“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in ‘A Writing Life’. The quality of our existence, the ultimate tone our life adopts in memory, is woven out of those events that keep on repeating. It isn’t the rare moments, however life-changing they may be, that infuse our life with its characteristic flavour but instead the everyday events that occur over and over that colour the fabric of our existence in its unique shade.
For many of us, the events that keep on repeating in our homes and in our lives, have been brought to the forefront of our attention as never before in these last few strange and insightful months. We have felt so deeply how our weeks take on the feel of our days, and our days are shaped by the small moments of daily life. These repeating moments have become even more limited than usual, to only a small number of events that occur again and again forcing us to re-examine the quality of our relationship with them.
In recent times I have re-immersed myself in the work and writing of architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander. His ideas and words, warmly familiar precursors to so much of today’s thinking surrounding our relationship to design, seem to hold even more relevance in this strange time then they would have done a few months ago.
Offering profound insights not only into our relationship with the spaces we create but stretching well beyond the built environment into the deep and mystical landscapes of what constitutes a life well-lived, Alexander paints a picture that draws our attention to how the small mundane details of objects, spaces and daily life, come together to create something vast and powerful that can hinder or help us to come alive.
In his wildly influential book ‘The Timeless Way of Building’ Alexander draws our attention to the point that in many ways, the character of our lives is defined by the small moments of daily activities that keep on occurring over and over again. Challenging us to reflect on this idea by considering the surprisingly small number of events that repeat in our own daily lives, he emphasises that when we begin to understand how very few of these events there are, we start to recognise “what huge effect these few patterns have on [our] life, on [our] capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for [us, we] can live well. If they are bad for [us, we] can’t.”
In the same way that the character of our life is determined by the events that keep on repeating, so too, the character of a place is given to it by the events that keep on occurring there. Contrary to our modern culture’s obsession with appearances, Christopher Alexander, stresses that what matters in a place, whether it be a private home or a public town, is not simply how it looks, the physical geometry or the ornament of a space, but the patterns of events that keep on repeating there.
And beyond simply which events occur, what matters most is the quality of these events. Some events help us ‘come alive’ while others do the exact opposite creating a tension or a frustration within us which places additional strain, however small, onto our daily routines rather than creating a sense of ease and pleasure.
Winston Churchill pointed out that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”, and indeed there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the environments we spend our time in have a profound impact on the quality of our lives. As the evidence mounts, the importance we place on the design of our built environment as a way to maximise their positive impact becomes increasingly meaningful.
In her book titled ‘The Shaping of Us’ researcher, writer, and environmental psychology consultant Lily Bernheimer highlights research that suggests that our environments function like “a secret script” that directs our actions. While we may feel like free agents, making our own decisions based on free will, much of the way we behave is predetermined by the environments we find ourselves in. It’s as if each place comes with a limited script of accepted behaviours (how one behaves in a shop or a restaurant or a library) and our actions are largely pre-determined by these behavioural scripts rather than behaviours we willingly choose.
While we are often unaware of the extend of the impact of our environment on our behaviour, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the environments we spend our days in not only impact our behaviour but our feelings, moods and well-being.
In ‘the Timeless Way of Building’ Christopher Alexander offers some simple examples to illustrate how the design of the places we spend our time in can contribute to creating or resolving a sense of internal tension or conflict. He champions the idea that thoughtfully designed spaces can reduce internal states of tension and facilitate the activities of daily life in a way that allows us to live well. Moreover, he argues that these spaces are not only spaces we are more drawn to and want to spend more time in but are also spaces we deem to be naturally more beautiful.
Alexander’s examples include the charming and immediately relatable idea of a ‘window place’. Many of us find rooms with a window place – a built-in window seat, a chair and table by a window, an arrangement of sofas and armchairs that look out through a window or a bath next to or in front of a window – to be particularly appealing. This constellation of architecture and objects has an appeal that most of us not only find beautiful but are also drawn to and want to spend time in. In a ‘A Pattern Language’ (the second volume in the series of which A Timeless Way of Building is the first), Alexander illustrates this point in more detail:
“if the room contains no window which is a ‘place’, a person in the room will be torn between two forces:
- He wants to sit down and be comfortable
- He is drawn toward the light.
Obviously, if the comfortable places – those places in the room where you most want to sit – are away from the windows, there is no way of overcoming this conflict…A room where you feel truly comfortable will always contain some kind of window place”
When the spaces we spend our time in create this tension they place a drain on our system and lower our capacity to react to other stresses in our life such as problems or conflicts appropriately. “Indeed,” Alexander writes in A Timeless Way of Building, “in this fashion, each bad pattern in our environment constantly reduces us, cuts us down, reduces our ability to meet new challenges, reduces our capacity to live, and helps to make us dead”. But the opposite is also true and well-designed spaces can help us come alive by easing our daily tensions and supporting and enhancing our daily routines.
What is particularly interesting is that Alexander’s example demonstrates how a seemingly aesthetic design decision can have a meaningful impact on our lives by either helping to facilitate or hindering the most rewarding way of carrying out the activities we engage in on a daily basis.
He argues that the feeling we have that rooms that resolve these inner conflicts are especially beautiful “is not merely whimsy...The instinctive knowledge that a room is beautiful when it has a window place in it, is thus not an aesthetic whim. It is an instinctive expression of the fact that a room without a window place is filled with actual, palpable organic tension; and that a room which has one lacks this tension, and is from a simple organic point of view, a better place to live.”
This idea that the design of our homes should not merely be about recreating a ‘look’ we’ve seen in a design book but instead should first and foremost be about helping us to create spaces that help us come alive, is not a new idea but it is worth repeating in today’s appearance-focused context.
What is particularly appealing about Alexander’s writing is that he suggests that spaces that help us come alive by resolving inner tensions and facilitating the nourishing activities of our daily lives are naturally more likely to be places we also find beautiful. From this point of view, when we focus our attention on how we want to live and feel within a space rather than just how it ought to look, we are not detracting from creating beautiful spaces but instead contributing to them. As Alexander points out “the more life-giving patterns there are in a building the more beautiful it seems”.
Spaces that help us come alive are spaces we are drawn to and wish to spend time in. Alexander writes that the adaptation between people and buildings can be profound when all of the small details have meaning and are created based on an intimate understanding of the function they are meant to serve and whom they are serving. “Each detail is understood…and gets shaped right, because it is slowly thought out, and deeply felt.” Designs feel alive when the people who design them are also the people who use them on a daily basis and adapt the small elements in accordance with their own life and needs.
This is not a philosophy that will have appeal for everyone at every stage in life. There are many restrictions in real life that can make this approach feel more like an ideal to aspire to rather than an attainable reality. But the ideal of a space that truly meets the unique needs created by the rhythms of our daily life and reflects our, or our family’s, individuality through many and varied thoughtful elements certainly is an ideal.
So how can we begin the process of creating spaces that help us ‘come alive’? Inspired by Christopher Alexander’s writing, I will be looking at this question in more detail in our next blog post.
Images above show our Belgian Linen Bedding in Natural White (coming soon), Hand Dyed Linen Cushion Covers in Isbar, Still by Natalie Walton, Handmade Ceramic Cake Plate and Flat White Cup (coming soon), Stone Washed Flatware and Stone Washed Baguette Flatware, Copper Kettle (aged after several years of use), Copenhagen Plant Pot, Copper Tea and Coffee Canisters, The Clerk Coffee Pour Over Stand, Shuro Palm Trivets, Cloth Bowl Cover Set, Hemp Palm Hand Broom, Various All Natural Dish Brushes.