Housing the Muse, Part One
by Wendy Richmond
There are buildings with interior spaces that literally take my breath away. The Rothko Chapel in Houston, for example, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Also, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in southwest Pennsylvania. In each of these places, I feel inspired. As soon as I walk in, the everyday thoughts I had before crossing the threshold are vaporized, and suddenly my head is open: clean and ready to receive something fresh.
In his book Why Architecture Matters, Paul Goldberger wrote, “We talk about (architectural) spaces in terms of how they feel. It is a sense of awe and contentment, somehow joined, and you feel as if you have been jolted into a higher level of perception than you normally have.”
How does this happen? How does a constructed space cause these emotions? As I reflect on the many different places that elevate me to this “higher level,” I realize that each building exemplifies a unique aspect of what it means to be inspired.
Leaving everyday life behind: When I walk into the New York Public Library, it is almost impossible for me to rush through the entrance hall. Its massive arches and grand staircases demand that I take a moment to stop, breathe and shed the chaotic frenzy of 42nd Street.
During a recent visit, I met with David Christie, a specialist in the Print Collection. When I told him about the visceral response I have to certain architectural spaces, he explained, “When visiting a museum or, in this case the library, one is going to a place that is set aside for communing with the muses (museum meaning temple of the muses), and one adjusts one's mind to be open to receiving what the muses have wrought.”
Carrère and Hastings, the library’s architects, created a spatial experience; through its sheer scale, its ornament, its placement far from the street, and the interior feeling of expansiveness and openness, the building is clearly set apart from day-to-day routines. The entrance hall is basically a massive buffer from everyday life, its main purpose to prepare you to enter the library itself. It is, as Christie said, a space devoted to clearing your mind, readying it for what the muses have to offer.
Framing nature: Most people are inspired by nature. I am, too, but I am even more inspired when nature is masterfully framed. As Louis Kahn said, “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.”
The Pantheon in Rome is an exquisite example. Goldberger writes about the great circular temple, “You don’t want to move. To move is to break the spell. What is supposed to move, you realize, is the light, which comes into the space through the oculus, the round opening at the top of the dome.”
The last time I was in Rome, I stayed in the Albergo del Senato overlooking the Piazza della Rotunda, and I visited the Pantheon regularly. On my last day, as I was about to check out, I glanced out the window and noticed a passing rain shower. Without a second thought, I ran down the stairs, across the piazza and into the rotunda, just in time to watch the rain as it came through the oculus and turned into mist before it reached the floor.
Allowing recklessness: When I am inspired, I feel a momentum, a delightful urgency to create. I use everything around me to aid in the process. Like a chef in the middle of creating a new dish, I grab what I need, and I don’t stop to clean up along the way.
Years ago, I took a sculpture class at the Carpenter Center at Harvard. I loved the class, but I was intimidated by the space: The Carpenter Center is Le Corbusier’s only building in the United States. It’s hard to be liberated with your materials when you are wary of doing damage to a famous place, let alone standing aside so that architecture tourists can shoot pictures.
By contrast, the studio I had in an old mill building by the Charles River, outside of Boston, was the opposite of precious. Unlike the Corbusier building, there was nothing that could not be hammered into, splattered upon, gouged out or hung from. Its sixteen-foot tall ceilings, seven-inch thick floor and mammoth wooden pillars all said, “Use me.”
Recently, I looked up the etymology of the word inspire. I found this: “c.1300, immediate influence of God, inspirare ‘inspire, inflame, blow into,’ from in + spirare, ‘to breathe.’” Perhaps I should rephrase the first line of this column, and say instead that there are buildings with interior spaces that literally breathe into me. CA
© 2010 W. Richmond