The importance of the childhood in architecture

Even before we were born, we develop and grow in a closed, protected environment as the gestational lot. Universally we are speaking of the primordial experience with elements outside of our body, which start indirectly to influence us in as many ways as the chaos permits.
Once we were born, we find ourselves in another closed environment, the hospital, where we meet the first persons of our life and, without realizing, we learn the concept of family. After completing the various hospital controls and being grown enough to get out from the muffled environment, we are ready to get acquainted with the first reference point for what concerns the places of our life: our home. From that point our first universe will be made up of:

Parents + Ourselves + Home

From here and so on, life will proceed more or less quickly, enrich ourselves with infinite experiences, which will take to the development of a personal consciousness and personal ideas, based on what we have directly lived on our skin. We will become the sum of all of our previous experiences.

Children learning with the Froebel Gifts

The domestic environment for the child is a strong reference point: he learns where to find toys, where to find parents for any help, where to hide himself. And it’s just this last action that we analyze. To hide ourselves contains the secret message of having understood the difference between the inside and the outside, and leads undoubtedly the child to use his brain to reach what he wants without any explanation or lesson. This behavior is but the knowledge and realization of the concept of repair: a defined place in which we let enter selectively who we want, composed by structural elements, vertical and horizontal, and structuring elements, which allow personalizing the space to feel it much closer and unique.

Repair = Structural elements + Structuring elements

Learned the lesson autonomously, we proceed in our psychological development transferring our values which we have generated in the “hut” to our bedroom, which becomes officially our second universe. In our bedroom, we feel free to generate an order of our own and to be masters of this tiny portion of space, because we have the total control of it. Here the concept inside/outside is clarified by the door and, more specifically, by the threshold. If we don’t want anybody in our space, we just close the door and it’s done. It’s the place of the choice of who is accepted and who is not. Generally, it is a place to point out, which permits a flow of information inside/outside and outside/inside.
We could consider the constant research of a repair as an inner need of men since the very first steps of life. Who does not ever build huts or hidings with a blanket, some chair, and a sofa, where to feel safe, isolated from those too much high ceilings?
But how does architecture of spaces enter in these universes and what is its role for the psychological development?
First of all we need to clarify the definition of the word architecture, which can go beyond the etymology of the word itself, so we can better understand and make more clear what we are talking about.
Going all the way back in architectural history and critique, we can find the figure of William Morris, who defines architecture in his essay “Prospects of Architecture in Civilization (1881)” as it:

“My idea of architecture embraces the entire environment of human life; we cannot evade from architecture, until we are part of the civilization, because it represents the set of modifications and alterations we operate on earth, for the human needs except for pure desire.”

Practically architecture is everything surrounds ourselves and the setting in which we all are immersed seamlessly, except for the pure desert, since the civilization was born. It occurs to us logic and immediate to think that somehow architecture enters in the substrate of our experiences playing an active role in the space perception, even arriving to influence and modify our thoughts.
Richard Neutra, in his book “Survival through design” recounts us how much the early years of his life were so important for the development of his taste in architecture:

“From the earliest days of life, we spend very much time on the floor, in the puzzled and curious childish manner. At two or three years I was used to snuggling up on the parquet of my parents’ apartment, to peer the scraped off and chipped fibers of the tired wood. The interstitial cracks were full of a compact substance I liked to dig with my fingers. […]
Though it seems strange that my impressions in fact of architecture were mostly gustative. I licked the wallpaper near to my pillow, rough as blotting paper, and the lucid brass of my toys locker. It had to be then that an unconscious preference for smooth surfaces, possible to be tested with my tongue, was born […]
The accommodation idea links in my mind with the sensations which root deeply in me those days. The living room ceiling of my parents’ house was too high, so I was used to playing seated under the piano. The little high there provides me with the most comfortable place I knew. Most of my sympathies and antipathies had to take form in the child I was like it happens to every child. During the nights there were dark, mysterious, inaccessible places, such as that scary zone behind the green olive upholstered sofa put sideways against an angle. Only onto that memory, I shiver to this day. And also I hate the waste of space behind furniture.”

The house in which we were born and in which we grow old becomes, therefore, one of the most important factors in the mental growth and in the associative development from the early phases of our life, in particular for what concerns our spacial conception and life quality.
However, the surprising thing is that all of these processes happen mostly in our psyche on a subconscious level, without filters or controls, only informations taken directly from the first universe we have lived in.
If casually at a certain point of our existence, we find out a predilection or an attraction towards the architecture, we could likely be surprised to discover how much our infancy has been decisive for our first approach and our way to see and feel the spaces around us or designed by us.
The approach towards a new project is affected directly by all the past experiences an individual lived actually on his own. This from the determination of a precise geometry, until the choice of particular materials or finishes. The architectural elements which we interact with directly generate in ourselves a memorial value, which based upon the importance we have attributed to objects, places, and sensations in a particular time of our growth. Colours, sounds, smells, materials will become personal archetypes, which never stop to talk to us and transmit what we have felt in that determined moment even without realizing it.
Peter Zumthor with an extract from his life, tells us about his personal experience and the relationship between infancy and architecture, in his essay “Thinking architecture”:

“I remember the period of my life when I lived architecture carefree. It seems like I still fill in my hand the knob, that little metal portion configured as a spoon back. I held it when I went to my aunt’s garden. Still today that knob seems to me as a connotative sign of the access in a world of sensations and multiple smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the moderate sheen of the oak wood of the stairs; I feel the spring lock of the heavy door closing behind my back; I see myself go on in the dark corridor and reach the kitchen, the only luminous space of the house. […] All, in that kitchen, was as typical as a classic traditional old kitchen. Nothing, in particular, distinguishes it. But maybe it was exactly for that naturality and hindsight, that it has remained in my mind as the image par excellence of a kitchen. The atmosphere of that space united forever with my personal image of a kitchen. And I would like to continue and to tell you […]
Memories of this kind enclose the most rooted architectural experiences I know. They are the basic core of images and atmospheres that in my practice as an architect I always want to tend to.
When I design I find repeatedly immersed in old, almost lost memories and I try to ask myself: that precise architectural situation, how did it be really built, what meaning it had for me at that time and what could help me to reconstruct that atmosphere so rich to seem congested by the natural presence of things and in which everything is in the right place and has the right form? I would not be able to identify any specific forms, but I would warn  anyway that hint of fullness, of richness too, that could let me think “I just have seen it once”, meanwhile I know it is, in fact, all new, different and that none of these direct quotes of a past architecture can betray the secret of an atmosphere full of memories.”

Photo of the private kitchen of Peter Zumthor’s house

So architecture, or better the work of architecture, meaning with it the expression of an idea or an ideal through the realization of a concrete project, is a highly subjective work and it is profoundly influenced by the elements that for us have obtained a decisive memorial value from the earliest life experiences. Said that, is it possible to improve the infancy experience of space and objects in order to reach a more individual enrichment?
Different studies were done on this theme, one of the most famous is certainly the Friederich Fröbel, romantic pedagogist, who lived across the 18th and 19th century.
The Fröbel’s theories, for what concerns child education through the game, remain still today valid and very interesting. He elaborated and designed accurately six gifts (they will become twenty with the time), which were but toys with elemental forms, precisely thought to facilitate the psychological growth of the child in the approach with the external world. The first gift, for example, was designed with the intention of arising in the child the sentiment and the awareness of a world made of individual objects. Fröbel distinguished spontaneous games from provoked games: the first ones are those which the child does on his initiative, the second ones are those which the child does with an offered object. His gifts were in this second category and were given to the child by the principles of continuity and graduality. Analysing the Fröbel gifts (all in wood), the first is a simple ball, the simplest toy which can be used in almost every game; the second is a sphere, which represents the perfect form; the third is a cube, a form with angles; the fourth is a cube, divided into eight little cubes through which the child is driven to reach a unity on his own; the fifth complicates the fourth dividing the cube in little bricks and finally the sixth is made of a mix of forms, some bricks of a certain dimensions and some bricks of half of those dimensions.

Froebel Gifts No. 5

For every gift Fröbel indicated the exact use in order to stimulate the potential of the child: observation, tactile exercise, separation and reconstruction, so to influence him during his growth.
Frank Lloyd Wright admitted in his writing “An Autobiography” to be introduced to the world of architecture and geometric composition right through the Fröbel gifts, that his mother bought at the Philadelphia EXPO in 1876 when he was nine years old. “The geometric play of these fascinating coloured squared combinations”, as he called the game with the Fröbel gifts, has been decisive for his education as an architect and influenced him for his entire career.
So to be aware of the fact that the first phases of life are decisive for what an individual will become as a person is of fundamental importance. They leave in us an indelible imprinting on which we don’t have the control, because they are generated by the context conditions provoked by people around us, who make us grow and share with us experiences, but also by the places of our lives, starting from the school, the station, the square, etc… Our life experience goes constantly changing and altering between relationships with the others and with the places in which we are. There is but a precise distinction between the two types of relationship: those with human beings are, for their nature, much more variable and inconstant of the others.
Architecture obtains so a substantial importance, thanks to its fixity and constancy, which are transformed in influential power for those who experience it.
It is here that comes into play the role everybody could have: to choose places designed with the elements that for us indicate a more quality of spaces and which let us feel comfortable, enriching positively our life. Finally, robbing a few words from the Latin Sallustio “Faber est suae quisque fortunae”, which means that every man is the artisan of his own fortune.

– Neutra, Richard, Progettare per sopravvivere, Edizioni di Comunità, Roma, Collana DNA, 2015
– Zumthor, Peter, Pensare Architettura, Mondadori Electa, Milano, 2003
– Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Autobiography, Faber and Faber Editions, Londra, 1945


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