01: We Shape Our Buildings

 

Hightower With close to 50,000 students, the University of Texas at Austin is huge, but the School of Architecture within it is tiny. When I studied there in the late 1990s, I basically knew all of my fellow students and all of my classes were small. 

 

All of them, that is, except for one.

 

Lindsay Shillington I think it was called “Architecture and Society”.

 

Hightower That’s Lindsay Shillington. Back in 1995 she and I were both freshman architecture students at UT. She remembers the class a lot like I do:

 

Lindsay Shillington Huge class – giant survey class, really. I think people who weren’t in the architecture school could take that class. Big cushy velvet seats and they would turn the lights down after lunch – that’s what I remember about it.

 

Hightower This wasn’t the type of lecture where half the class would fall asleep. I mean, people nodded off from time to time - we are talking about 18-year old kids in a darkened auditorium after lunch. But for a class in a big auditorium, it was incredibly compelling. It wasn’t a history survey exactly, but rather – and I’m quoting from the course description here – “an investigation of the role architecture can play in contemporary culture.”

 

Heavy stuff - especially for a darkened auditorium after lunch.

 

20 years after taking the class both Lindsay and I still remember a lot about it. We’re both now practicing architects with small offices of our own, but the class we took as freshmen introduced us to the idea that architecture could be more than just the design of pretty buildings. The professor also gave us some memorable quotes that helped us appreciate the importance of buildings. One quote in particular has stayed with both of us.

 

Lindsay Shillington Well I think it was “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” Or “We…” No, I think that’s right. Is that right? That’s the gist of it.

 

Well, I’m sure Winston Churchill said it more eloquently.

 

Hightower  I spoke to several of my classmates and they all remember some version of the quote by the illustrious former British Prime Minister:

 

“We shape our buildings, afterwards they shape us.”

 

“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

 

But the idea of the quote was always fundamentally the same - the buildings we create are a reflection of who we are and what we value. But at the same time, who we are and what we value is a result of the buildings in which we live, work and learn.

 

The quote speaks to the fundamental importance of architecture and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized the quote defines what fundamentally motivates me as a practicing architect: the idea that the buildings have the power to impact and improve people’s lives.

 

And yet, other than what a professor told me in a class some 20 years ago, I know very little about the story behind Churchill’s quote. That seemed to be something worth investigating and maybe even sharing.  More importantly, it seemed like a good topic for this, the first episode of The Works, a podcast about architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

In order to learn more about the quote I figured I should go to the source. No, not Winston Churchill – he’s been dead about for half a century. But this guy:

 

Larry Speck OK, I’m Larry Speck. I’m a Professor in the School of Architecture at UT Austin, former Dean – I was Dean for nine years, but I also am very much a practicing architect. I’m a senior partner with Page which is a large architecture firm with offices in six cities. So I’m both an architect and a faculty member.

 

Hightower Larry still teaches “Architecture and Society” and I asked him if he still uses the Churchill quote.

 

Larry Speck Absolutely. I’ve got a slide of that now. I used to just say it, “We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us.”

 

And I go through the whole explanation of it. You know, London had been devastated after Works War II. They had no money but Churchill goes to Parliament and says this is the highest priority we have. We will not be a great culture in the future if we don’t rebuild the physical environment of the city. And got them to appropriate this money they really didn’t have to have a major building of London.

 

Hightower And that’s pretty much how I remembered the story from when I was a student sitting in Larry’s class. I remember him repeating the quote several times so everyone in the class had the opportunity to write it down. It’s a great quote and for a student trying to figure out what his purpose in life is going to be, it was an ideal point of departure.

 

In putting together this story I did a lot of research on the history of the quote and I can confirm for you today that Larry Speck - my professor, my dean, someone who wrote countless letters of recommendation on my behalf and who over the years has acted as a mentor, a colleague and a friend – I can confirm for you today that when he tells that story of that Winston Churchill quote – I really do think he’s telling the truth.

 

Mostly.

 

But before we get to that, let’s go back 75 years and provide a little context.

 

World War II was a pretty bleak time in human history. There was plenty of suffering to go around back then, but for the British, the Blitz was especially brutal. It was the period between September of 1940 and May of 1941 when Nazi Germany unleashed an intense bombing campaign against the country. 16 cities were targeted with London itself receiving the worst of the bombing. It was attacked 71 times and over a million homes were destroyed. 20,000 civilians were killed.

 

Towards the end the bombing campaign, a dozen incendiary bombs hit the Palace of Westminster, the iconic gothic compound on the banks of the River Thames that includes Big Ben. It also includes the Houses of Parliament and although most of the fires ignited by the bombs were brought under control, the Chamber where the House of Commons met was burned to the ground.

 

Now, the House of Commons, as you probably know, is the main legislative body of British government. It functions sort of like the House of Representatives here in the US but it’s larger and has a greater governing authority.  A long time ago the House of Commons met in a small chapel with two sets of benches facing one another. The layout lent itself to the way the House of Commons came to function with majority and opposition parties facing one another from alternate sides. This arrangement was preserved when a new chamber was built for the House of Commons in 1852. Even when the number of parliament members increased, the Chamber was never expanded so during critical debates not everyone had a seat.

 

But after May of 1941, none of that really mattered as the Chamber had been reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble.

 

As devastating as The Blitz was, as far as the Nazis were concerned, the bombing campaign was a complete failure. The ability of the British to wage war was never significantly diminished and its will to fight was only strengthened. As a result, Germany scrapped its planned invasion.

 

Still, the war was far from over. A year and a half after the Commons Chamber was destroyed, the majority of Europe remained under the control of Nazi Germany and the D-Day Invasion was still six months away. Despite this, on October 28, 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood to speak before the House of Commons:

 

Whelan (as Churchill) On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raids, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when.

 

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

 

Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.

 

Hightower: In the interest of full disclosure, that voice you just heard – it’s not actually that of Winston Churchill. No recording was made of that particular debate and so I had Rick Whelan, a voiceover artist from Ireland, read the transcript of the speech as the late British Prime Minister.

 

Whelan (as Sean Connery): I could also have read it as Sean Connery. Would you like that?

 

Hightower: That is really tempting, but I think we should go with what we have.

 

Anyway, the quote is in there. My professor may have substituted “thereafter” for “afterword”, but I’ve seen the quote written both ways and the meaning is always the same.

 

What is different, though, is what Churchill is actually talking about. He’s not arguing for the rebuilding of a city after a war. He’s talking about the reconstruction of a single room during a war.

 

If you read the entirety of the debate – and I’ll put a link to it up on the website - Churchill goes on to advocate specifically for the reconstruction of the Commons Chamber in its original shape and size. He was all for modernizing the Chamber – especially when it came to heating, lighting and ventilation - but he felt very strongly what should be preserved was the layout - the two opposing sets of benches facing each other - as well as the seating capacity that was too small to accommodate the entire membership of the House of Commons.

 

His argument was that these two characteristics of the old Chamber – its inherently adversarial and intimate character – played a critical part in how the House of Commons acted as a legislative body. The architecture that contained the House of Commons shaped its ability to govern.

 

Whelan (as Churchill) We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

 

Hightower Churchill’s view was in contrast to alternative calls to rebuild the space to accommodate a larger, semi-circular arrangement of desks similar to what can be found in the US House of Representatives.

 

That counterproposal functionally made sense, but at the end of the day, Churchill’s argument prevailed. His proposal passed with 127 voting for and only 3 voting against. The Commons Chamber was rebuilt with two rows of benches facing one another and not enough seats for all its members.

 

And through all the turmoil of the end of the war and the rebuilding that followed, the House of Commons acted as a stable institution where the will of the people was translated into public policy.

 

Whelan (as Churchill) We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

 

Hightower I wanted to get another take on all this, and so I decided to talk to someone who might have a slightly different perspective on the quote and its meaning:

 

James Andrews My name is James Andrews and I’m a principal at Overland Partners Architects, San Antonio.

 

Hightower As you might be able to guess, James is not from San Antonio. He grew up in Wales. He studied architecture there, too, and worked in Britain as an architect for 12 years before moving to the US.

 

I asked him about the first time he first heard the Churchill quote and if he had been inspired by it when he was a student. It turns out he didn’t hear the quote until after he had moved to the US as an adult. He learned about it in fact from an American colleague from Houston.

 

This wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting. However, even though James may not have known of the Churchill quote until later in his career, by experience he knew it to be true. It was something he felt directly when his firm moved their office. For years Overland Partners had occupied an old Methodist Church building a few miles north of downtown. It was a fun reuse of an old building, but after working there for several decades, they began to find it limiting both in terms of its size and configuration.

 

Also, for years Overland Partners was known as the architecture firm in a church. And that, for better or worse, was a defining characteristic of who they were.

 

Whelan (as Churchill) We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

 

James Andrews The exciting piece to this project which is our new office is both internal and external. Internally we created an open plan space which of course you know you talk about how that can promote collaboration.

 

But we realized that we had to have other spaces to support that. You couldn’t expect private conversations and team meetings and client meetings all to occur within that space. But instead of simply creating a series of conference rooms to counter that we looked at the quality of the other spaces.

 

So we have a wide variety of other spaces. The courtyard in front of the building that we created is one of those spaces. People can go out into the courtyard and have a coffee, have a conversation, even meet a consultant or a client in the courtyard.

 

We have the ping pong area for fun and a break, a mezzanine where you can go and read a book or have some quiet time.

 

So it’s allowed us to connect with the community in perhaps a different way, and also that community that surrounds us is beginning to thrive. You know when you put 70 professionals into an area of the city that needs this type of reinvestment that’s encouraging and inspiring for other developers to see. So we have more developers touring the office and local landowners showing people this is what could happen. So we’re becoming a catalyst for this neighborhood which is exciting.

 

Hightower Back in 1943, during the debate that followed Churchill’s proposal before the House of Commons, a fellow member of the conservative party stood to add his thoughts the question at hand. He began:

 

The Prime Minister… said, "We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us." That is very true, but do they shape us so very well? They shaped the Parliaments which twice failed to prevent world wars... We may not, therefore, conclude that the type of building we had before will necessarily produce the most sparkling Legislatures in the future. Some have said, "We should rebuild on the same place and ignore the fact that it was destroyed." Why not rebuild London as it was before the blitz? London was, admittedly, a picturesque jumble of houses, but today an opportunity has arisen, which may never occur again, to build a new London more in tune with the opening vistas of contemporary thought.

 

The Churchill quote we’ve been talking about today is incredibly compelling and the idea it contains as incredibly flexible. Originally it was deployed to preserve an architectural status quo, but it could just as easily be used to ague for something new and transformative. The British Parliament realized this and they used the power of their institution to rebuild London not as it was but how it could be.

 

So in that sense, my professor was right all along.

 

Larry Speck Absolutely…“We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us.”

 

Hightower Special thanks today to Lindsay Shillington, Larry Speck and James Andrews. I’m new to this podcasting thing so I really appreciate your trust and patience. Thanks also to James for explaining to me the game of cricket.

 

James Andrews …and you had a “googly” which was a type of ball that you threw. And you weren’t allowed to throw the ball – you weren’t allowed to bend your elbow – it was bowling so your elbow had to be straight. But you could flick your wrist and you could lick the ball and you could rub it up against your groin to create a shiny side.

 

Hightower Thanks also to Julie Pizzo Wood for help with the podcast’s logo and to my roommate, Clara, for help with its name. The music today is by Chris Zabriskie. The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com. Please leave a comment there or on iTunes. The goal for this podcast is to release a new episode every month and as this is my first attempt, I really want to hear your thoughts on how I can improve the show.

 

Whelan (as Sean Connery): Well I have a suggestion. For starters you could find a host with a speaking voice that commands attention and respect. Someone like me.

 

Hightower Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.