is a process that can only take place from within ourselves, but this
process can be triggered and supported by things and actions outside us.
We can, therefore, talk about healing environments and healing qualities
of environment. Of all the healing forces in the God-given world around
us, silence is perhaps the greatest. We have seen the health-giving
effects of processes, activities and material qualities, but silence is
neither process, activity or object. It is… silence.
what is silence? Is it complete absence of sound? Where can we go in the
world and find absence of sound - no wind in grass, no distant link of
rock, no lap of water? Sound means life; in quiet places, the ears sharpen
to listen for it. We even start to hear the sounds of our own body.
is a lot of difference between a resting and a dead body. A dead animal
looks different in the landscape to one lying down; the wind plays with
the hair as a lifeless surface of something immovable. This is the silence
of death. To experience literal silence you have to go into a special
sound-absorbing chamber - it is a strange feeling. Sensory deprivation
experiments have shown that if all the senses are denied stimulus, the
life processes are brought into a crisis so acute that within seconds a
risk of life develops. Literal silence is not life supporting: it is the
silence the absence of noise? Even noise is hard to define: is it insects
on a quiet summer's day, waves on rocks, wind in trees or over snow? But
there is plenty more noise than that around us. The average house is full
of noise-producing equipment - refrigerators, deep freezers,
central-heating furnaces and pumps, ticking electric clocks and so on, all
dead mechanical sounds, not sounds of life like speech, music, crackling
fire, wind in the chimney, rain on glass. Out of doors cities have
constant background noise you cannot get away from. In the countryside how
far do we have to go not to hear a hi-fi, car, chainsaw, milking-machine
or aeroplane? When you listen, almost everywhere within easy access of
where we live there is mechanical noise most of the time. In this century
silence - freedom from mechanical noise - has become a threatened species,
extinct in many areas.
live in a noisy world: whether we notice it or not, noise affects us.
Physiological effects, starting at 65 dBA with mental and bodily fatigue,
are well established (SV Szockolay, Man-environment sonic relation,
[Course notes: E 13] Polytechnic of Central London, p. 9.). This is
typical city noise level (Typical values, 10% of the time 7am-7pm all use
zones in Inner London - Traffic noise: Urban Design Bulletin 1, GLC,
1970). Main-road kerbside noise, typically at 75 dBA, is over twice as
loud and motorways nearly double again at 83 dBA (Every increase of 10 dBA
represents a doubling of apparent loudness). Street noise can reach 90 dBA
causing heart stress (Ian McHarg, Design with Nature,
Doubleday/Natural History Press, New York, 1971, p. 195). Much lower
levels, such as background fan noise, interfere with sleep, digestion and
thought (David Wyon, Det Sunda Huset, p. 196). We easily become
conditioned to low-level noise and don't notice it at all. That it causes
tension is however demonstrated by the great relief we feel whenever it
in other words, is harmful to human health; it is a recognized
environmental pollutant. There are well-established techniques for
noise-abating design. Distance, obstruction (for instance by walls, banks,
buildings), absorption (for instance by vegetation, which can also act as
a fume filter), zoning of sensitive and tolerant areas and masking (for
instance by rustling leaf, moving water or living sounds) can all mitigate
outdoor noise. Where aggressive movement such as fast traffic is the
source of noise, it often helps to screen it visually. Intermittent noises
such as trains on the other hand are less of a shock if you can see and
hear them approaching. Noises from living sources such as school
playgrounds can be less irritating if you can see what is going on.
Outdoor noise penetrates indoors mainly through openable windows. When
noise and air pollution sources coincide, as they often do, windows facing
this way can be sealed (and double-glazed, absorbent lined, etc.). Indoor
noise can be reduced with absorbent materials, room shape and control of
noise-making at source.
is of course more to noise control than I have here outlined, but however
thorough our measures we cannot hope to achieve silence. With, for
instance, triple glazing and absorbent indoor surfaces we can make
acoustically dead environments, but that is not the same as silence. Yet
silence is something we need to have access to, for while noise is
stressful silence is healing.
in the world can we go to find this sort of silence? And for those who can
afford the expense, how much noise does travelling there cause? Once place
to go is within oneself. Many seek inner silence through meditation, but
it is not easy to keep inner noise at bay. But if we are to design healing
environments we need to create qualities of holy silence that are
accessible for all, not just for globetrotters and meditators but
especially for those who lack the outer or inner means.
if we can't define silence, we can recognize it. Gentle,
unobstructive, calming, life-supporting, holy sounds allow us to be quiet
within: eternal sounds, sounds of the breath of air, the quiet endlessness
of water - definitely not sounds of the ephemeral moment however calming.
Cows chewing the cud and bumble-bees droning are calming, almost
soporific, but they are not eternal. Silence, tranquillity and the eternal
have a lot to do with each other.
even harder to define silent architecture but likewise easy to recognize
it. There is dead silent or living silent architecture. To create living
silent architecture we need to understand and work with the essential
qualities of living silence: the gentle, the unobtrusive, the tranquil,
the eternal, the life-supporting, the holy.
foundation of tranquillity we need balance. This often means focus and
axis. Symmetry is rigid, rigidity excludes life. Balance is life filled
and breathes from one side to the other. Balance is also a matter of scale
and proportion. Rooms can be quite small - monks' cells were often little
more than the space to lie and stand in. The smaller a room is, the more
modest, plain, ascetic and quiet it can be - furniture is an intrusion.
Such a room is for a specific purpose, but not a silent place within
the stream of daily life. If the proportions, textures, light and other
qualities are not just right, a small room is a trap, a larger one can
often get away with it although you can start to rattle around, and its
silence can begin to feel empty. Too large a space can be too awe
inspiring. The human being is too insignificant beside the power of
architectural scale. Those cathedrals that are places of silence (and
there are not so many, for more are places of awe) are not the largest
ones, their scale reduced by the way they are built of tiers of elements.
The gestures of the Romanesque ones tie them down firmly to the earth.
Imagine such a cathedral plastered and painted uniformly - in simplicity
its size would be too strong - certainly it would not be silent!
determines whether places can be at rest or whether they have a
directional dynamic and the feeling that goes with it. Awe, expectation or
soothing can be produced with upward, forward or all-round horizontal
emphasis. Proportions at balance reflect balance in the human body and
induce a mood of balance in the soul.
that are too high, too wide, too long - like lines that are too dynamic or
spaces that ate too strongly focal - risk being too compelling. I want to
leave the occupant free. I try to be careful, therefore, not to have too
strong an emphasis. Indeed for a place of silence I try to underplay the
architecture generally so that it is not intrusive. This means a certain
simplicity. Simplicity, enshrined in the modern movement, is often
experienced by non-architects as boring. Some buildings need to be less
simple, some more so. Places of silence need to be simple - but how can
reverent simplicity be achieved without boredom?
approach simplicity like this: the space can generally be entered and
focused axially but slight variation from one side to another, slight
ambiguities in form and, most particularly, living lines (flare at the
base of the walls, curved qualities in the almost straight and straight in
the curved and so on) give the space a quality of life - so too with
straighter, but not colliding, lines does the texture of wood, even if its
colour variation is muted by stains or lazure veils. This life is further
enhanced by the light. Where the windows are placed, how they are shaped,
how the light is quieted - for instance divided by glazing bars reflected
off splayed windows or filtered through vegetation - can enhance the
interplay between daylight, sunlight and reflected light which is so
crucial to the mood of a room.
needs texture to play on. Again I am looking for a life-filled, but
unobtrusive, gentle texture. I commonly use hand-finished render (9 coarse
sand: 2 lime: I cement, applied not by float but with a round-nosed trowel
so as to obtain gentle undulations without tool score marks, finished with
a [gloved] hand when it has started to firm upon the wall [about an hour
later but depends on conditions]). This can bring gentleness, life,
conversational softening of changes in plane and - because of the absolute
necessity that the plasterer is aesthetically involved - soul is
impregnated into the room. This certainly is not the only material, nor is
it everywhere appropriate, but where it is it is one of my favourites.
Being applied to block-work and requiring more sensitivity than skill, it
has the additional advantage of being cheap and well-suited to gift work
been in spatially simple rooms which lack any life in their texture.
Smooth-plastered, smooth painted rooms, even the woodwork gloss painted.
To be alone, quiet, in such a room is to be in a prison. You need a
radio, hi-fi or television for company to fill the empty space, to bring a
kind of life. I aim to make rooms in which you do not need these supports,
rooms that will be alive with sunlight or candlelight, birdsong outside or
with grey dawn, twilight and silence.
rooms need wallpaper or colour schemes to give interest, to paint a
superficial individuality upon their surface. I use colour for a different
function, so different that when a client says, 'I have these curtains, I
want a colour scheme to go with them', I am at a loss to know what to do:
I use colour to create a mood. Yet often, for silence, the indoor colour I
use is white. White, justifiably, has a bad reputation; it's the colour
people use when they can't think of anything else. But it is the colour I
use when I don't want anything else, when I want silence. Some
people think white is not a colour, but the right white (there are many -
think of the difference between lime wash, emulsion and gloss paint, not
to mention all the different colours of white) can sing! White is the
mother of all the colours - it has in it all the moods that each
individual can develop as an individuality - white can be calm,
life-filled, joyous, timeless, whereas blue can only be calm and risks
being cold or melancholic; orange can be full of life, welcoming, but
risks being too forceful, even discordant; yellow can be joyous but risks
being too active; I have never seen more eternal qualities than in
Vermeer's paintings, yet brown risks being too heavy, dark, oppressively
where the room or window shape is rectilinear with smooth surfaces and
sharp arises, I would certainly not use white—it would be altogether too
hard. In such a room white would emphasize any noise. Research on colour
and perceived noise does indeed show white rooms to sound loudest (Kenneth
Bayes, The Therapeutic Effect of Environment on Emotionally Disturbed
and Mentally Subnormal Children, Gresham Press, 1970, p.33). When we
use it we therefore need to be particularly attentive to qualities of
shape, texture and light or indeed it will seem noisy. The quietest colour
for a room has been found to be purple. In ancient times purple was not a
colour anyone could use, its use on clothing restricted to a certain
spiritual rank. Even today, less sensitive to the 'beings of colour' as we
are, it doesn't seem quite appropriate for everyday use; a purple kitchen
doesn't feel quite right.
particular colours when I wish to emphasize a particular mood. Red can
bring warmth, stimulation, passion and aggressiveness (Ibid., p.
32). With all colours, associative qualities such as coolness with blue
are bound up with physiological effects upon the organs and metabolism.
Yellow for instance can bring light to a sunless room; it can also bring
vitality and cheerfulness. Green is calming and refreshing; it is the
colour of surgical gowns and actor's 'greenrooms'. The meditation room
(shown earlier) is to be lazured in bluish purple.
therapy, coloured light has been shown to be more effective than pigments
(Ibid., p. 32). Coloured windows only feel at home in specific
sorts of place (such as churches) but coloured light can be achieved by
reflection. Opaque colours are forceful and dominating, translucent lazure
is therefore both more acceptable and more effective than opaque pigment.
Brick tile and timber with dark rich weavings bring warmth. We even
designed a theatre to be painted inside in grey (not a flat grey but one
made up of thin veils of red, blue, green); this was also to be a focal,
unobtrusive space, but not a place of silence!
I try to make silent, sacred rooms plain. These rooms need to be somehow
above any more specific mood. When the circular meditation chapel (see
page 73) was nearing completion it looked so attractive inside with its
exposed radial rafters that many people wanted them left like that. I felt
that they created a warm cosy atmosphere with noticeable architecture,
appropriate for a living room perhaps, but not for a chapel, especially
not for the silent, spirit--renewing focus of a retreat centre. I offered
to pull the ceiling off if people didn't like it: fortunately I didn't
the same way that colours can be too individual so can material. The
difference is that certain materials are the right materials for the place
and it doesn't feel right - or may not be practical -to use other ones. In
some countries brick, stone or timber is the only suitable choice and I
have experienced wonderfully sacred places in diverse materials. Generally
there needs to be very few different materials. Often I use only three:
walls and ceiling of the same finish, running without break into each
other and unified by a single uninterrupted colour; wooden doors and
windows, unpainted but possibly stained or translucently lazured, and a
texturally inviting floor of a colour to warm reflected light - usually
wood, brick, tile or carpet. Unity of materials and colours has a
quietening influence and for that reason they need to have sufficient life
in them or the whole place will slide into lifelessness.
shapes, forms and spaces need therefore to have gentle movement. The
static resolution of the right angle lacks life. Dramatic or dynamic forms
and gestures have an excess of force. To have both movement and stability,
gesture needs to answer gesture in a life-filled, harmonic conversation -
not repetition but resolution, transforming what the other says so that it
is just right for its particular location, neighbours, material and
function. Quiet harmony is the product of a quietly singing conversation.
the most essential quality is timelessness. A painting can be timeless, so
can a building. Obviously the painting has to avoid anything that finds
its resolution in time outside the moment - like someone kicking a ball.
The same with a building. This doesn't only mean qualities which are both
traditional and modern at the same time; it also means resolution of the
sculptural forces - of gesture, of gravity, of structural and visual
tension. Dead things are stable, immovable, but they are left behind by
time. The eternal lives in every moment.
can help if one practises timelessness exercises. I like to paint
uneventful balanced landscapes (of the soul imagination - not real ones)
bathed with peaceful light, trying always to find that which is eternal,
not momentary. I have mentioned the principle of balance, giving stability
and permanence without rigidity. Buildings which belong in a place, which
are rooted in the earth, can be developed to be timeless, eternal.
Buildings which don't never can be. In addition to the shaping of walls
and ground, as discussed earlier, planting at the building-ground junction
and climbing plants on walls can help.
far back as I can remember I have looked closely at how rocks rise out of
the earth. Some are half buried boulders, some are the protruding bones of
the earth. Some mountains are the earth itself pushed through or draped
with covering but now at repose. It is where they are at the firmest
rooted and least dramatic that they are the most eternal. This as much as
anything - the landscape I have grown up with - has sharpened my feeling
people in other surroundings may not be so lucky. For occupants therefore
this means creating these qualities in the buildings we design. For
designers it means developing sensitivities through exercise, observation
and focused concentration. To be timeless something needs to feel
inevitable, right - so much so that we can no longer imagine something
other than the way it is.
building for instance needs to be in the inevitable place on the site.
That is not always easy! Sometimes a site asks for something somewhere,
sometimes it doesn't. The hardest site I have ever had was flat,
featureless, with only short-lived caravans on it; nothing to grow from,
nothing to create a place between, nothing to relate to. Usually, however,
listening to the place will give one a progressively strengthening
conviction that this building should be here.
are not just in isolation. As we design them, we are also concerned with
the whole entry experience. Externally we can develop this experience
progression to enhance the inevitability of the building we eventually
reach. Indoors we can carry this preparatory experience further until we
reach the place to stop - a sanctuary of rest. We can enhance the
experience by making physical thresholds wherever there is a change of
mood by using darker, lower, narrower passages, cloisters, tree-overhung
paths, leading to a portal - a substantial door with a heavy latch, which
one is conscious of opening. Then, with a conscious step, one
passes into another place, a place to stop - the place of calm, protected,
enclosing. A glass box is not a place to find inner calm in silence. Its
function is to wash one inwardly clean with the forces of the landscape.
In more densely settled surroundings one can feel a bit as though in a
display cage, certainly not at peace!
progression of experience is made up of the same vocabulary that is
available in most homes or places of work: thresholds, emphasized by
portals, doors and latches, places to move in and places to stop. It can
be enhanced by making these more conscious. I like hand-made wooden
latches that you really feel and with a movement that gives you a
conscious bodily experience of opening or closing a door. I like low (or
broad so as to have a lower proportion) doorways with arched or shaped
heads, low, dark, arched or shaped ceiling passageways, slightly twisting,
leading to quiet light-enlivened (not necessarily bright, and certainly
not dramatic) rooms of a stable proportion.
daily rituals, repeated thousands of times, can have healing effect. Even
in places of work, and especially in homes, architecture has the function
of providing rest for the soul.
we come home from a stressful day, the home and the night are for renewal.
If they don't provide it, stress builds up on stress and physical or
psychological collapse follows. When we go to bed at night we pass into
another world and are reborn each morning. How much care and worry can be
washed away by sleep! We enter each new day with hope - how otherwise can
what haven of calm do we come home to when its inmost sanctum is full of
mechanical noise - TV perhaps? How do we bring the nightly renewal of
rebirth each morning when we are wakened by an alarm-radio? It's not just
people's habits I am talking about, but rooms that need noise to keep
you company. Many houses, many rooms need noise. If we are
going to try to provide places where people can live in health, places
where people gain rather than lose strength, grow rather than wither, we
need to make places where silence can be a welcome guest, where silence
can fill the space with its renewing, healing power. This doesn't just
mean good sound insulation; it means places of silent quality - to sight,
touch, smell and so on - not just noiseless places, but places of healing
Christopher Day trained as an
architect and sculptor. In addition to designing buildings in accordance
with his ecological principles, he offers world wide consultancy on the
development and -- perhaps more importantly -- the rescue of places both
indoor and outdoor.
He lives, works and gardens in the land of his boyhood -- Wales, UK --
with his wife and children. His projects have won several awards,
including a Prince of Wales award. He also continues to lecture and lead
consensus design workshops for a surprising variety of people around the
To learn more about Christopher Day and his
community building projects, please visit : www.webcom.com/penina/spirit-and-place