Article by Astoria Jellett
We are different people in different places. To move from place to place is to walk from stage to stage, assuming different roles with each change of scene. In a courtroom we might walk a little upright, on a subway we might slouch; at home we can relax or else assume some caregiving role while at work we’re a little tense or more focused. Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness that “our identities are indelibly connected to, and will shift along with, our locations.”
Tom Radclyffe knows better than anyone how a setting - particularly a building - might impact us. His meticulously detailed marker illustrations of architecture possess a powerful psychology, evoking emotional reactions stronger perhaps than the buildings themselves. “Your surroundings have a huge, often underappreciated, influence over you,” he says. “I think it influences us hugely, both positively and negatively."
Radclyffe continues, “Hugh Ferriss briefly discusses this in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow: ‘The boy whose habitual outlook was over wide, open plains and the boy who habitually dwelt among the mountains have received impressions lasting for life from these forms and have become, in consequence, utterly different types of men. What is true of plains and mountains is no less true of architectural forms; everybody is influenced by the house he inhabits, be it harmonious or mean, by the streets in which he walks and by the buildings among which he finds himself.’”
Places make us: Parisians are elegant, if a little snobby; rural inhabitants are peaceful, but uneducated; New Yorkers are quick and rude. “It seems reasonable to suppose that people will possess some of the qualities of the buildings they are drawn to,” de Botton writes, “to expect that if they are alive to the charm of an ancient farmhouse with walls made of irregular chiselled stones set in light mortar… then they will know something about patience and stability.”
“I like the idea that everyone inhabits this slightly different reality, a personal reality,” Radclyffe says. “The production of any drawing can in turn give a glimpse into this world, or the production of a new one… Even when drawing an existing building you will also produce a new version of that building, which in some way will differ from the original. The differences can maybe tell you something about the artist.”
Well, I won’t impose judgment on Radclyffe’s personality, but I did point out to him that his cityscapes are curiously devoid of trees. Most of the time there aren’t any people either, although lately he has begun to incorporate figures into his work.
But place doesn’t just shape character: it is character. Radclyffe, who takes inspiration from literature, says, “I realised recently that many of the books I read include the location as a protagonist, as an element that is as critical to the plot as any other character. It is why I often take inspiration from literature, it describes not just a place but a character, the way a city interacts with others, its personality.”
Still, it isn’t enough just to read about these places or scroll through Instagram photos. Seeing a photo of a building or a place is like having a relationship exclusively online: it’s simply not the same. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a touch must be worth billions.
“When the Shard was completed in London there was a great deal of controversy surrounding it and I was unsure of my personal opinion,” Radclyffe says. “At the time I wasn't living in London and as a result had only seen pictures, skyline shots completely clear of human elements. There were discussions in all the newspapers, on forums and in magazines, but it all seemed to focus on the aesthetics. It wasn't until I visited and saw it myself that I decided. Standing at the base and looking up is a completely different experience to any photograph, your relationship with the building completely changes.”
“For me, that relationship is vital,” he says. “With a mass of architectural photographs available online I feel people often undervalue the importance of seeing firsthand human interaction with buildings, or experiencing a building. I feel too much is placed on the aesthetics of a building when in reality the human elements are often what make it more interesting.”
Drawing it takes it to another level, translating four dimensions to just two. For Radclyffe, it forces you to become much more familiar with a building’s details, noticing elements you do or don’t like about it.
But this sensitivity to architecture, as de Botton writes, can be problematic. “If one room can alter how we feel,” he asks, “if our happiness can hang on the colour of the walls or the shape of a door, what will happen to us in most of the places we are forced to look at and inhabit? What will we experience in a house with prison-like windows, stained carpet tiles and plastic curtains?”
In an increasingly urbanized world, we face psychological challenges as tall as the walls around us. The problem is even harder for those of us who can't afford to move to prettier places. There is even a treatment called ecotherapy - doctors now prescribe exposure to nature as a cure for neuroses.
Blue Cities for Crystal Globes is Radclyffe’s search for the ideal city, inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Radclyffe explains, “In describing the city of Fedora Marco Polo talks of a museum where little blue models of cities are presented within crystal globes. Each model shows the cities that Fedora may have been or is yet to become; the people of Fedora visit the city and choose the model that best corresponds to their ideal. The ideal does not exist in any of the models, but exists in their imaginations.”
Discovering only as he drew, he says the city he depicted was “far from ideal, but instead was an exploration of an imagined city. I think the lack of trees comes from the domination of the city, both in the drawings themselves, and in the exploration of the city I imagined.”
As we move forward into the future - an increasingly urban, technological future - the buildings we choose to erect and inhabit will come to shape us as much as we shape them. De Botton writes, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places - and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”