I’ve written my share of papers on how the built environment shapes human behavior. I contemplated the built environment from the safety of the fieldstone walls and slate pavers of an elegant little liberal arts campus, where legend had it that the halls were all built from one specific quarry in Arkansas, which a family had sold to the college in exchange for their child’s liberal arts degree. (Oh, to be young and too naive to apprehend the unspoken horror in this story.) Then I graduated with my English major and art history minor, and haven’t spent a comparable amount of time considering my surroundings since.
To be sure, I’ve lived and worked in some beautiful built environments, and I duly appreciated historic architecture and fine details when I had access to them. I’ve been employed by deeply toxic work environments that were bedecked in neoclassical columns and fine hardwoods and crown molding galore, and I admired the set-dressing even while unhappily mired in the drama that played out there. If you had asked me to write down my environmental observations in the style of a college essay about the built environment in those places, it would not have been the architecture that most influenced my behavior.
Now I work in a cube–albeit a larger than average cube–that I have not yet decorated except with posters and flyers promoting my employer’s services. No natural light shines on my workstation, although I’m a few steps away from a plate glass window where I can stand in the sun or watch the summer rain sweep down the busy street below. When I need a break from my screen, I can stroll outside down a little brick walkway placed there precisely for my visual pleasure.
Thoughtfully-paved, beshrubbed walks like this are a slightly belated gesture at the concept that the built environment influences our wellbeing and mindset. This one is only a year or two old, constructed between two of the Brutalist inventions that have lined this street since the 1970s. Though they are all quite ugly, each building is ugly in a unique way, and nearly every one is embellished with an outdoor sculpture. Sometimes the artwork is symbolic, like a bronze dragon named Mario who is the sculptural form of the neighboring university’s mascot, or a mesmerizing partial portrait of the lower half of a face which is located in front of a science center that specializes in taste and smell. Then there is the sculpture in front of my building: a bronze whorl that looks abstractly animal, with a hint of teeth above its central aperture. Dragon, I guess as I walk past. Eel biting its tail. One of those deep-sea creatures that swims in darkness. Vagina dentata. When I give visiting friends directions to my building, I tell them medallion.
On my walk this afternoon, I decided today would be the day I find out what the bronze is meant to represent. First I inspected the base: nothing. Back at my desk, search terms: street address plus varying combinations of bronze, circular, and sculpture. It takes some time, but finally I dredge up this gem from Building America’s First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania by George E. Thomas and David B. Brownlee:
[My office building] was one of the earliest buildings of the center, constructed in 1972. It proves the Venturi reversal of the modern dictum that sometimes “Less is a bore.” The small plaza in front of this bland piece of background architecture is enlivened by James Lloyd’s bronze globe-like sculpture entitled Untitled.
I’m amused by the authors’ frank disdain, but Untitled doesn’t help me decide what manner of beast “enlivens” the building. New search terms: James Lloyd, sculptor. Lloyd, who studied in Philadelphia, suggests in his bio that his artwork is inspired by the beauty and diversity of the natural world, human and cultural as well as animal and mineral. The sculpture in this neighborhood was his first public art commission. There is no particular statement given about my building’s sculpture, but I did learn that it is actually entitled Morphic Opening.
Like many of my college essays, this contemplation lacks a satisfying conclusion. I believe that I have done exactly what one is meant to do with non-figurative artwork: despite the much-maligned aesthetic of my built environment, I’ve spent a few hours on a Friday afternoon pleasurably contemplating its appearance without purpose. I don’t know how I will feel about the beige cubes within cubes after another four months or (knock wood) four years, but I am optimistic that the mostly relaxed and intellectually stimulating social environment will elevate my outlook more than the rain-dampened concrete will dispirit it.
I look forward to my next occasion to give directions to my building. I will tell visiting friends to look for the morphic opening.