Our lives are shaped by the surrounds we create

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Most of us have a home, be it a high rise flat or a detached house in the country.

It is our own space in the world, a place where we live alone or with others or as a family group. The house will be situated in a city, town or village and usually surrounded by properties.

Together we exist as community. Our lives are shaped by both home and the surrounding environment and yet it constantly surprises me that many new clients have little or no knowledge of what is possible through design, and through the work of an architect.

“I thought you just drew plans” or “it’s only bricks and mortar” are phrases we hear all too often.

How is it possible to change this scenario, so that both the design of our housing and the communities they form can be fully understood by all?

I believe that education has a key role to play from a young age through to adulthood.

I’d like to think that the architecture we create can shape and influence home life and society and I’d like to think that professionals work alongside the community in the design of infrastructure and development.

It would be great to have architecture at a point where everyone can be involved in the design of both individual homes and the community they form.

I believe that this level of understanding must stem from an integrated early-years curriculum, where creative play is actively encouraged and the “can’t do” health and safety approach manual sits firmly on the shelf.

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” is a well known saying and it is relevant here. If we allow children to learn through creative play then they will start to understand the role of shelter, climate and society from a young age. The other benefit of such an approach is that we will still nurture those less academic and encourage the physical makers and doers of the future. Understanding through real, rather than virtual play, will have positive consequences for the future. The curriculum could be developed through secondary years and perhaps taken out into the work place. How many children would enjoy time on a building site or in a joiner’s shop, learning to make the places we inhabit?

At the same time, the meaning of home and place can be developed through literary works. In Towards Re-enchantment: Place and its Meaning a series of short essays, to illustrate the title, Robert Macfarlane writes:

“Certain kinds of language can restore a measure of wonder to our relations with nature. Others can offer small tools for small place making. Others can allow the things around us to talk to or look back at us, freed from their role as standing reserve, and instead possessing what the early anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl called ‘participation’, by which term he designated the animistic logic of people for whom inert objects like stones or mountains are thought to be alive, and for whom certain names or words, spoken aloud,’ may be felt to influence at a distance the things or beings that they name, such that people, places and creatures may all be felt to participate in one another’s existence, influencing each other and being influenced in turn.”

How refreshing it would be, to see this level of understanding in our visual appraisal of our built and natural world. Perhaps we can start to see our world in new ways, which will affect how we choose our future homes.

Philosopher and architect Peter Zumthor writes: “The strength of good design lies in ourselves and in our ability to perceive the world with both emotion and reason. A good architectural design is sensuous and intelligent. The roots of our architectural understanding lie in our architectural experience; our room, our house, our street, our village, our town, our landscape. We experience them all early on, unconsciously. The roots of our understanding of architecture lie in our childhood.”

Zumthor recognises the importance of early years teaching in developing an understanding of our built world.

The study of our homes encompasses a multitude of topics from basic shelter to climate and topography through to technical construction and the socio economic affects of housing. Educating our children about all these would be a step forward in the overall awareness and importance of housing design in society. I dearly hope that these lessons can be taught and that as a society and profession, we will work collectively to design homes and communities that will be of lasting benefit for successive generations.

As children’s author Andrea Beaty says in her book Iggy Peck, Architect: “Young Iggy Peck is an architect and has been since he was two when he built a great tower in only an hour with nothing but diapers and glue”.

Ric Blenkharn is co-founder of Bramhall Blenkharn Architects, Malton, www.brable.com