Synaesthesia (Part 1): When Walls Begin to Breathe (Inspiring the Finish with Liveliness)

Imagine the Room!

To see is relatively easy.  But to see with the eyes of the imagination?  This is more difficult.  But the creative task of designing a decorative finish that will inspire an object or an architectural space with liveliness cannot be accomplished by mere sight.  To accomplish this goal, one must “imagine the room.”

Of course, there are other ways to design finishes, some of what are easier.  But it is this goal of inspiring a room with liveliness which is the most meaningful integration of archtectural space and the decorative arts finishes.  Such an approach enables architecture and the decorative finishes to achieve a common goal–to create a human environment which inspires its occupants with vitality, with jou de vivre.

Such imagining for the sake of inspiring liveliness originates and is sustained by active engagement in perception–that is first of all, not just seeing, but also hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and kinesthetic sensation. “What’s that,” you say, “you want me to ‘taste’ a room?!?” Well, yes…I do! You have heard of rooms being described as “tastefully decorated,” haven’t you? Where do you suppose that metaphor comes from if not from your sensory capacity to taste? And it seems to me that if you have gone to all the trouble to develop the sophisticated capacity for discernment that is required to distinguish the difference between a dry and sweet wine, you should make the most of your investment. Wouldn’t it give you a leg up on the competition if you could learn how to transpose this capacity for discernment to creating a tastefully decorated room?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I talk about “tasting” a room, I’m talking about “synaesthesia.” Synaesthesia is a special kind of perception whereby a person is able to imaginatively extend stimuli from one perceptual mode to another. For instance, it is the capacity to imaginatively “hear” what you see, “taste” what you smell, and so on.

It’s not all that far-fetched if you think of everyday examples such as “sharp cheese.” Or consider color. Some colors are “loud,” others are “muted.” Colors can clash, hence crash—just think of the awful sound two discordant pigments make when they scrape up against one another!— or they can harmonize as smoothly as a barbershop quartet. And whereas chromatically intense colors are sharp, pastels are soft.

But before we can talk about synaesthesia, we have to develop the context in which it has significance.  And so, this first article–the first in a series of three–will focus on the general capacity to “imagine the room.” In doing so, I also will provide a context for understanding what kind of “liveliness” is distinctive to archi-tectural space. It is this liveliness that provides the context in which both the imagination, in general, and synaesthesia, in particular, have significance. The second article in this series will then focus on synaesthesia as a mode of imaginative perception that can be employed in creating finishes which inspire liveliness in archi¬tectural space. The final ar¬ticle will focus even more • pragmatically on a particular design consideration—the focal point(s) of a room. In this final article, I will demonstrate how synaesthetic perception can be employed to develop finishes which enhance the liveliness of this particular design feature of a room.

Let us begin, then, by “imagining the room.” We do so by learning what form of liveliness is possible for architectural space. These intertwining goals can be realized by considering what Louis I. Kahn has to say about “the spirit of architecture.”

The Beginning of Architecture

In 1971, Louis I. Kahn was awarded the Gold Medal by the American Institute of Architects. His address to this assembly is a densely packed poetic statement about, as he notes in the preface to his remarks, “the spirit of architecture.” That is to say, he is talking about architecture in a way that is not immediately available to the naked eye. The “spirit” of a thing is grasped by the imagination. Kahn’s brief comments give us a framework for imagining architecture and, hence, for imagining the room. Indeed, the room is central to Kahn’s conception of architecture. He says as much in his opening remark: “The room is the beginning of architecture. It is a place of the mind. You, standing in the room—with its dimensions, its structure, its light— respond to its character, its spiritual aura, recognizing that whatever the human proposes and makes becomes a life.” Before I consider what Kahn means by “becomes a life,” let me explain what he means by claiming the architectural primordiality of the room.

So compelling is the appeal of a room that every architectural structure wants to become one. Referring to the hallway in a schoolhouse, Kahn imagines the child walking through it as commandeering this space as a room of his own with himself as the teacher. Moreover, this hall is not, in itself, content to be a hallway. It wants to become a room, specifically, it wants to be the library. The landing on a stairway “wants to be a room.” A person experiences this tension when arriving on a “landing”—because it is the place you land, you invariably want to linger to collect yourself (and not just to catch your breath)—especially if there is a window from which you might peer outside. A bay window within a room “can be a private room within a room.” The closet, too, in which there is a window, is eager to be transformed into a room. Turning toward more expansive space, Kahn asserts that “the plan is a society of rooms” and “the street is a room of agreement.” With buildings for its walls and the sky for its ceiling, the street becomes a “community room” bequeathed to the city by the neighborhood buildings.

But why does every architectural structure want to become a room? What is so compelling about the room that it can command such attention, admiration, and even envy? It is the “spirit” of the room. Kahn’s descrip-tion of this spirit provides a frame-work in which we might develop the capacity to “imagine the room.”

He hints at it when he says that the room “becomes a life.” While he notes that all human creations take on a life of their own, later comments about the room itself suggest that the room is exemplary in its capacity to “become a life.” In short, a room becomes most life-like in that it takes on the character of a person. This is why “the plan is a society of rooms.” This life of the room is the reason why the street, which is shared by many doorsteps, becomes a “community room.” (It shares the life bequeathed to it by the neighbors.) It is why the room is the beginning of architecture—that is, be-cause the room, like the person, is the irreducible entity. As with any healthy society, nothing less than the person can be the smallest measure, so, also, with architecture, the room is the indivisible unit of measurement.

Evidence for this assumption can be found in a number of Kahn’s state-ments. First, in being an indivisible unit, the room has an integrity that must be respected: “The structure of the room must be evident in the room itself.” The room has a life of its own: “Enter your room and know how personal it is, how much you feel its life.” Because of this life, a room can inspire particular experiences: “In a small room with just another person, what you say may never have been said before.” But a room is sensitive and changeable. This same small room, when filled with too many people, closes down its life so that “the meeting becomes a performance instead of an event with everyone saying his lines, saying what has been said many times before.” Like the person, then, rooms adjust themselves to differing situations. Referring to the auditorium in which he is speaking, Kahn notes that “the walls are far away. Yet I know if I were to address myself to a chosen person, the walls of the room would come together and the room would become intimate.”

Imagine the Life of the Room

The place to begin, then, in imagining a room is to approach it as if it had many of the characteristics which we associate with the liveliness of persons. I will provide only a sampling of the myriad possibilities such a perspective awakens. The kitchen pictured within this article will serve as a concrete example for some of these principles.

The first thing to note is that rooms, like persons, are always transforming. This is why the task of interior design is never done–a room, like a person, always has new adventures to live out.  The point, then, in transforming a room is to consider what a room might become.  In part, this is determined by the occupant.  The life of the room and the life of its occupant are not the same, but they infuse one another.

The kitchen under consideration had suffered abuse. Whereas the rest of the interior of the house felt comfortably country, the kitchen had been subjected to an antiseptic, pharmaceutical treatment—everything was covered with glossy, white surfaces. The excessive cleanliness and for-mality of the space alienated this room from the rest of the house. It could not communicate. Adjacent rooms do not need to be decorated in the same way, but they do need to be able to communicate. Determining how closely related are two rooms gives a clue as to how much communication should be established between them. The kitchen needed to be brought into harmony with the style shared by its adjoining rooms. Transforming the sterility of the all-white kitchen into a more relaxed space brought it into harmony with the overall design of the house interior.

The current homeowner’s own life, especially his or her dream life and desires, is a substantial factor in determining ways in which a space might grow. The client for this kitchen loves to travel. She also happens to speak and read French—a French provincial kitchen satisfies both desires by giving her a daily “taste” of satisfaction for these desires. Stand in a room and ask yourself: what is this room dreaming? It will give you ideas for the finishes it requires.

Another reason rooms change is because of age. As rooms age, they either mature or decay. Finishes, then, can give expression to a new level of maturation or can revitalize a space that has fallen into decay. I can do no better than to recommend Stewart Brand’s book, “How Buildings Learn,” for a full treatment of this aging process. His premise is that, if you look and listen closely, a building will tell you how it wants to change. I am always amazed at how instructive it has been to trace down the history of finishes in a given room (as much as is possible and practical). Even if the choice was a poor one, I learn something from it. And, as the legal field has learned, there is a mysterious power in “precedent.”

But consider another angle of this aging process. Because rooms grow, we need to allow them to act their age. A young room is bold and brash. If you render finishes in new construction, you want to keep this in mind. Aged elegance may not be in keeping with its youth! Sharp and lively finishes, youthful finishes, the most recently developed finishes— these are what a new room wants.

The maturing of architectural space also integrates with the matur-ing of the relationship between its oc-cupants and the space. Sometimes this growth in relationship is a moti-vation for homeowners to decide to transform the look of a room or group of rooms. For instance, I have noticed that homeowners will often do nothing more than the most basic, solid color finishes in their homes when they move in. A year or so later, though, they seem ready to give greater definition to their space. Per-haps, though, it is also the space itself that is crying out for change at this point.

But you can push a person too far. You can expect a person to become something that he or she will never become. And the same can happen to a room. Trying to transform a small, intimate room into a grand ballroom is asking a shower-singer to perform in an opera! Sensitivity to the character and maturity of a room teaches us what it is capable of be-coming at any given moment.

To imagine a room, then, is to discern its possibilities for liveliness. It is the imagination which we rely upon for this objective because liveliness has more to do with the intangible spirit of a thing than with a superficial consid-eration of its semblance. Because of the uncanny depth of correspondence between the room and the human person, a consideration of various aspects of personhood can carry us a long way towards understanding how to infuse a room and, in particular, its finishes, with its own kind of vitality.

Of course, such an approach can easily be reduced to cartoon-like pro-portions if taken too literally. (I once saw an extreme example of this reductive approach in a showhouse. The master bedroom was quite literally ornamented with hands—on the walls, growing out of bedposts, sitting in glass cases on the dresser!) Hence, the importance of exploring the nature of liveliness as it relates to more specific design decisions.

Getting down to business with such details enables us to realize this metaphorical relationship at the level of subtlety and indirection which it deserves. The forthcoming articles in this series will suggest one direction towards realizing this goal.

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