The great architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable once said, “Every creative act draws on the past whether it pretends to or not. It draws on what it knows. There’s no such thing, really, as a creative act in a vacuum.” For city dwellers, treasures of the past are all around us, and learning to appreciate the aesthetic design of architecture can influence and optimize our creative brain functions. So if you’re scrambling to complete that well-structured document by EOD, try stepping away from the screen and taking a stroll around the neighborhood.
Chances are you’re reading this blog post on your phone. If you’re in transit, or somewhere other than your home or office, then there’s no need to continue. Put away your device — you can come back to this later — and take a moment to look around, because you may be missing out on what Goethe called “frozen music”: the connections between structures, their design, and the environment around them. Depending on your profession, experiencing the aesthetics of architecture may prime your brain to think creatively.
These influences are subconscious, and operate on two levels: the macro, or the big-picture ideas that make a structure durable and functional; and the micro, which are the myriad details that make a structure beautiful.
This kind of beauty propels our creative thinking, and that experience may feel especially heightened in cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, or New Orleans — to name but a few American destinations with historical and cultural significance.
When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, I yearned for car trips to Savannah. Its pulchritude was so immediate, its charm so effortless, that I’d start scribbling down every creative thought I had in my brain. (Remember when Moleskines were preferable to smartphones?) And even though my graduate school days are long behind me, Providence remains my moveable feast.
Speaking of Hemingway: There’s a reason why artists have always fled to Paris for creative stimulation. (It isn’t merely the Stein Salons.)
“In Paris style is everything,” wrote Huxtable. “Every street, every structure, every shopgirl has style.”
Not every building can be a monument or cathedral — nor should it be. On the whole, contemplating the heavens isn’t terribly soothing. The most important structures and spaces actually contribute to our “mental health, power, and pleasure,” as John Ruskin observed.
After all, the micro isn’t limited to structural detail. It includes everything that completes the polished picture of a space: the lighting, the furniture, the greenery, etc. According to Apartment Therapy, even the color of your walls can affect your creativity and productivity. The late, great Bill Cunningham knew that there was inspiration to be found in places where no one else is looking. Fashion is part of the micro, too — remember, no creative act happens in a vacuum.
Occasionally there’s an artistic genius who takes the micro to the next level: Banksy, JR, the oft-unsung heroes of street art — these kinds of creative thinkers teach us how to see the world differently.
The ever-quotable Winston Churchill wrote, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
Sometimes we must consciously surround ourselves with creative stimuli in order to expand our mental fecundity, but more often than not we should be mindful of what’s already around us. We’re living in noisy and cluttered times, an era in which profits are quite literally placed above all else. Being observant and spotting beauty takes patience and practice. Whether or not you consider yourself to be an artist, your goal should be to cultivate incessant curiosity and a craving for new ideas. It’s not about being touchy-feely — it’s about setting up your brain for success. And it all begins with your current location.
A brilliant tribute to Ms. Huxtable.
Haas Regen is the Managing Content Editor for 818 Agency in New York City. He’s also a theatre artist. He studied acting, directing, and playwriting at Brown’s MFA program.