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How architecture has the power to change how you feel

In London’s Design Museum, an exhibition showing the work of architect David Adjaue recently caught my attention. I was particularly interested in the way he uses emotion and feeling as a key influence for his work.

The exhibition, split into 5 contrasting spaces uses light, colour, props and architectural models to take visitors on an emotional journey through his work. Well lit open areas show the progression of African American culture and the museum in D.C his firm designed. While a darker, isolated space lets wanderers explore his proposal for the London holocaust Memorial. The final room of the exhibition shows the new Rwandan cathedral in a brightly lit space with yellow walls, traditional African parasols suspended from the ceiling, and African drum beats adding a great sense of feeling.

The Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington D.C really captured my intrigue for the journey it tells through the layout of the building. Split into 3 tiers, the basement of the museum is underground and visitors explore the dark and turbulent history of African American culture. As visitors level up to the next floor, they experience the transformation of this culture, with carefully positioned windows letting in light to give an illuminating feeling of progression and an uplifting spirit. The final, highest floor is a celebration of African Americans and literally shows the elevation of their culture within American history. Flooded with day light, the space is a positive reflection of the present and the future.

I’ve never thought that the design of a building could directly make visitors feel specific emotions. I always thought that was down to the interior styling and the people and furniture, but Adjayes winning proposal for the British holocaust memorial is a brilliant expression of how architecture can change the way you feel.

Designed to reflect on the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust, and as a reminder to the British parliament - that the museum is positioned next to; that segregation and discrimination is never a good thing. Visitors will enter the building through one of 22 openings, representing the 22 countries involved in the Holocaust. The openings are staircases that lead to an underground exhibit space, but what really struck me is how Adjaye and partners designed the entrance.

Each entry opening is a long staircase down, but only wide enough for one person, so as you enter you feel alone and are forced to feel a sense of seclusion and separation, helping to empathise with those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. I imagine entering this space is a chilling and thought-provoking experience. It’s a brilliant example of how architecture can change the way you feel, and really showed me the importance of architects who take an emotional, holistic approach when designing spaces.

David Adjaye

Before the exhibition, I was not particularly familiar with Adjayes work, but I now have a new found love and respect for him and his team; and have a greater understanding for the value of emotion and feeling in designing architectural and spatial experiences. The ability for a constructed space to connect so emotionally to its visitors through architecture is powerful and has to ability to change perspectives and opinions. It shows how creativity can do incredible things that push the boundaries, even in subtle, sophisticated ways.


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