Thinking and Feeling

The most intense architectural experience I’ve had was a visit to the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. It’s a small, peculiar building designed by Le Corbusier and built in 1954.

Image selbst fotografiert, via Wikipedia (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Notre_Dame_du_Haut(ws).jpg)
Image by selbst fotografiert, via Wikipedia

I was in my early twenties when I visited Ronchamp. As an architecture student, I’d seen many photos of the place, created a detailed pencil rendering of the building, and built a plaster model with classmates. Which is to say, this building was not unfamiliar to me.

Still, when I walked through its unusual pivoting door, I was overcome with emotion. Something about the place — the light coming in through the stained glass windows, the texture of the walls, its peculiar acoustic quality, the shape of the roof, the sparseness of furnishings and, perhaps, the fact I hadn’t slept much to get there — conspired to overwhelm me. I wept.

Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dalbera/29030425846)
Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Flickr

At the risk of sounding trite, this building connected me with something eternal. It’s a place out of time: a modern work that is also entirely primal. I spent the rest of the morning walking in and around the building, in a daze. I didn’t sketch much.

I’ve had other emotional reactions to being in architecture. The Boboli Gardens in Florence. The Salk Center in La Jolla, California. Rockefeller Center in New York. None have been as intense as what I felt that day in Ronchamp.

Places like these don’t move us because of what they represent; they act on us at a level below thinking.

I’ve never had a comparable experience in a website or app. We experience information environments through language — that is, intellectually. We’re seldom moved by our experiences in them. Sure, we may have been angered by something someone’s written on Facebook, or driven to hysterics over a cat GIF. But those are not reactions to Facebook-as-place; they’re reactions to things that happened in Facebook. A key difference.

Christina Wodtke has written about poetics as a critical component of design. We don’t focus enough on this aspect of our work. When designing websites and apps, we mostly deploy language for pragmatic ends: to help people find and understand things. This constrains our ability to elicit emotional responses. Or does it? Notre Dame du Haut fulfills all of its pragmatic requirements as a building even as (or perhaps because) it moves us emotionally.