Ambience: the power of space

year 4 classroom boat

In year 4 I got one of the best classrooms in the school. It was one of the smallest rooms, but that lent it a cosiness that meant you really didn’t mind being a little squished in. There were 3 defining features. Firstly, there was an appliquéd curtain, made by previous classes of children which guarded a big open-sided cupboard; it would have been an excellent hiding spot if you were ever feeling particularly naughty, and I know it housed some musical instruments too which made it even more appealing. In boring lessons you could almost hear the concealed tambourines giggling to each other in their confinement.

Secondly, the general layout of the room meant that there was a distinct separation between working tables and the carpeted and cushioned reading time area. For some reason it conjured the image of being in a ship- the teacher stood at the helm, with all her crew busy at work under her watchful eye, protecting us from the prevailing winds and guiding us towards the land of correct spellings and an understanding of fractions. Perhaps it was to do with the scale of that room, and our close proximity to each other, but we were definitely all in it together.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly was the generous window to wall ratio. On one side they looked out onto the playground, and on the other they were set lower- like a shop front- and looked towards the fields if you sat in the right spot or just into the covered walkway if you didn’t. Either way, this window arrangement gave you a feeling of open space, but kept you feeling sheltered, warm and safe at the same time; this classroom said- ‘here is the world, it is yours when you are ready’.

And then something terrible happened. Something that nobody else seemed to see as a bad thing. The low windowed wall that gazed fieldwards was bricked up and the windows replaced by small high up oblongs that offered no breeze, no views, just added security and better energy efficiency. Now don’t get me wrong- I was always for saving energy- (that much was bred into us at an early age) but I felt incredibly sad about it coming at the cost of the perfect room. I know this all sounds like an absurd overreaction, but it was the moment where I realised that I seemed to be able to sense something that others seemingly couldn’t. I now know a few words that might go towards explaining it- ambience and feng sui being two- but at the time I just knew they had ruined the feel of it.

I wonder at what age most of us develop these sorts of opinions about our surroundings; and whether all of us do. Is it like an artistic appreciation? Are some of us more finely tuned to it than others? Or is it more related to sensitivity to particular stimuli- I could well imagine that certain strains of autism might also encounter strong feelings about an environment- not just on the grounds of change. But I do think that even those of us who can’t quantify the feeling or put it into words would still feel that the room was not as ‘nice’ as it had once been. I would imagine that everyone is affected on some level.

My year 4 classroom aside, there are so many beautiful spaces in the world- places that nurture their contents, or evoke specific emotions through more than just a colour scheme. The power of the space is incredible when you think about it. And too often (in the UK especially) the feel of a place falls prey to other factors. The top priority becomes how many houses you can squeeze into one plot, and that’s a huge shame. I think that the places that have the right feel now were built in a bygone age when efficiency of space wasn’t such a big deal. Cottages were often built by the people who would live in them too: how delightful! It’s a world away from the modern tightly packed estates that sprawl uncontrollably to the point where I get completely lost because all the houses look the same. I don’t see a time where anyone will see these places as wonderful old builds, because the character is all wrong. The wrong blueprint has been picked for reproduction all over the country- and in fact, having a blueprint at all is a bit of a problem for me. Individuality and variation are so important.

Whilst you can certainly improve a place, and make it your own with adjustments and tweaks, I think we need to take a step back from the mass produced box lifestyle and remember that we are making these boxes to hold real people. Dear builders: If you must build houses and schools and other buildings, please give us interesting spaces, freedom to roam, fresh air ventilation and plentiful natural light. Let us feel nurtured, safe and content when we must be contained by walls. Or don’t build them at all.

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