The pursuit of happiness


Adding an element of surprise and delight in design can be as simple as a splash of colour or an unexpected shape. Placing something that is in direct opposition whether in materiality, texture or geometry can stop and make us take notice – and hopefully make us pause and smile.

As the creators of environments and products, designers have the ability to go beyond simply creating an object, container or environment. We have the ability to influence joy and happiness and to push and pull the psychology of the audience.

We can design to make occupants feel comfortable or uncomfortable and there are techniques that utilize the principles and elements of design that act as the tools in our toolbox.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being a guest on the podcast ‘Happitecture’. The creator, Michelle Fenton, an architect from Vancouver, prompted me to explore the idea of what makes us design vibrant, happy environments. This is a genius idea. In all my years of teaching, we focused on productivity, accessibility, quality and sustainability – but I would be hard pressed to ever say that we focused on happiness. In a world full of constant negative media stories, anxiety, stress, violence and strife, I propose that we champion the inclusion of ‘happiness’ in our built environment.

Are there precedents for this? Absolutely.

I am a big fan of Thomas Heatherwick, the UK based leader of Heatherwick Studio who is the creator of the ‘Rolling Bridge’ and the ‘Spun’ chair. Not only does Heatherwick create some of the most interesting buildings in the world, but he recently spoke out against an epidemic of ‘boringness’. “I want to talk about streets with new buildings and the problem that we all know exists in our towns and cities around the world – that we’re increasingly surrounded by characterless buildings,” Heatherwick said. “I believe we’re living through an epidemic of boringness. Everywhere is the same – dull, flat, shiny, straight, inhuman.” He went on to say, “Most of the time, buildings leave us feeling indifferent.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I believe it is the product of looking at what others do and an adoption of risk aversion that has become the predominant mantra of building owners – and also many designers and architects. I often hear that it is ‘expensive’ to be original. The more unusual something is, the more it costs. While this may bear some truth, part of our job is to find creative and cost-effective ways to make our solutions work for clients. However, we do need clients who want to embrace what we can provide, and part of that is educating them against the boring beige boxes that dot our streets.

As an historic example, I always refer to the frieze on the original Toronto Stock Exchange building, a.k.a., the former Design Exchange, a building and organization I managed for eight years. If you stand across Bay Street and ponder the façade, you will find a cheeky nod to the financial climate of the 1930s by the artist, Charles Comfort. The sculptural frieze, which is a shining example of Art Deco, features industrial workers, but also features a man in a top hat with his hand in the pocket of the worker. For those history aficionados amongst us, this is an element that not only surprises the viewer, but is a delightful commentary on our capitalist economy. While it is unknown if this was an addition that was approved by the building developer (I suspect not), it certainly makes an impact on the viewer – almost a century later.

It takes time and effort on our part to consistently ask the client, how do we want to inspire and delight the user, passerby, tenant or resident? How can we orchestrate a solution that is timeless, but interesting? How can we weave elements into the interiors, façade or landscaping that make us smile? How can we animate our space to prompt moments of joy?

You can start by asking yourself the simplest of questions: What brings you happiness? Answer that, and you are on your way.

Samantha Sannella
Samantha Sannella
"SAMANTHA SANNELLA, BFA ID, M ARCH, is a designer, educator and principal at Urban Retreat Homes. She is an expert in the field of design and construction and is a columnist for several HOMES Publishing Group publications."
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