Books : reviews

Christopher Day.
Places of the Soul: architecture and environmental design as a healing art.
HarperCollins. 1990

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 2 January 2003

Day wants to put the soul back into buildings. Buildings are for people to live and work in, and their design and placing should enhance that human experience.

Our surroundings are potentially the most powerful artform we experience in our lives.

The shapes and materials they are made of can have a profound effect on the people using them, and looking at them.

The materials of the ground surface are at least as important as those of the walls.

Yet most modern buildings and developments are soulless, which has a destructive effect on the human spirit. In particular, the more modern building materials can be subtly destructive of the aesthetic sense.

[polyurethane-coated wood] feels hard, smooth, cold; it does not breathe and the finger's sweat condenses on its unyielding surface. It looks like wood but it is a lie and it is hardly the best food for the human spirit to surround it with lies.

Also, modern construction techniques make it hard for a building to be a growing, developing artefact.

mechanical systems do not have sufficient flexibility; the growing building cannot be adapted

Day argues that it doesn't have to be this way.

When people say, 'there isn't the money to make a building aesthetically satisfying', it is just not true. What they mean is that there is not the will or priority.

He points out that the modern emphasis is on regularity, repetition, and efficiency, but with the wrong measures of efficiency.

At this level [of radiation from insulation blocks] death from lung cancer after 60 years in such a building is 80 times more likely than death in a fire, yet radioactivity is not mentioned in the Building Regulations whilst precautions against fire are given 88 pages.

Much construction is designed to protect the building fabric itself, not the inhabitants

Also, he points out that every site is different, and that designs suitable for one location are not suitable for all.

Central Europeans wonder how British industrial cities survive without trees, but traditionally the British rely on island sea breezes

He calls for more feeling for aesthetics in the design process. Going with this feeling could potentially make every door and every window different, because they are each in a different place in the building, with a different view or opening on the exterior.

It may be ridiculous to make every window different just for the sake of being different, but it is even more so to make every one the same just for the sake of being the same, or to shape them just to impose an elevational pattern.

This can all get a bit Newage-y at times -- Day appears to believe in homeopathy, dowsing, and the razor-sharpening properties of pyramids. But he does not have that extreme "back to nature", human-hating, approach. Rather, he believes people, and their buildings, can enhance the environment.

architecture, like any other art-form, can bring spiritual benefits to humanity and to the earth which outweighs the material damage that it causes. The world would be a poorer place without Chartres Cathedral, but it took a lot of stone quarrying.

Almost everywhere ... the charm of a place is due to human activity.

Day provides a few specific guidelines -- from how to suggest a curve with a few straight lines to how to arrange a building contract that allows for changing designs and for the builders to be involved -- yet this work is mostly a plea for a return to aesthetics. There are many commonalities between the things that Day and Alexander identify as adding soul -- for example, Day mentions "light from two sides", Alexander codifies it as a pattern. In some sense this can be read as a preface to Alexander's work -- Day provides a better feel for what he means by "soul" (Alexander calls it the "quality without a name"), but Alexander goes further by identifying a large catalogue of practical design patterns that might be used to bring about such soul-ful building.