Do Buildings Have Souls?

Do buildings have souls? I teach in a school with nearly a thousand students. We recently moved into a brand new building. I talked with an architecture professor who served as an advisor for the planning of our new campus. He introduced me to the idea that buildings have souls. According to our consultant an architectural concept for any building whether it is a school, office or home should really be a metaphor or image for the dreams and values of the people who will use that building. Articulating and defining the soul of a building is a process that needs to include as many of the people who will inhabit the finished structure as possible.

At our school we went about defining it’s soul in a unique way. First we held a contest where anyone connected with our school could submit a drawing, a story, a sculpture, or a movie about what they thought constituted the ‘soul’ of our school. One student made a 3D model of children playing soccer. A parent submitted a series of pillars each featuring a ‘hero’ from one of eight areas of knowledge. Galileo, for example, represented science. A teacher wrote a story about how a young woman with autism had been accepted and loved at our school. A senior about to graduate wrote an article about why our sports team name “The Warriors” represented the ‘can do’ and ‘never say die’ spirit of our students. All of the submissions became part of a brochure to advertise a design imagery competition for architects. They were invited to create a concept design for the ‘look’ of our school based on the ‘soul’ visions provided by our school community.

The entries in this competition were diverse and exciting. One architect had designed what looked like a multi-level tree house. Another had created a kind of butterfly layout to show how our school desired to transform children’s lives. Another had come up with a plan that resembled an eagle’s nest since our school was to be a place where children could learn safely till they were ready to fly out on their own. One design was in the shape of a Noah’s Ark. The winning entry resembled God’s outstretched open hands. Since our school is a religious institution the architect had made the elementary and high school wings of our school each represent one of God’s hands with a huge courtyard in their open palms where members of the community could meet. If you walk into our school today that is exactly the design you will see.

I asked our consulting architect, how we could know for certain that a building accurately reflected the ‘soul’ of the community it housed. He told me the ‘soul’ of building could not be measured in any way. It was something that could be discerned only with the heart.