Chapter 5. Architherapy


Chapter 5. Architherapy: How Does Architecture Impact Our Lives and Well-Being?

First we shape our buildings, then they shape us.

                                                            -Winston Churchill

I’ve thought a lot about the psychological impact of space and how the space we inhabit affects the way we feel and act. I call this architherapy.

From Barbara Harwood’s The Healing House, I learned that Churchill delivered his comment about architherapy twice, once when addressing the English Architectural Association in 1924, and again to advocate the rebuilding of Parliament in 1943. I view the statesman’s words as cautionary: beware of how we shape our buildings, lest they shape us in unintended ways.

Perhaps, to successfully achieve form, architecture as inhabited art must reflect the specific kilter of the minds of those who live there. It only makes sense that a home should instill peace, stability, and just the right amount of stimulation. Greg and I feel soothed and well in our house; at the same time, the glass and light and curve and shadow energize us. Musician and Dyson client Bill Kelly says he feels more creative in his home–he’s easily over-stimulated if there’s too much going on in a room, if there’s too much clutter. Kelly’s son Kevin, who is high-functioning autistic, thrives in this home, he says. In an over-stimulating environment, Kevin can become agitated or act out, Kelly said, but “when he’s at this house, he is noticeably more calm than when he’s at his mom’s house.” Kevin came in the room while we were talking and sat down as calmly as his father testified. He sat back in his chair and listened for a while before he went to do something else.

Your home shouldn’t confine you, but ought to free you to be as authentically yourself as possible. Extolling the psychological benefits of organic architecture, David Pearson writes: “Emphasizing beauty and harmony, [organic architecture’s] free-flowing curves and expressive forms are sympathetic to the human body, mind, and spirit. In a well-designed ‘organic’ building, we feel better and freer.” We use rectilinear expressions such as “boxed in” and “cornered” to express a fearful sort of constraint, and too many boxed-in corners limit our freedom. Writing in L’Architettura, Karl Ashley Smith suggests of Arthur Dyson’s work: “[Dyson’s architecture] has captured a constituent element of the American spirit: the contradictory desire of being rooted, settled into the land, and yet to be free to roam the vastness of the frontiers, to be ever exploring, growing, and changing.”

I think it has to do with balance. In every part of life, we hope to achieve balance: in our diets, our work-play dynamic, the yin and yang of our relationships, give and take. Greg will feel overly busy at work with concerts and touring gigs and looming AP tests his students hope to pass. By the time I hear the gate open, he has plugged in his Chevy Volt, slung his brief case on the counter just inside the door, and I see him physically adjust his posture, sigh deeply, and smile. “Few of us are entirely well balanced,” writes Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy. So many different factors in our attitudes and daily routines send our emotions inclining, “grievously in one direction or another.” The philosopher and art historian diagnose a series of extremes you may recognize: “We may, for example, have a tendency to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art [and particularly architecture] can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our listing inner selves.”

Every person’s psychology has different spatial requirements, and working closely with an architect can result in the right configuration for your own mind. As Botton points out, “we are not all missing the same things.” Pairing a photo of a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe sleek, wood-paneled room with a white rug and glass walls protected by oak trees (“a home to rebalance the nervous soul.”) with a rococo Mexican cathedral (“Art to rebalance a Norwegian civil servant”), he adds, “the art that has the capacity to rebalance us, and therefore arouse our enthusiasm, will differ markedly.” He writes that the last thing a person in a boring job needs is the symmetrical and ordered Mies van de Rohe. Dyson told me that Van de Rohe’s own house was much busier and ornate than most of his designs. For the cubical worker, Botton and Armstrong prescribe instead, “Flamenco music, the paintings of Frieda Kahlo and the architecture of [Taxco] Mexico’s Catedral de Santa Prisca—varieties of art that might help restore life to our slumbering souls.”

In the River House, we love the wall of windows, but you may feel exposed; one house sitter shifted her eyes nervously and called it a “fishbowl.” You may prefer snug little rooms (you would be drawn then to our den) or you might feel enlivened with all your stuff on display, while clutter makes me uncomfortable. For me, there’s the problem of the square and of confinement: when I must work in a close rectilinear space, I subconsciously cock my chair at an angle. My office at the college, for instance, has a fixed window facing the blank side of the Forestry building (“lack of escape options”) and on the opposite side a narrow glass panel (that some professors cover up!) and a solid door, which I (with apologies to my dear colleagues) never close and face when I’m not glued to the computer. “Do you want me to close the door, Mrs. Lapp?” students ask as they leave. It’s all I can do not to fling myself at the door to keep it from shutting. I lived for a short time in a travel trailer by the river, tight as a pocket. Fortunately, common picnic tables, laundry, even a sauna, and the river made it livable; I slipped myself inside only to sleep. Similarly, I only slept in my huge downstairs room in a house in San Francisco, a vast rectangle with windows well above my head–my view was my housemates’ ankles and the neighbors’ cats.

Art believes successful architecture elicits a soulful response. In the Creek House, the sun enters in panels of light on the floor through windows of all different shapes with precious few right angles. Light in the River House likewise refracts just as the piano music resonates with the curved ceiling and wall. As musicians and brain scientists claim about the “Mozart Effect,” in which spatial-temporal reasoning is heightened by listening to complex classical music, this complex and flowing architecture stimulates my brain. “Humans are fascinating and complicated beings,” Art said, “and it is my solemn belief that architecture can substantially and meaningfully improve their condition and uplift their spirits.”

Color and texture impact us in the same way light and shadow do, so if our choices reflect our needs and intention rather than fashion, we’ll be more satisfied. “For most people, color has an enormous importance in the experience of architecture,” says Dyson. “Personal surroundings reflect emotional patterns and tendencies through the presence of hue, tone, and shade across the visible spectrum of light.” He spends an entire page in his planning questionnaire discerning a client’s response to color and another to sound: “Sound is a natural corollary to color.” For example, he says, fast food restaurants’ interior orange urges customers to eat quickly, get up and go (for quick turn-around). When Dennis died, I painted my bedroom walls orange to nudge myself out of bed. A friend painted her dining room a stunning and stylish “merlot,” but it tended to make me sleepier than the dinner wine warranted. I asked Eric Wright, architect and grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright about effect architecture has on people’s psyches and his answer mostly dealt with color and texture. Wright said he’d discussed color with Art (Dyson’s research at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture was on the psychological effects of color). “I myself tend more towards earth tones. I like black and white, but in a room I think it’s deadly. If a client wants it light, I’ll go with more of an off-white.” He mixes three colors with the white—usually red, yellow, and blue, tint it with the three basic colors. “That way it picks up what’s in a room–if you have red flowers, it picks that up.” In the Creek House, I chose a blue-infused white as a cool balance to so much wood. I chose a warmer white to balance the steel and greys in the River House. Wright said even the finishes on the wood affect the tenor of a room. He likes to leave the wood natural. When it was affordable, he liked to use copper and let it age naturally, or sometimes he’d even hasten the patina. With the wrong or right proportions of space and light and color Eric Wright said, “you could have a room that could drive you mad. Or,” indicating the view in his studio he shares with his wife Mary, an artist, of trees and the Pacific, “you could have another room that would relax and sooth; this has repose.” He prefers opening up the room as much as possible and delivering light to the both the middle and the dark edges of a room. In a living room, he said, “you want some areas that are slightly cave-like, and yet you can move out of that into a larger social space.” Dyson recently designed a residential crisis center in Fresno implementing all these principles. “It had to be fresh, clean, and organized as well as safe,” he said. The colors are muted greys and browns, soft and warm. The textures are varied, yet predictable—long, horizontal blocks, materials that look like natural wood, and quartz counters. Even if the residents’ lives are in a state of flux, “at least the materials will be honest and natural.” To make it more natural and less institutional, glass windows open up to planted areas outside, even at the ends of the hallways, which are lined with the residents’ artwork. The natural light and greenery is more humanizing and hopeful, he said, pointing to the grape ivy scaling the fence outside his conference room window. “See how it waves?”

Can architecture imprint on a child? Wright especially espoused stimulating organic space for students in schools, counter to proposals that a storefront would suffice. “You can’t tell me,” he said, “that the environment that surrounds those children doesn’t have an impact. Especially if you’re doing it in an organic way—you’re bringing nature inside and it also moves outside, so the child is engrossed and develops in the natural environment.” Art Dyson has designed several schools, including University High School, where Greg teaches music. His choir room is yellow and emanates energy; the room where he teaches theory is a calmer maroon. At UHS and other schools and libraries, Dyson includes cozy spaces that attract children’s curiosity. At the Orange Cove Children’s Center, child-high windows allow children to look out and see the green and natural world outside. A skylight in the center shines on a rug and hits each month in turn, so each child’s birthday month is eventually illuminated. Perhaps the most dramatic example of architecture impacting children I have heard is Dyson’s design for Webster Elementary School in Fresno. In an interview Elva Coronado described its impact as “a beacon of hope”:

It was designed so uniquely. There’d never been a school like this in Fresno. The    design itself was    something that you never would see in a school. The children were proud of it, you know, we didn’t have the crime there. We became very good friends with the people who lived on the perimeter of the school and they would watch the school for us on the weekends. I made personal contacts with them. [Dyson] would tell the parents, “This is going to be a school for your children, your families.” He wanted it to be the attraction there in the neighborhood. There was a lot of pride in the community from that school.

The AP scores rose 102 points the first year and 80 points the year after that, and Coronado attributed the continued improvement to the pride the teachers and the students took in the school. In a crime-stunted area of town, the school was uniquely crime-free. Coronado wanted to be available to the students, so Dyson designed the principal’s office with windows facing the playground/entrance and the library was close by per Coronado’s suggestion to make the library the hub of the school.

            In a conversation in the Creek House, Al Struckus, a client of Bruce Goff’s, proposed that children might grow up more creative in a less restrictive space such as our houses (Goff’s Struckus and Dyson’s Lencioni Residences). I said children are inherently creative, that society conspires to choke them into conformity. We decided that at least the freer organic space doesn’t do anything to stifle their creativity, that the ready accessibility of nature is healthy and stimulating. While I didn’t ask about Struckus’ children (I should have; if you know, tell me!), my children are both creative in different ways. Marc Dyson, who grew up around his father’s houses, said co-existing with these unconventional shapes gave him permission to see forms in a vast variety of ways. “More important,” said Marc, “is the philosophy behind it—the way [the artist-architect/his father] solves problems—no matter what it is, he finds a creative solution.” Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, in a 2010 announcement for a CELE Exchange competition entitled “Space to Develop: How Architecture Can Play a Vital Role in Young Children’s Lives” lists six premises for healthy child space:

  • Offers the potential for creative play.
  • Encourages the children to be more naturally active.
  • Offers a flexible natural environment for exploring and learning and for enjoyment by children of all ages.
  • Provides an environment where children can learn to assess risk and make informed choices.
  • Encourages wildlife habitation.
  • Has social spaces for better interaction

Architecture can influence all of these. If the space is creative and has risked deviating from the cookie cutter, as Marc Dyson said, children must feel freer to follow the expressive example in which they live. If the house is situated with windows attentive to wildlife and the natural environment, even in cities where the wildlife are squirrels and pigeons, children can interact with the untamed natural world. And the third is most obvious: while too many children are sequestered in their own little box of a room with a television or video games, children who interact with each other and with adults in a common space have more opportunity to grow socially.

Architecture impacts behavior the way attire impacts behavior. I assume I am typical in that I dress differently for my different roles (in that way, fashion is more flexible than habitat): today, as I write, read and garden on a 90-degree day, I wear a t-shirt and shorts—my sandals wait by the door. I wear slacks, boots, and a button blouse to teach; and, when I go to an art museum opening, I might wear a dress and heels. I stand differently. I hold my glass differently. I have a different awareness of my surroundings depending on my costume. Sometimes I purposely dress in jeans for class as a license to be temporarily informal. When I take students on a field trip, I have them dress nicely (“what you’d wear to an afternoon wedding”), and they are on their best behavior as a result. Alain de Botton, in Architecture of Happiness, writes, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places–and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”

De Botton contends buildings talk to us. Of course they do. Houses speak in the imperative, the declarative, and the interrogatory voices. The River House imperatively urges me to look up, look out at the hills, sit down, relax, appreciate. She declares: you are free, you are balanced, you are safe, you are welcome, you are part of the larger world. She asks, “What do you want to do today?” “What do you think?” Mark Hammons, in “To Architecture” (1994) writes that architecture offers direction:

Take a dictionary and look up architecture: the result or product of architectural work, or   building. Follow the trail to build. That word derives from the ancient English dwelling. See dwell. The idea behind that verbalization is a sense of guiding. In due pursuit of guide we get to lead, and from there we learn we are being taken somewhere by previous experience. Architecture can be understood as a means of providing directions, some subtle and others overt, for our behavior.

Tom and Sue Jacksha tell a story of a time their Dyson house provided overt direction: One time when Sue’s parents were visiting, they turned all the lights off and turned on “this funky contemporary jazz.” Tom said the full moon cast a pattern on the floor, and they could see out to the lights of the city. “My dad was lying on the floor,” Sue said, indicating how unusual that would be. “We all sort of started dancing to the music. My mom has never been drunk or high, but she started dancing as if she were. She asked, ‘Is this what it’s like [to be high or drunk], because that’s how I feel.’ It was a magical feeling.” I was able to visit the Jacksha Residence with new owners and a similar response. “When people come to the house they kind of melt,” said Susan Early, who herself relaxed on a stuffed armchair with her knees tucked under her, so calm and peaceful in this space. “When people see this house for the first time, they are surprised. It’s so unprepossessing from the road, then they step in and it’s so different. Then they’re surprised because it’s not just another variation on the same thing, but it’s unique and really works.” Referring to the boulder in the entry, she says people are impressed it is warmer or softer than one would expect, “approachable.”

Giuliano Chelazzi, an Italian architect and architectural scholar adds: “People are happy in Dyson houses. I met Susan Early (Jaksha Residence), and, while the house was not built for her, she is very happy there. We talked about second owners who specifically choose a certain house finding a good fit. As De Botton writes, “It seems reasonable to suppose that people will possess some of the qualities of the buildings they are drawn to.” Chelazzi said (this is translated by Dani Lencioni), “The effort was realized, I think. For a house made like this, the house and the architect are raised together…Also the psychological, sociological and economical dimensions—everything—are very important. But it’s very important that the client makes an effort to understand that which is still incomprehensible. Non si arrivano un succeso. If not, they do not arrive at success.”

De Botton adds, “But sensitivity to architecture also has its more problematic aspects. If one room can alter how we feel, what will happen to us in most of the places we are forced to look at and inhabit?” Of course, this book is an argument against being forced into the wrong architecture. De Botton continues, “It is to prevent the possibility of permanent anguish that we can be led to shut our eyes to most of what is around us.” I deeply desire everyone to experience his or her own best world with wide open eyes.

If people are insensitive to the environment, architecture won’t work its subtle power. I watched a woman in the Whitney Museum in New York, a building designed by Renzo Piano with balconies overlooking the waterfront and the Highline full of artwork, some beautiful, some provocative, and she strolled the entire open hall talking on her cellphone, smiling and staring at the floor. Similarly, Dyson and his associates, Robert Siegrist and Douglas Janzen designed a glorious Catholic church in my town of Sanger, California which proves there is a limit to the effect architecture has on inattentive occupants. I have been in this church three times. The first, I walked in and saw only a woman up at the altar busy with altar-guilding, I suppose. She didn’t say anything when I slipped in. The 12,000 square foot space looked soaringly beautiful to me, and I wanted to come back on a Sunday. Pure white inside and out, the twelve columns, one for each apostle, line up along a reflecting pool, wearing different colored banners depending on the liturgical season. Mary hovers in insistent welcome. As the jury commented when they bestowed the American Institute of Architects, San Joaquin Chapter award in 2001: “The columns and cantilevered pipes extending over the entry evoke a sense of celebration as you approach the sanctuary. Beams of light stream through the glass entry across the pews towards the altar.” It struck me as a place that would please God. Empty and quiet, it felt very holy.

Although we’re not Catholic, Dani and I, one Sunday after her dad had died, drove to town to try the beautiful new St. Mary’s. Dani was probably 12. I followed the parishioners. She followed me. I bowed on my way into the pew and knelt to pray quietly before sitting, as I had been raised to do in the Episcopal church. The pews, which seat 1,000 congregants were all crowded. We followed the service, sang the hymns, gave our offertory, and (because I wanted to), we went up for communion. In the Lutheran church where we had attended through the kids’ Sunday School years, the children go up for communion, but, until they’ve been confirmed at age 13 or 14, the pastor simply blesses them with kind hands on their head and sweet affirming words. So Dani kneeled trustingly beside me at the railing. I looked up at the pure white-on-white altar before bowing my head and cupped one hand in the other to receive the host. Dani held her hands clasped by her knees, as she’d been taught. The communicant reached down for Dani’s hand and thrust a wafer in her palm. Not knowing what to do with it, she closed her fist and held it. We were both more confused than inspired, so I stood to leave and she followed, still clutching the wafer. We were half-way up the side aisle, the light flowing in in holy streaming beams, when the priest in his bulky flowing white vestments, swooped heavily up the aisle behind us, grabbed my daughter by the shoulder, and roughly turned her around. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked in front of the whole congregation. “Who is it for?” I muttered that she wasn’t confirmed; she didn’t know what to do with it. Dani opened her hand and the priest snatched the host and wheeled around victorious to his flock. She looked at me with Cosette eyes, and I took her hand and led her to the car.

Two years later, Dani and I had the inclination to give St. Mary’s another shot. We wouldn’t go up to communion; we’d sit in the back and observe. At the start of the service the pews were only ¾ full. The same priest began mass, but the parishioners never stop talking. They didn’t whisper; they talked conversationally in English or Spanish or a combination, half-heartedly standing, sitting and kneeling at the appropriate times, but clearly with no attention to the service. Family groups continued to arrive, greeting and jostling their ways into an open spot. We could hardly hear the layreaders. The priest came into the center to read the Gospel. We genuflected with our neighbors who simmered down a little for the Word–or the priest’s proximity. When he returned to the front of the congregation, he lit into them (us?), scolding for ditching confession. When he headed up towards the altar, I whispered to Dani, “We don’t have to stay.” No one took the slightest notice when we gathered our coats and scarves and walked out. Even the most graceful architecture can’t teach manners and grace.

Anticipating need for separate space can minimize distress. The Creek House, intimate as it is, has a large and enclosed suite with a balcony for parents to retreat from teenagers’ activities downstairs (and yet we could have kept an eye on them if they had been troublemakers). The office space is a private refuge. In the River House, sliding doors have the ability to close off the den from the otherwise open space. Boback Emad told of one of Dyson’s homes designed with two wings—his and hers—with a bridge connecting. Dyson designed Lela and Charles Hilton a lovely home with soft curves, they called Art’s “Falling Water,” which makes the most of the Gulf view, but remains private to the street. A large circular window at the entry allows light into the hallway, but the way the wall undulates away from the door, there’s no line of sight into the house. The Hilton Residence is large enough for many occupants, but they built a separate house for their adult son with special needs.

Art is proud of the Hilton House, but was most enthusiastic about planning a healing house adjacent to the parents’ for Chip. While the doctor saw Chip as a “case,” Art praised the schizophrenic-bipolar man’s intelligence and humor. Dyson’s idea was that if he could dramatically improve a person’s mental health with a home design, it would be “an amazing opportunity to offer something other folks would learn from.” Chip had been living in a “cave,” Art said, suspecting that the setting didn’t do his condition any good. The house was on an incline, so the garage and Chip’s room walk out from the dark underground level. Art thought he could do something with light and view and privacy for Chip as well, but first he needed the man’s trust. Art knew that Chip was an avid golfer, so Art asked Chip for golf lessons and paid him cash for lessons at the driving range. Art joked that the lessons didn’t do much good (Art doesn’t spend a lot of time out on the green), but with Chip in the position of expert, he’d shifted the power dynamic. At one point, Art said, “You know, I’d like to continue with golf lessons, but they’re getting a little expensive. How about, I trade you golf lessons for drawing lessons.” Chip had been drawing airplanes, lots and lots of airplanes, and Art thought he could learn something by observing Chip draw. Art said it was interesting, how, as an artist, if he were to draw a plane, he’d draw the line of the body and wing as a composition, but Chip visualized the construction of the plane and drew it plate by plate as it would be welded together. Chip had done drawings, but he hadn’t painted, and Art said some of the pieces were very good, although limited in color. Chip would choose one color exclusively, then switch to another. Another clue. Chip’s sister Julie arranged for a show of Chip’s work in a gallery she oversees, and Art and Audrey attended, which pleased Chip greatly. Art could make Chip laugh. When Chip didn’t want to talk about size of rooms or closets and wasn’t responding to questions like “shower or tub?” Art said, “Chip, you’re going to have this cool house, and you’ll have to fight the girls away. What if three of them want in the shower? What are you going to do—make them take turns?” In fact, Lela said Art was the first to get a rise of humor out of Chip.

I was able to talk to Chip on the phone when I visited the Hilton House. At first, he offered to give me golf lessons, but when he realized I was writing about Dyson and architecture, he sternly said, “I’d love to give you golf lessons sometime, but let’s not confuse this with the more important work you’re doing for Art.” He wanted to make sure Art “gets credit” for his good work. He told me he was skeptical at first (“I thought it was a fiasco”), but once the glass was in, he thought it was “unbelievably beautiful” (which it is, especially the two Hilton houses together). When I asked him how the house suits him, he told me he hadn’t seen it for a long time. When I asked him what his favorite room in the house was, he said he hadn’t been in yet. I asked if he’d like to go in it; he wasn’t sure. “It’s a pretty house—there’s nothing in the area that compares to it,” he said, “and those kind of houses are complex and hard to build. They showed me a model of the house, and I thought it was a beautiful model.” Besides golfing and swimming, Chip said he spent most of his time working out, lifting weights, drawing airplanes and making clay and wax models of his MX-20 plane, and playing Boz Scaggs on the piano, but he battled with serious health issues. In the house, Dyson designed comfortable places for him to rest and a room for each of his pursuits. He was looking forward to space to display his artwork. Although he was frustrated with the time it took to complete the house, Chip said, “It takes a long time to progress in drawing and in music, and it’s taken a long time for this house to progress. I’ve been working on my drawings while Art’s been working on the house.”

Art said he designed Chip’s house to be “embrasive inside and abrasive outside.” Since Chip was concerned with living in a remote area, Art hoped he’d feel secure inside the thick stucco walls that appear fortress-like and private. While the parents’ house has more buoyant lighting, Chip’s house feels like a protective cape. As you look out the windows that face the Gulf of Mexico, your back and shoulders feel securely covered. The water is calm and serene. The colors are calm also, and each room is monochromatic. Sadly, Chip died soon after I visited and never lived in the house. His parents host the “Chip Hilton Celebration of Life Charity Golf Classic” in Chip’s memory benefitting charities such as The First Tee of Northwest Florida whose mission is “to positively impact the lives of young people by promoting character development and life-enhancing values through the First Tee’s ‘Life Skills Learning Experience’ and the game of golf.”

Architecture cannot magically dissolve all anxiety. “We should be kind enough not to blame buildings for our own failure to honour the advice they can only ever subtly proffer,” says De Botton. Similarly, while many people experience a de-stressing with yoga, one yoga instructor I know struggles with OCD. She freely admits yoga doesn’t solve her obsessive behavior, but it does help her manage it.   De Botton and Armstrong call art a tool: “Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn…psychological frailties.” I can work at the River House for longer stretches than I can anywhere else, but after three hours at my computer, I must move to release the nervous demon. Unwound and reacquainted with the beauty around me, I return to work and am soothed all over again. Art likes to paraphrase John Wright talking about his father’s mission: “Frank Lloyd Wright designed a romance around his clients,” Dyson paraphrases. “He wanted to make their sunsets brighter, make them walk with more rhythm in their step. Maybe they’d see shadows with a paler shade of lavender.”


Dyson’s Selma Performing Arts Center (super-low budget, but changes the entire atmosphere of the small town downtown).

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