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Built for comfort

Earlier this year, the Royal Academy of Arts in London mounted an ambitious show called Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Covering 23,000 square feet, it featured large-scale installations from seven global design firms, all investigating how architecture engages the senses and affects the human spirit. The show was well received: Reviews described the installations as provoking the impulse to explore, creating a sense of freedom, or playing with notions of memory and perception. Still, it seems odd that a blockbuster exhibition would be needed to remind us what we already know, quite literally, in our bones: that without our bodily selves to experience it, a built space is only a box of stale air.

This issue of ArchitectureBoston explores the relationship between the human body and the world it lives in. Many of the articles gently prod designers to think more deeply about the people who will inhabit a space: how they will move through it, how it will make them feel. In “Body as mind,” Craig Edward Dykers of Snøhetta explores the way certain design choices work on our subcons­cious, nudging us toward civility, reflection, or action. Landscape architect Mikyoung Kim hails successful public spaces that enlist all the human senses, not just the visual. The five opening essays comprising “Touch points” all in some way look at the performative aspects of the body: In dance, sculpture, yoga, urban design, and fashion, the built environment can be a catalyst — or an obstacle.

Too often architecture serves masters other than the people — the imperatives of the site, the demands of clients, the bottom line. Bodies are almost an afterthought, mere smudged figures on a rendering, barely more animated than the benches or trees. When designers forget about the people, the results can be humbling. Think of the informal “desire lines” that pedestrians create by bushwhacking their way to a destination, defying neat theories about “circulation.” The best-laid grids of architects and planners go astray.

Perhaps the problem lies in nomenclature. We speak of the human form, but this is an abstract, even fossilized way of looking at the body. It is never fixed or static; even when a person “holds” a yoga pose, the body is making constant micro-adjustments. As architecture professor Galen Cranz notes in her illuminating article on the chair (“Sitting, still”), the rigid, right-angle posture is deeply inhuman. There are no straight lines in the body. And yet architecture is mostly straight lines.

One good way to reconcile a body’s curves with a building’s angles is through movement. Designing for movement is sometimes head-smackingly obvious: Add sidewalks, make the stairs bright and inviting, employ movable furniture. (Being able to pick up a café chair and choose where to sit — out of the sun or away from a band of noisy teenagers — helps people feel more in control of their environments and therefore safer.) Sometimes the design is so subtle as to be nearly invisible: clear sightlines, paving materials, the placement of a stair or counter can do more to orient a person than any sign reading “This way.”

The advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act has compelled architects to think pragmatically about how bodies will move through their spaces, but as Ellen Lupton and Josh Safdie discuss in “User friendly,” we are all “differently abled” at one time or another, whether we are left-handed, using a wheelchair, nearsighted, or short. That’s the profound idea behind universal design.

Objects—a spoon, a handle, a keyboard—can be beautiful but must be functional. Buildings are more complicated. They need to stand up straight. But they also must be agile, to function for countless diverse users: employees, visitors, neighbors, children. It isn’t always rational or neat: People can be unruly. But isn’t that the joy of designing? A building occupies a space. Only the addition of people make it a place. ■

Renée Loth