As designers, we have all experienced the delicious moment when nothing can be added nor deleted, when the design has reached its final form — the “I’ve got it!” feeling. It can be the perfect spacing in typography, the utmost simplicity of a logo, or the harmony of an architectural space. It is done, there is no return, it is looking at you. And we are delighted.
The attempt to reach perfection is what designers would like to do daily, if not for the mundane but necessary administration attached to each project. And when we come close to achieving it, we feel exhilarated because we strive to excel, regardless of the project scale. Perfection, when encountered, can trigger very strong emotions.
I still remember entering the Cathedral of Chartres, France, for the first time. Following the tradition of the annual Catholic student pilgrimage, which goes back to ancient times, I had walked the nearly 50 miles from Paris. As I am from another faith, I had primarily gone for the promenade with my pals from the ENSAD— the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Quite a promenade, indeed! A walk of two and a half days, with the spring heat and the accompanying blisters.
As I entered the majestic Gothic nave, my eyes raised along the ribbed vaults to the 120-foot arcs, I discovered the soft light coming through the intricate stained-glass windows, warming the chiseled stone work. I was in awe, covered with goose bumps.
I was surprised by my intense physical reaction: The nature of my shivering was nonreligious; the cool temperature of the nave was certainly welcomed after the march in the afternoon heat but not cold enough for shivering. I had been touched and overwhelmed by the harmony and architectural beauty of the cathedral. I was witnessing perfection.
The confrontation with this architectural tour de force was heightened by the underlining of its legends and secrets: the esoteric beliefs from a sacred druidical temple on which the present cathedral rests, the sacred geometry, the legend of the Templars, the luminescent enigma of the stained glass, which has been lost and never duplicated.
This colossal work had been accomplished in a mere 26 years (1194–1220) with the rudimentary construction equipment of the time, to glorify eternity and the power of the Church. I had experienced exactly the purpose of this cathedral: to intimidate by making you feel insignificant!
Yes, architectural spaces around us trigger different emotions. It can be feeling claustrophobic in the dark subway of New York City or almost nostalgic in a grand hotel lobby — the Plaza maybe —where the decor and armchairs look so comforting that you want to sit down for tea and conversation, the old-fashioned way. A well-designed hospital lobby can make you feel secure: It conveys efficiency. Bank lobbies are stern and expected to be: Your money — or no money — is a serious matter.
Or you might feel protected in the interior patios of Spanish Colonial houses, where very thick walls isolate you from the outdoor heat and commotion. The labyrinthine streets of Venice prompt curiosity: You want to get immersed, discover, and maybe resurface tomorrow.
The architect cannot predict nor control people’s reactions: Once public, buildings and spaces take on lives of their own. The public may not be that interested in the academic architecture diagram, but people do respond to the emotional experience. Unfortunately, architecture is losing its distinct identity around the world, starting with airports. Everything will soon look the same, and our emotional encounters will also be diminished.