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Hands On

Personal note: in 1976 I fell in love…with a handrail, and thus discovered that buildings can be seductive in ways I hadn’t been taught. Gliding down a wide spiral stair of a London Tube station with my shoulder pressed against the smooth white tile, I began an affair that changed how I felt about buildings, and architecture. It was wood and beautiful, and rather than sitting on brackets that held it away from the wall – it had been incorporated into the wall as though the rest of the station had been built around it – it was a smooth, shapely gutter. As I placed my hand onto it I immediately sensed the heartbeat of the Tube, and a strong connection to the city around me. That railing could have been my downfall – perhaps it was. I would gladly have followed it anywhere. What set it apart was the continuity and flow of it all – the way my hand could grip it all the way around and smoothly move down it without ever hitting a joint or support bracket. I wasn’t shaking hands with the building as much as we were walking together, arm in arm.

That railing probably isn’t legal by today’s standards – it doesn’t stand far enough away from the wall and may not be the correct diameter for a smaller or weaker or older person to grip, and it might not help a member of the fire brigade when climbing through heat and smoke to save lives, but it was fabulous.

I remembered my affair while recently watching a Danish TV detective show, now quite popular on Netflix. In the background of many scenes are beautifully considered door handles, pulls and push-bars, some on buildings I have visited. Memories rushed back, of engaging architecture in the most tactile way.

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Door Handle by Arne Jacobson

We study and design using different means of representation, with history and theory and experience to guide us. We look at lots of slides, we travel widely and we go on field trips to learn what buildings look like, and feel like in their actual settings. We experience and learn how they fit into different contexts, adding their presence and voice to urban and natural landscapes. Of the traditional five senses, sight figures most. The Haptic senses help with many aspects of architecture that are otherwise hard to define and discuss. Hearing has recently entered the discussion (“Sound of Architecture”, symposium at Yale, Fall 2012), and Smell is a powerful sense worth considering seriously. Taste is a harder sense to incorporate in our work, but the fact that we don’t talk much about Touch while we study and design is both surprising and revealing. Architecture is more about the eye in the  head than the hand – indeed the distinction is arguably what our practice is about.

RailEndDesignDesigns for a Hand Rail Termination

And yet…everyone touches our work. Not just handrails, but plumbing fixtures, light switches, doorknobs, push bars, drawer pulls, window hardware, newel posts, medicine cabinets – without even getting into furnishings. We lean on balconies, against walls, sit on almost anything that is flat, slide trays along cafeteria serving lines… and then there are all the surfaces our feet encounter. There are so many opportunities to seduce, to provide comfort, and to reinforce the visual values we espouse through touch. Perhaps the tactile ought to be considered more.

RailPrototypeSteel & Wood Handrail Prototype

I have tried to design and make railings, hardware and other building details intended to seduce and delight while serving practical needs. It is a rewarding exercise, but I haven’t always succeeded with seduction – the brackets that hold my railings interrupt the flow – but I have been inspired, and able to add subtle features to my work that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t been swept away by that beguiling feature a lifetime ago on my way into the London Tube.

Written by Kimo Griggs, Associate Professor
February 2013

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