Down the Rabbit Hole

I recently ran across two seemingly dissimilar, but equally as fascinating anecdotes: something called “place attachment”; and another thing that we call magic. I know what you’re thinking – fascinating, yes, but relevant, no. But I beg, let’s explore.

Magicians, through sleight of hand or by cunning delusion, have what most would argue as a sole purpose to incite wonderment and curiosity; they give an appearance of what might “be” by redirecting a person’s attention so successfully away from what “is”. Many marvel over the ability of a magician to puzzle, perplex or simply to show someone something that is not as it seems. Many more marvel over the effort expended in the illusion itself – the psychology of directing someone’s attention while executing elsewhere – an art form that we have come to treasure and call “magic”.

Through veiled layers of trust, a magician holds their audience captive. They must focus a stranger’s attention so fervently, that the recipient fails to notice what’s going on in their periphery. The magician then reveals to them a carefully controlled result. How exactly do they build this unprecedented trust? Well it’s simple: a magician makes you feel understood.

It is not enough to simply understand how a person works, but rather it takes a special quality that adapts to its audience in order to truly make someone feel understood. A magician creates a sacred space in which he executes his tricks through a process called “perspective taking”: the ability to see the world from the point of view of another person. Only when the perspective of an audience is clearly understood and practiced, can a magician learn to tangle a person’s expectations in distractions, while they set the stage for more curious illusions.

So, now, the parallel; an example of perceived magic in a context you have likely never considered.

While we might not have any doves or white rabbits up our sleeves, we designers certainly have tricks too! Studying design requires one to reflect deeply on one’s surroundings. It begs of a professional to understand at an intrinsic level, how humans interact with and experience their built environment. Likewise, we need to understand how an environment will communicate with its user in order to generate synergy. It’s a process we return to day in and day out, a process that drives every step we take through phase after phase of design.

People have an innate capacity to form bonds with their environment. This can mean a lot of things – the built, urban environment, the natural environment, and even a compelling imagined environment or emotional construct of environment. Through time, nostalgia, practice or proximity, a person develops meaningful attachments to physical environments. This phenomenon is called “place attachment” or topophilia.

Topophilia: the affective bond between people and place or setting.

Many elements of design can create this feeling of inherent belonging, at a variety of scales. Consider the attachment that people develop with “icons” of cities. City skylines become recognizable by key buildings, companies and brands by their captivating interiors, and homes by their craftsman touch (or lack thereof). Some cities even become recognizable by their natural surroundings – while businesses come and go from street front properties in the shifting environment of Banff’s commercial and retail culture, the unmistakable majesty of the surrounding environment allows a person familiar enough to instantly recognize a photo of Banff Avenue.

When designing a home, an architect doesn’t simply produce a work of character and art for the sake of craftsmanship. The craftsmanship is borne of a home’s valid response to a user’s needs and desires. A certain level of craft is achieved by developing a connection between a user and its environment. When an architect or an interior designer truly understands how a built environment communicates and they understand the inner workings of a homeowner’s mind, they begin to speak a language much like that of a magician. The built environment is our magic trick. It is a method of demonstrating our understanding of a user, in order to achieve “illusion” or experience.  It is what’s happening on the periphery that opens you to connect with an environment or an experience at a deeper level. Our tools and physical expressions distract or draw a person’s attention, allowing a connection of sometimes wonder, sometimes comfort, sometimes even of discomfort.

I don’t mean to give away too many of a magician’s secrets, but you may be surprised to find that behind most magic tricks, what you find is less of “magic” and more of math, science, psychology and craft; all the same elements that work to define design. All are components that we employ to develop intangible and ideally profound connections with a space’s user.

“Only when the design fails does it draw attention to itself; when it succeeds, it’s invisible.” John D. Berry

Excuse me, while I update the credentials of my business card to include “magician”.

Ellysa Evans, Jr Interior Designer
Davignon Martin Architecture + Interior Design

Categories: Architecture, interior design, Opinion

Tagged as: , , , , , , ,

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