Places of Solace
by Wendy Richmond
When my dad started to get sick eight years ago, I was living part-time in La Jolla, California. On most of the days I was there, I would drive to the Salk Institute. If you care anything about architecture, you’ve seen pictures of it, most likely taken from the beginning of the long stream that cuts through the middle of its wide-open courtyard and heads straight towards the horizon.
The first day I went, I told the guard at the parking lot that I worked at the Institute, and I showed him my camera. From then on, he just waved me in. But the truth is, I didn’t work there, and I hardly ever touched my camera. I had come for solace.
I’m not the praying type. The only time I attend a religious service is out of respect for someone else. But, from time to time, I do seek out places that make me feel...just...better. In every neighborhood where I have lived, whether for a few months or ten years, there was at least one place that I would visit when I needed to clear out worrisome thoughts. What was it about each site that provided the comfort? What allowed me to leave feeling differently than when I arrived?
ARCHITECTURE AND NATURE
Like many people, I’m calmed by being in nature—walking along the shore, or sitting in a meadow. But for me, the sensation is deepened when nature is honored by an exquisite frame.
For a period when I lived in Cambridge, my life revolved around MIT. There were times when school, work and relationships collided, and I needed to escape it all, even for just a few minutes. The MIT chapel, designed by Eero Saarinen, is at the center of the campus; it’s a brick cylinder encircled by a shallow moat. There are no windows, and when you’re inside, you don’t see the moat itself. But there is glass above it, so when the sunlight hits the water, the reflections glow on the cylinder’s interior wall. Sometimes I would go to the chapel and watch the light.
During my visits to the Salk Institute, I must have walked on every inch of the courtyard. I rarely sat still, but if I did, I perched on a stone bench and followed the stream’s flow. One day, workers were making repairs and the path was bone dry. The loss of this small movement was palpable.
When I was living in Boston’s Back Bay, on warm evenings I would walk to the Christian Science Center Plaza, in particular the 700-foot-long Reflecting Pool, designed by architects I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta, Associate Architects. If it had been a tough day, I would go around it three or four times, growing calmer with each lap. Like my visits to the Salk Institute, part of my solace came from my own movement. But again, it was the outside movement that would hold my focus and soothe me. If there was no wind, the surface of the shallow pool was smooth. Then a tiny breeze would come along, and the water would become new and change everything.
I discovered the New York Zen Center the first week I moved to my current neighborhood. The twice daily meditation schedule was posted on the door. I was feeling unsettled by my move, and this seemed like a promising outlet. I went in the evening, and the big room where zazen is practiced was light enough to find an empty spot to sit, but dark enough so that I was invisible. One of the reasons I moved to my neighborhood is its sense of community, and I am part of that now. But what I need when I go to the Zen Center is to be ignored.
A friend of mine grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, on the cul-de-sac where Frank Lloyd Wright built two of his first Prairie houses. When my friend had his typical teenage tantrums, he would storm out of his house and power walk to the Wright houses, sit down on the curb across the street, and just stare at them until his temper subsided. He says now that in retrospect, looking at Wright’s architecture gave him a sense of balance. But I think there was another aspect. These houses, and the curb on which he sat, were always accessible, never hidden or off-limits. Sometimes a requirement for gaining tranquility is in knowing that its source will be there.
In last November/December's column “Housing the Muse, I described physical spaces that inspire me to be creative, where the everyday thoughts I had before crossing the threshold get vaporized, leaving my brain clean and ready to receive something fresh.
Perhaps places of solace are not so different. CA
© 2011 W. Richmond
Editor's note: Wendy is the author of Art Without Compromise*.