25 April 2010

Confessions of a happy person

Before I trundle off to bed for my Sunday afternoon nap, I have a confession:

I'm happy.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal, but in light of the state of the world, and in light of the states of minds of lots of people I meet, I think it's, well, unique.

See, here's the thing -- I'm really, really happy. Not just pleasantly surprised at how well this day is going... not just relaxed and enjoying myself... not just feeling no pain. Au contraire. I am feeling a bit of pain over a number of different issues.

But at the very core, at the center of who and what I am, in the most authentic fiber of my being, I'm happy.

Woo hoo!

04 April 2010

The Sense of a Powerful Place

Some time ago, I had an business appointment at a building whose tenants were global and powerful. Some of the most successful companies in their sectors had their headquarters in this massive steel-and-glass structure, built high atop a hill overlooking a reservoir along one of the most heavily traveled corridors in eastern Massachusetts. The building was clearly visible from below, and I'd glanced up at it many a time, while traveling north and south on the interstate far below.

When the appointment came up, I was excited to go. I had always wondered what it was like, up on that hill. On either side of the highway at "sea level", modern office buildings had proliferated over the years with impressive designs and intriguing logos prominently displayed for clear visibility to both north- and south-bound traffic. But up on the hill... that was a location of a completely different order. Whoever had their corporate presence up there was literally a cut above the rest.

I made a point of leaving early, to leave myself ample time to soak up the experience. I checked Google Maps thoroughly, figuring out multiple routes of approach, in case traffic got bad. I knew there had been construction around one of the main interchanges, and I didn't want to be distracted by lane shifts and Jersey barriers, along the way. I checked the map version... and the traffic version... and I also checked out the satellite, to see where the parking lots were located. Alas, there was no "street view" available, but I could make do in any case.

I found my way there in good time and got through the snarls of the interchange without incident, then made my way slowly along the reservoir, dodging potholes and keeping an eye out for the street number of my destination. Numerous office parks were built into the hillside, marked by substantial signs heavy with names that evoked a sense of practiced nonchalance with power. Near the end of the road, I spotted the number I was seeking, and with a quick left turn I began my ascent.

Just driving up to the building was awe-inspiring. The well-paved roadway, its lanes clearly delimited with tight-fitting gray curbstones on the outside and neat white lines between, wound up-up-up, past manicured "softscapes" and lower buildings, terraced parking areas, and stands of strategically maintained trees. I drove past signs that told of occupancy by well-known tenants, and followed the arrows to the very end of the road, where my destination awaited.

The campus high atop the hill was comprised of the usual amenities: plenty of parking (but precious little shade) surrounded a massive structure in lots that branched off one another like lobes of a liver. The afternoon sun and scattered clouds scuttling across the blue sky danced across the surface of powerfully framed, reflective windows, as though the massive bulk behind it were little more than a chimera designed to impress with glass and steel and Bauhaus-like austerity.

glass and sky
Air and Glass by AurelioZen

At first approach, the volume of the building was palpable, as though it were animated with a spirit of its own. If the intention of the architect was to convey a sense of protective power, they'd succeeded -- with me, at least.  I strode boldly up to the front doors, taking note of the regular people who were on their way out and taking some comfort in their ... normalcy. Taking a deep breath, I gave the heavy door a strong pull and entered the inner sanctum of the structure.

Once inside, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings. Outside, it had been bright and hot and wide open, but inside it was cool and dark and self-constrained. Where a drop-ceiling foyer with a receptionist surrounded by potted plants might have been found, some 30-40 years before, there was a massive atrium, a stories-high vacant space in the center of the building, which was flanked on all sides by the balconies of successive levels. Up-up-up it rose, the vast hollowness disorienting as much as it awed. Across the atrium, a stories-high glass wall overlooked the reservoir, the interstate, and miles of Massachusetts -- practically to the sea.

Standing in that void was, I imagine, like entering a decompression chamber after a particularly deep dive.  And it took a few minutes for me to adjust. Once I did, I was suffused with a very clear sense that I had arrived.

Now, I'm not well-schooled in architectural design, and although I have been known to page through Architectural Digest at times, I'm not well-versed in the nomenclature of that discipline. But I do know a sense of place when I feel it. The sense of that atrium..  in that building... was one of undeniable self-conscious significance. The place had clearly been constructed to communicate to the tenants that they were Players in the game of life. And to everyone else, the place spoke volumes about the importance of those who were housed there, and the significance of their business. Well-done, to those who designed it thus -- and I have no doubt that was their intention.

One thing struck me about the place, however, after I acclimated to it. And the reversal was almost as disorienting as the adjustment to it, coming in from the outdoors. In a matter of a few minutes -- once my eyes adjusted to the light, and my body adjusted to the change in proximity to interior artificial instead of exterior, natural objects -- the atrium morphed from a clear statement of consequential substance, to... well... nothing. It was the strangest thing. Here, I'd been climbing a hill in my humble little car, bathed in ample outside evidence of power and influence... and I'd stepped through heavy doors to the greeting of a commanding, even overwhelming inside space. But once I was really in the space, all sense of substance dissipated, and the atrium became, well, an empty void that had little to offer aside from echoes and a confusing absence of signage.

That first contact sense of awe and intimidation dissolved, as I looked around the space itself and saw little more than two angular, 50's-style couches facing each other in the center of the room, brushed metal elevator doors off to the right, and recessed alcoves of entrances to tenant offices. The layout looked a lot like a spread I'd seen about feng shui in the workplace and how foyers could be properly designed for the most advantageous energy. But the feel of this place was very different from what I'd gotten from that feng shui magazine spread.* It was as though someone had glanced quickly at that magazine and thrown together something that looked like what they thought they saw. As though the person picking out the decor had read about minimalism and heard it was the latest thing, and took a stab at it without a lot of deep thought, consideration, or even a direct experience of what that space would be like for people entering from the outdoors. It was as though they'd thrown together the atrium design -- such as it was -- as an afterthought... a last effort to put the finishing touches on a project that probably went over-schedule and over-budget, and they were just happy to have it done.

What a shame. For the impression I had of a commanding presence over the lesser office blocks along the highway below, morphed into a sense of distance, even longing. As indifferently aloof and overbearing as the structure had felt at first encounter, it suddenly felt, well, lonely.

And the awe I'd initially felt for its shiny, reflective surface transformed into a bittersweet sadness tinged with regret, even pity.

I'm sorry to say, my appointment turned out about the same. The meeting began well, and the potential client and I seemed to hit it off, but ultimately the connection didn't pan out. The business I had hoped to forge a deal with turned out to be very much like the atrium of the building that housed it -- impressive at first blush, but ultimately hollow and without a whole lot of substance, a little sad... and lonely, too.

As I headed back down that winding drive, I noticed that the signs along the way had some blank spaces where tenants names had once been. And in stretches here and there, the lines marking the lanes needed repainting.


* I'd have to go back and look at the book again (I may just do that), to compare the lighting and the proportions of the area with what I saw in the atrium. And perhaps the actual experience of that feng-shui-friendly office foyer would approximate what I felt in that real-life space. It's tough to tell from magazine spreads. I really have to be there to judge for myself.