A mental balm

On the role of public buildings in lockdown

Jo Wickham

For many of us it was to nature that we turned during lockdown. We began to notice those things we so often take for granted: the changes in season, the calming birdsong, the wildlife that flourished in the absence of pollution. Tending our gardens now offered purpose. Breathing in sea air cleared the mind. Tramping through woodland gave us peace. And yet during this period I found myself missing London’s great buildings the most.

In his playful essay “The Decay of Lying”, Oscar Wilde has Vivian defend aestheticism by stating “if Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture”. He maintains that, more than offering shelter and comfort, structural design represents progress and allows us to thrive. While nature is indifferent to human beings, buildings are fashioned solely for our use and in them “we all feel of the proper proportions”.

Modern research in neuroscience and psychology suggests that the built environment can act as a kind of mental balm. We are wired to respond subconsciously to the spaces around us, so that the right design can improve our general wellbeing. Interesting building façades affect us in a positive way, allowing us to feel more cheerful and engaged. On the other hand, experiments show that bland shop fronts can cause our mood states to plummet.

Much like exceptional art, great public architecture transports and restores; the sight of certain familiar buildings can quietly soothe. The sheer height of a ceiling, the intricate patterns in brickwork or sunlight falling through a window on to the curve of a wall can remove us from our more pressing thoughts. There are those national treasures, such as Buckingham Palace, that exude history and heritage and carry with them an undeniable imprint of the past. Other more modern buildings, such as the Tate Moderns Turbine Hall, have a vastness of space that changes the sound, softens the air and, with it, the atmosphere. Some have a breath-taking beauty, such as the late Zaha Hadid’s cathedral-like London Aquatics Centre, one of the main venues for the 2012 Olympics, now used as a local authority swimming pool. And then there are those buildings we imbue with our own personal memories. It was to these I longed to be near when restrictions were imposed.

As lockdown began to lift, I dug out my rusty bike and cycled into central London. I wanted to see St Paul’s Cathedral, despite it being closed to visitors. For me, St Paul’s holds memories of my sister, even though we had never been there together. When Kate died, aged twenty-nine, of cancer ten years ago, I had a yearning to go to the place in which she had found hope. A decade before this, she had moved to London, abandoning her degree at St Andrews, things having not worked out, brave but apprehensive. One day she phoned to describe how she had visited the cathedral. She had marvelled at the whispering gallery then climbed all the steps up to the golden gallery to look over the city. As she spoke, I had a sense that it was during this visit she knew she had made the right decision. Her voice was confident; she was excited about the future, settled.

After her death, I would sometimes spend lunch hours, enveloped by the shadows, sitting in the cathedral’s cavernous interior, holding on to my steadfast grief. (I once took her six-year-old son, and we clambered up the 259 steps to whisper to each other in the gallery.) And on what would have been her fortieth birthday, during lockdown, it was there I returned. Although I couldn’t go inside, the immediacy of the building brought solace. As Alain de Botton writes: “It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation.”

At times of uncertainty and grief, public buildings have the ability to connect us to the past, and for this they should be celebrated. But also their presence can reassure. Fifteen years ago, at Tavistock Square, I watched the bus in front blow up. Searching for safety, I ran to the British Museum. Rushing up those familiar steps and then into the Great Court, I felt protected.

More than just bricks and mortar, public buildings exist to bring people together, for us to feel we belong. Without this we can feel lost. In 2010, the American architectural critic Paul Goldberger suggested that as so many social experiences were now virtual, public buildings represented a sacred realness. Ten years on, fully acclimatised to the world of video calling, the desire to be in Goldberger’s “temple of the authentic in an age of the virtual” is keenly felt. Buildings represent opportunities, social interactions, and the essence of real people, even when these encounters or individuals have long gone and live only as memories. This should make us all the more appreciative, now that the doors are reopening.

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