To Notice

Volume 49, Issue 4

In the words of architect John Hejduk, “the fundamental issue of architecture is that does it affect the spirit or doesn’t it. If it doesn’t affect the spirit, it’s building. It if affects the spirit, it’s architecture.”

I strive to make the connection between architecture and the spirit by using physical space to stem the stream of thought. To move beyond the experience of a building as an unconscious continuity caught predictably between the past and the future, and provoke awareness of the infinite present. To stop reading this as a sentence and look into the space between words. Look deeper. Notice the pronunciation of words in your head. There are no echoes in the thought space; there are no walls. The thoughts linger silently. Notice that the quiet expanse in your mind filled with thoughts is like the white space between words on this page.

Architecture, too, can make us notice.

There are two special characteristics that architecture offers towards this ambition of awareness, qualities that make it unique compared to other forms of artistic expression. They are duration and siting. While our experiences are in constant flux, physical space persists through time and in one place, becoming a backdrop that makes the invisible forces visible. Looking at the view through my window, I notice the transforming seasons and passing clouds, the visits of the sun, and shadows cast by the moonlight. I hear wind move through trees and into my room. Sometimes I notice that silence has a sound too. Architecture becomes an extension of my senses, a stage for heightened encounter. Through these means it can show me that time is not steadfast and constant. Sometimes it hesitates.

But wouldn’t the patient inhabitant find presence without the gesture of the architect, just as the great pianist can produce beautiful sound with any piano? In that intimate, thoughtless moment, I think that architecture can inspire us to become further aware than we could on our own. Architecture can be the perfectly tuned instrument played for us by the soul of place. It can remind us to see the world as does a child, open and naïve in discovering this strange place once more. The architect is charged to inspire this deep moment of presence with simple means, like the painter’s color and texture or the writer’s structure and sound of existing words. The author is tasked with escaping the bounds of the medium. There are countless larger-than-life examples, but I am interested in more humble means. I am interested in taking advantage of what is already here.

St. Luke in the Fields is a small church and attached gardens in the West Village of Manhattan; the grace of this place in its context is what makes me notice. I have never entered the church. The Barrow Street Garden is the size of a room, ensconced by a brick wall and secluded in silence. The garden moves with the wind, provides a home for the birds, is a void where flowers are allowed to flourish. The circular path meanders through growth of every color; I am invited to discover. Intermittent moments inhabited me causing a lapse in the steady hand of time, but they have already flown away like birds
This is the spiritual architecture I seek, secret sanctuaries that dissolve the past, and whose vast silence arrests thought and offers infinite awareness in return. In that unbounded moment granted with space, I finally take notice of this beautiful and fleeting place.

The author is an architectural designer at Mitchell|Giurgola Architects in New York. He is a recipient of a 2015 Faith & Form/ IFRAA Student Work Award.