Romanticizing Architecture

Describing romanticism is difficult; I seek to find beauty not only in people but in everything around me.

Behavioral studies that attempt to understand the romanticism of objects and environments are both intriguing and complex. Psychology demonstrates that to romanticize non-human entities is to render them worthy of moral care and consideration, and to find a meaningful, personal connection with them.

Neuroscience research indicates that we use the same brain regions when we are thinking about nonhuman entities as we do when thinking about human ones, and it is here that our feelings (including romance, affection and love) can be connected with the built environment.

Architecture may also be connected to brain development. Neuroscience suggests that the quality of a built environment can enhance the performance of the brain and can even generate the growth of new brain cells. During his search for a polio cure, Jonas Salk retreated to the Basilica of Assisi. He later insisted that the design of that environment had cleared his obstructed mind and led to the polio vaccine.

Basilica of Assisi in Italy

This experience prompted Salk to romanticize the architecture of the Basilica, and many can describe similar feelings about their built environments. This perception can drive people to consider architecture in their most important moments, both tragic and amazing.

Take Manhattan’s Empire State Building, for example. It’s a New York icon, featured in more than a hundred films including King Kong and Sleepless in Seattle. The famous building is a hotbed of romance, hosting numerous marriage proposals and even Valentine’s Day weddings. The world’s tallest building at the time of its completion in 1931, the Empire State Building sparks inspiration in those who see it (in pictures or in person) as well as those daring enough to surge to its peak via ultra-fast elevators.

Is it the height that grabs us and leaves us breathless? Or is it the fact this amazing feat of engineering, with its super-thick walls, was completed in just one year? Whatever the reason, this building dominates the skyline of New York City as well as the romantic consciousness of New York’s visitors, making it deserving of New York’s nickname (“the Empire State”).

The iconic Empire State Building

Another example is found in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in a small city in the northeast of Spain—not a popular travel destination until Frank Gehry designed the sculptural, sparkling museum along the riverfront. Like a powerful piece of art, a building can have a strong impact on us at first sight, and Bilbao has become a household name and a tourist destination due to this mesmerizing building.

Santiago Calatrava’s airport in Bilbao should not be discounted either; Calatrava’s famous soaring ceilings and structural details sweep visitors up into the rafters and bring them gently back down to where they stand, gazing upward. It’s no wonder that these two buildings are so often the images used for regional advertisements and announcements; they’ve become iconic because of the connections that they create with visitors.

Gehry’s sculptural Museum Bilbao

In fact, architecture is increasingly popular in all types of advertising, as ad execs take advantage of the romanticized backdrop. Take time to note the setting of any new car commercial—you’d be hard-pressed to find an ad where the location and architecture wasn’t chosen specifically to enhance the design of the car, its sweeping elegance, speed, timeless design, and beauty. This trend can be found among other types of products as well.

Unfortunately, not all architecture holds a positive meaning; we all have personal connections with spaces, places, and architecture, and sometimes they can be dark. The 2006 documentary The Bridge is a testament to this “other” romantic connection, highlighting San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge—classic, photogenic icon for most, but location of life-ending leaps for others.

The bridge has been the site of more than a thousand suicides, making it the most popular suicide location in the world. Why there? Some suggest it’s the majesty and iconicism of the structure that makes it the choice for troubled souls. Most jumpers don’t survive, making “why” a difficult question to answer, but the few survivors note the beckoning “vibrations” of the bridge.

It seems evident that our buildings do speak to us, in different ways. We must remember that when designing spaces, we are also creating a constantly evolving dialogue, open to everyone who visits.

Linda Bennett is a practising architect and founder of website Archi-Ninja, a more than worthwhile read for those seeking a unique, in-depth view of architecture.

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