I love people-watching. In a former life (read, my early teens), I imagined that I would one day write the great Kenyan novel. I suppose it is only fitting, then, that I find it interesting to study human character. A female friend and I have a monthly get-together which almost always takes place in a coffee shop. She knows me well enough by now to assume that 1) I will very likely order a lemon, honey and ginger tea and 2) I will always choose a seat with a good vantage point from which to stare and make up stories about people in my head.
I have come to find out that I also love building-watching. I have had many a moment when I have looked up from a frenzy of laptop typing to study a corner of the room I happen to be in as I ponder what to key in next. Sometimes my eyes land on a badly-detailed gypsum corner, all squiggly from poor plaster application. Sometimes I find myself studying the grainlines in a herringbone parquet floor, wondering if it was a deliberate move on the installer’s part to stagger the dark and light wood pieces. Many times, I have been preoccupied by the very idea that I had at one time in my life tried to ignore: We get to live with the details. And it matters.
Flashback to a studio session that took place in my second year of architecture school. Yes, that time when The Fountainhead was making the rounds and I was angry at the architecture world. (As a side note, this post is not in contradiction to my earlier one, The Architecture of Anonymity.) Our studio happened to be in a corner room that had views of Harlem/Morningside, and our professor pointed out that most of what we could see, which was block after block of new-world tenement housing, was developer-driven. He challenged us, as the architects of tomorrow, to change that narrative. To be the force behind good housing design, or good design in general. I remember commenting on what I believed to be true at that time: that most people are only content with a roof over their heads, and they don’t care for swanky architecture that gets featured in publications worldwide. What I failed to grasp at the time was what I have now (especially given the kind of architecture we have in Nairobi) come to understand. Good design is essential. It need not be iconic, but it must be good: well thought out, well-detailed, well-built.
At the beginning of this year, I helped a family member in her search for an apartment. Her budget was average; all she wanted was a one-bedroom apartment in a convenient location. One area in particular stood out to me for its housing types. The owners in this neighbourhood were asking for rental prices that were, in my estimation, not commensurate with the type of housing they were offering. One apartment had a windowless lounge that overlooked a dark shared hallway. The two rooms that had somewhat adequate daylight (a bedroom and the kitchen) had heavily tinted windows. Another apartment had windows that faced a stone wall with barely any real daylight coming in. Yet another one was situated adjacent to an enclosed parking lot and could well have been a basement – or dungeon, given the indoor conditions. All were in the same price range. Thankfully, she was able to find a unit – well away from the above area – that was livable, with good-sized windows and spaces. While it is not perfect, it is what one would get under the current conditions in Nairobi. That experience, and many others since then, have reinforced what my professor said that day. Good design is essential.
During my rant at that eye-opening studio session, my professor quietly studied me and let me finish. When I was done, he asked – very calmly, I might add – if I had ever read The Architecture of Happiness. I said that I had not. A fellow student promptly offered to lend me her copy. I was hooked from page one. I didn’t fully understand it all, nor did I agree with everything Botton wrote (he and I differ on religion). Now, however, having experienced both good and bad details, having memories of spaces that have moved and inspired me, I understand it a lot more. We get to live with the details, and it matters.
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