Prize-winning architecture loses the human touch


I recently received a copy of the 39th Annual Design Review edition of I.D. (International Design). A frustrated architect, I flipped to the sections on buildings, interiors and furniture. Without exception, I was repelled by the award winners. Why?

My obsession is stirring the human imagination. Today's marketplace calls for zesty responses from bankers, metal-benders and software creators alike. Yet most of our companies seem to be purposefully designed to stamp out curiosity and imagination. So when I see award-winning spaces that dampen the spirit, I worry. A lot.

How does one describe engaging workplaces? They should be comfortable, friendly, alive. I'm a sweat shirt and sweat pants kind of guy at home and, if I can get away with it, at work. I like to be surrounded by familiar objects, to look up at 100-year-old, rough-hewn rafters, to gaze at trees and birds or an energetic street scene.

At first, as I reacted so violently to I.D.'s "winners," I wondered if I were weird. So I did a smidgen of research. I may be strange, but at least I'm not alone.

In "Places of the Soul," architect Christopher Day writes, "I sometimes wonder what sort of quality and sensitivity my work would have if I worked in a different office -- perhaps a harsh, rectangular, smooth-surfaced, evenly lit, glossy one such as many architects work in." Day analyzes spots that are vital -- and those that aren't. "Architecture can be life-suppressing or even crushing," he says. "In some places one feels a trapped statistic, not a valued member of society; in others the buildings tower over one as though with menace. . . . I am not just talking about what is nice or not, but about what is nourishing."

Architectural magazines are partly to blame, Day says. They feature buildings as "dramatic and usually unpeopled objects. The buildings are not experienced in that way by the people who use them."

Architect Christopher Alexander is even more provocative in describing locations that do and don't work. His widely acclaimed, Zenlike "The Timeless Way of Building" describes "a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building or a wilderness. The quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named."

Nameable or not, Alexander evokes it precisely: "The first place I think of, when I try to tell someone about this quality, is a corner of an English country garden, where a peach tree grows against the wall.. . . The sun shines on the tree and as it warms the bricks behind the tree, the warm bricks themselves warm the peaches on the tree. It has a slightly dozy quality."

The words Alexander attaches to such settings include "alive," "whole," "comfortable" and "eternal." Well-designed buildings "let our inner forces loose," he adds, "and set us free (rather than) keep us locked in inner conflict." I believe these ideas are central to the prosaic chore of creating value in our firms.

Day-to-day corporate existence is flattened by sterile work environments. I shake my head in wonder -- and sometimes am moved to rage or tears or both -- by most facilities I enter.

Surfaces are smooth and polished. Glass-topped, chrome-legged desks are barren. Light is filtered. "For proven physiological reasons, people can feel ill if they work all day in artificial light," Day reports. "Yet the light of spring can bring such joy to the heart, it can get the invalid out of bed!"

Does your work space urge you from under the covers in the morning? Up the odds of clever, collaborative and energetic problem solving?

Unlikely. The typical corporate landscape, urban spire or rural "campus" breeds hunkering and hiding, not sharing and openness.

These are critical issues. "Most adults feel, think and act differently in different environments," Day proclaims. Indeed they And these differences are profound.

If value in the new economy is to come from spunk, energy, constant chatter, collaboration and imagination, then where we hang out to do commerce must reflect these core ideas. Meanwhile, if you're in search of a how-to guide for shriveling the soul, pick up I.D.'s July-August 1993 issue and turn to page 133 for the "Best of Category" winner for environments. It would make a great morgue.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-8200.)

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