Sitting in the waiting room of Union Station in New Haven recently on my way to D.C. to visit my son Matt, I was struck by the quiet grandeur of the space.
You are immediately aware that you are in an important place — the beautiful, lofty coffered ceiling, the striking light fixtures, even the shiny, buffed seating all contribute to the sense that this place is meant to impress. Of course, during the heyday of rail travel, these places were built to be showplaces; both as an introduction to the city to which you were traveling, and also as a sign of the prosperity of the railroad lines.
For instance, where in America can you find a public space to rival Grand Central Station? The setting draws you in with its ambiance - grand, imposing, important and beautiful. Even after more than 100 years of continuous use, it never fails to be awe-inspiring.
I always marvel at the ability of some creative minds to design spaces that have an emotional effect on the visitor. The ancients understood the importance of creating public spaces that were both functional and beautiful as a means of providing the general public with opportunities to experience something special.
During the height of the development and growth of Christianity throughout Europe, great churches were built as much to provide a theatrical experience for the worshiper as to edify God.
I love to step into a space that was designed to provoke a reaction, an emotion. Many churches, museums, libraries, municipal buildings were built to entice those who visit them; to announce that these were indeed special places in which the form is just as important as the function.
As much as I enjoy the beauty of these places that represent a certain historical sensibility, I also look to our more contemporary places to provide me with similar esthetic experiences in a more modern context.
When I visited the Getty Museum in L.A. a number of years ago, I was as impressed by the structure and gardens as I was by the collection of art. It was a total experience, both inside and out.
In the early days a of the last century, Frank Lloyd Wright had the notion of building homes for ordinary people that would lift their lives. Homes that created spaces in which they could enjoy the luxury of good design and function. He wanted to design whole communities that were examples of living environments that elevated the quality of life for the residents through a perfect blend of beauty and practicability.
I continue to look for these places everywhere I go, and sometimes you find them unexpectedly — a church in New Haven whose wooden interior seems to envelop you with warmth and peacefulness, the Blackstone library in Branford, a classic temple to the importance of the written word, the barn in a Shaker village that is simply beautiful.
I wish we could all experience and enjoy the fine art of building design more often in our daily lives. The thing is to consciously look for it; to pay attention to what you’re looking at.
Sometimes it’s not just the signature buildings that deserve scrutiny, sometimes it can be a small place that has an aesthetic and a design element that pleases you. These are the little gems that I look for.
Every day as I drive down my street I’m confronted at the stop sign by a home that seems to have grown out of the rock outcropping that its attached to. It’s all angles, windows and roof lines. It seems, from the outside, to be a place that would envelop you, to surround you with space that has movement and interest. I think about knocking on the door to ask for a tour.
There’s a lot more to see than we realize, We just need to look.
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