Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Places of the Soul (Christopher Day)

Perhaps if I had thought about the title a little more, I might have been more reluctant to buy this book. I bought it for the ravishing photographs. Who could resist an image of a pathway, with random stones forming it, and a tree forming a canopy over the path? Yes, architecture should create magic spaces! And yes, let's have a book that tells us how to work this magic! 

But when I started reading Christopher Day's book, I realised it is full of contradictions. The biggest contradiction is that the book’s message is so good, but its details are so wrong. At a macro level, the book argues for the emotional effects of architecture, and of course the author is correct. At a micro level, Mr Day is prey to the most unlikely and uncorroborated fads, so much so that I am embarrassed for him to reveal some of the unsubstantiated statements he makes. Where he makes claims, he is often derivative (the Ruskinian idea that the craftsman's involvement in the work gives the building soul, although there is no credit for Ruskin in the index). Not only that, he is wildly inconsistent, as I will show below.

 In principle these details should eliminate his entire case, but he is redeemed by the overall case, which is a good one, and by some of the photos, at least.

For examples of unsubstantiated claims, try chapter two, which contains a lot about colour. The emotional effects of colour are described as if absolute, and even at times given a source that provides a spurious credibility, almost a parody of the academic citation:

Blue is calming, peaceful. Green is a colour of balance: in Steiner schools, green is the balance colour for classrooms at the midpoint of childhood.

Teenagers need an environment that … internalizes the outer activity of earlier childhood … for this the appropriate colour lies in the cooler blue-green, blue-grey range.

Restaurateurs know that warm tints, oranges and reds, stimulate appetite: blues do the reverse [source: National Geographic magazine]

I’d like to know if the teenagers whose rooms were to be blue-green and blue-grey were consulted over this choice.

He then goes on to consider shapes, and in a similar way, he extends a subjective view to a crass doctrine. After describing the curve of a mother’s breast, he infers that we like curves in childhood, and then continues:

As adults, we don’t cry in planar surroundings, nor gurgle in curved ones, but such echoes remain: softly curved – welcoming; flat and hard – unfriendly (but so normal, we don’t notice it).

This last statement is accompanied by a child-like drawing equating a sharp line in a building with a man pointing a gun, as if we didn't get the message from the text alone. 

What is all this? A mishmash of opinions invalidating a very welcome plea to make use of some of the best features of much vernacular architecture -  its irregularity, its human scale, its unexpected spaces and use of light. Why mix all this up together? Someone should extract the magic from this book and present it unencumbered by assertions stated as facts. And drawings of men with guns.