A Path Least Traveled – Part 1…The Woods

Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”                                                      Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken”

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill

We live in a world largely defined by our built environment. Buildings fill the landscape of our lives. They’re the woods we live in. We make them; they, in turn, make us.

Unable in most cases to live in today’s world without them, we’re crowded by their influence over us. Day in and day out, it’s virtually impossible to fully escape their effect on our lives.

And yet, for all their pervasive presence in our lives we’re largely indifferent to them, if not, at times, downright hostile. Only occasionally do we approach them with pleasure.

Structures we erect to shelter our lives, far too often and contrary to best intentions, fail to nurture us in meaningful and lasting ways. Multiply this scenario by many millions and you begin to grasp the scope of the problem and of the opportunities missed.

When I navigate the sprawl of homes and commercial buildings here in L.A., in order to cope, I find myself inadvertently tuning much of it out. Far too often, my perceptual engagement of it is discouraged. If I do tune in, more often than not I’m annoyed by what has replaced what could have been.

I think that in order to cope with a situation we feel so helpless to change, we travel this built landscape of our lives to a large extent on automatic pilot. As a consequence, our relationship with the built environment has evolved into a passive one.

Of course we can find exceptions – there are certainly buildings that we enjoy.They may even inspire us. You probably find your own home to be such an exception. It reflects more of who you are than do most buildings.

Nevertheless, my target here is our predominantly passive relationship with most of what gets built, that we feel helpless to do anything about, and that occupies so much of our field of vision – and its consequences.

What draws me into sharing my thoughts on this subject is the possibility that there’s a reasonable alternative to all this indifference and hostility to what looms so large in our lives. I’m challenging its seeming inevitability. I think change is possible.

Again, we’re all affected by our surroundings. In ways that vary from person to person, we’re all atrophied to some extent in the realm of sensory perception and ability to be actively engaged by our surroundings.

Why do we resign ourselves to this? Is there something that can be done? I think so. Here are my thoughts with some suggestions.

It occurs to me, making a simple observation, that certain deeply held beliefs and preferences inevitably play out in our lives in some form or other, sometimes with a vehemence.

Peace of mind requires keeping them at a safe distance. The charge they carry, I think, derives from the vagueness with which they are held.

One way to account for this vagueness is the fragility of those beliefs and preferences such as in art, religion/philosophy, and politics. Because they’re held so deeply, they remain mostly out of sight. They’re hard to access; articulating them, harder yet. Attempts to air them in public are often frustrating if not scary – the outcome is often heated. So they remain stored away, vague. A safe distance is kept. The consequence: a sense of helplessness to change what has become easier to pass off as inevitable.

These deep-rooted beliefs and preferences guide much of what we do in life. Buried over time, we guard them well. We fight over them.

But living in a congested world requires more non-combative options. Open, de-fused communications are needed. This is especially true in the case of making buildings.

Transforming our built environment so that it might be more profoundly engaging requires digging deep into our priorities, articulating them, and finding a receptive audience.

Here’s what I suggest as a path through this impasse and its affect on our environment: do what’s in our power as individuals to do – let’s take responsibility for our beliefs and preferences, in this case, with respect to our built landscape. Examine them; challenge them. See if we can understand why we like what we like.

By digging deep and bringing these buried beliefs into the light of consciousness, we may not revise them, but we might discover that we’re more open to other possibilities previously ignored. Our priorities begin to shift. Eyes wide open, we begin to see things for what they really are. We consciously open up to better alternatives.

By opening the doors of our minds, if we choose, we then find ourselves searching for new ways to improve our personal environment, our lives.

The places some of us will build will be influenced by this awakening. Indifference will slowly be replaced by more positive alertness to our surroundings. More and more we’ll begin to discover and experience places that we like. Life will become more interesting. More and more we’ll be inspired by the places we build.

Of course, the larger process of self-exploration and discovery at the heart of this kind of change is much bigger than the scope of this post. Here, I’m just trying to scratch the surface.


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