cannot look at it with detachment. We are in it, we make it, and it makes us.” (Why We Build, pg 70).
No doubt there are hundreds of apartments for sale in New York but Midge wants one in particular because it’s part of who she is.
I help my clients dream up new places or sometimes alter them. Our practice always with people at the heart, creating spaces that feel like home from the start.
It takes work. Designing places with heart and soul requires thought and intention and close collaboration. At the first meeting with clients I dig for what matters most, looking for one central idea that will drive the whole design and ultimately give the building a beating heart. And I’m not really talking style here – but something deeper – the values they hold most dearly. Deep notions like sanctuary or welcome, friendship or love, nature or beauty, texture or warmth.
Pinpointing these values can take a bit of time and reflection. And realities play a part. Priorities differ, costs rein in dreams, sometimes the site brings constraints, councils have rules. Occasionally there are squabbles and I feel like a marriage counsellor.
But we always get there…and we must. Because the architects tools – proportion, shape, volume, light, flow and connection – are hollow if they don’t reflect the people at the centre, their voice and their story. You’ll have bricks and mortar but no heart. Weaving humanity into a building is an art and a science; one part creativity, one part technical and one part stardust, and I’ll talk a lot more about this in future posts, but for now I’ll finish with the story of my Mum and her house.
My doting, complex, razor-sharp lawyer Mum… who got me to design a big shiny white, glass and chrome extension to her heritage house. Of all my projects it gets the most comments. It’s gleaming lines are eye-catching, and she’s furnished it with flair. And it’s designed with love. Also…it shows up every speck of dirt, but she doesn’t care; she is happy with her sparkly jewel. Does it also have an unspoken significance for her, having arrived in Australia as a small child, her family seeking refuge from the nightmare world of Stalinist Russia? She would be the last one to say so!
But then sometimes home occupies a place so deep we don’t have the words…