Space To Think

Space to Think

12 April 2024

When Design Engine Architects redeveloped the new urban campus for Oxford Brookes University, the hoardings screening the construction site were cleverly branded by the marketing team with the words “Space to Think.”

The positive message to the students and staff being that this may be terribly disruptive for you now, but we are creating incredible new teaching and learning space for your future. The fact that the project was so huge that it took almost the lifetime of a degree to construct was conveniently overlooked.

Space To Think
Image credit: The Property Chronicle

Space to Think is an evocative term and can be both literal and metaphorical. Physical surroundings need to be conducive to problem-solving, decision-making, creativity, and overall well-being, but how much mental space do we have in our busy lives to stop, clear our mind for cognitive processing and…well, think? In the UK, our recent internal preoccupations have been first the horribly divisive Brexit vote, then the alienating Covid pandemic, and now we watch with horror but from distance the man-made atrocities in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza on top of natural disasters and emergencies across the globe. How are we supposed to function with hopeless empathy?

During the Covid lock-downs many of us did find space to think. Some took to writing music or writing books – including those minor celebrities who have found some version of fame through social media (You’ve Never Heard of Me, Get Me Out of Here). Confinement took away our options and our spontaneity, such that focussing on one thing at a time was possible for a while. It seems that lock-down took creatives in one of two directions: inspiration or paralysis. I actually take my hat off to those who did manage to create, as it was such a disorientating time. 

I equally admire those who are able to find a peaceful mind for contemplation or introspection through yoga and meditation – ‘Space to Unthink’ perhaps? The ability through practice and technique of blocking out all the noise and distractions is one of life’s genuine gifts; one I sadly don’t seem to have mastered. 

On the completion of any new building, one of the joys is watching it being appreciated by its new inhabitants.

On the subject of blocking noise – defined as ‘unwanted sound’ – are you one of those unable to read in anything but silence? It seems our brains are changing (developing?) so that many people choose to read with headphones or earbuds pumping podcasts or music into their receiving organs. I used to observe this on trains and in parks and put it down to some sort of clever filtered multi-tasking, but this notion was shattered recently by a close friend of mine. As part of a wider topic and to encourage conversation with her post-graduate group of students, she asked what books they were reading at the moment. Only two (mature) students admitted they read at all. Once I had picked myself up from the floor, she and I talked about that at some length and my personal take on it all is that we are passively ‘receiving’ stimulus rather more easily than they are prepared to work for it. One student apparently declared that if she wanted to know what a book was about she would watch a review on TikTok. 

As a recently lost BBC radio presenter often said, “radio is the theatre of the mind” and the same could be said for books. By receiving only part of the ‘picture‘ through word rather than a full assault of the senses, our minds fill the space and we are allowed freedom to follow lines of inquiry or imagination. Thus we paint our own version of events rather than someone else’s and the characters and settings of a book remain a unique interpretation to us individually – at least until they are represented unequivocally by a film-maker and our illusion is shattered.

I recently dug out a copy of an old article from ‘Architect’s Journal’ on my first project as a qualified architect. I was reminded it was titled ‘Thinking Space’ and the project itself was a semi-subterranean series of laboratories and offices at Imperial College. The project was funded by a donation from Stella Bagrit, the wife of Sir Leon Bagrit who gave the 1964 Reith Lecture and has been posthumously called ‘The Father of Automation’. It was one of those special opportunities as an architect where we come into contact with thought-leaders and my ‘client list’ was a who’s who of professors and research scientists, for whom we designed a cohesive workplace for their collective research. The scheme consisted of 2 floors of laboratories on one side of a small atrium, with 3 floors of individual offices on the other. The idea was that the space between was an opportunity to physically distance the ‘practical’ from the ‘cerebral’ and the open stair and galleries was where chance encounters between brilliant minds happened.

On the completion of any new building, one of the joys is watching it being appreciated by its new inhabitants. Whilst the intended uses are always satisfying, happenstance can neither be anticipated nor guaranteed, making it somehow more rewarding to observe. Sometimes, the magic happens and the best thoughts materialise when you least expect it. I’m beginning to like the sound of ‘Space to Unthink’.

Article originally published on the Property Chronicle.

Richard is a co-founder of Design Engine and, with his fellow directors, is responsible for the design direction of the practice.