On a sunny afternoon, six people gather in a narrow cobblestone alley. My partner and I are apartment hunting in Spain. To assist in the search, we’ve recruited a couple of Spanish realtors and a couple of Italian designers. Conversation is sparse for none of us speaks a language other than our own.
The six of us gaze intently at a 19th Century building with wrought iron balconies. On the third floor is an apartment that is vacant. The decamped tenant had lived there for many years and it showed. Floor tiles are cracked, patches of mildew populate the walls, and the air has a musty smell like a damp cupboard.
We enter the apartment and are immediately surprised by the elegant proportions. The apartment stretches to our left and right, and the room at the back curves around to reveal a window with a view of the town square. This apartment has a feeling of repose. With its thick stone walls, the apartment feels like a very private space, a sanctuary.
The six of us navigate through the apartment like a school of fish, flowing and stopping as one body. We emit simultaneous murmurs of appreciation at what we see; the heavy wooden pocket door that slides neatly into the wall, the capacious pantry carved into the cool stone walls. Although six people, we seem to be seeing with one pair of eyes, thinking with one mind.
Until today, I’d never met the realtors and designers. We are brought together for the purpose of converting this apartment into a modern living space without disrespecting its history. Beneath the veneer of dust and dirt lies a living space that would comfortably house a family of dwellers today as well as it did a hundred years ago.
As the minutes pass, I feel closer and closer to my new friends, the realtors and designers. Lacking a common language, we speak with smiles, gestures, and glances. We are bound together by what we see and feel for this ancient space.
Le Corbusier, the renowned architect, said that when we employ stone, wood and concrete to build a structure, that is construction. When that structure touches our hearts, that is architecture.
On that sunny afternoon, I understood what he meant.
With a Perspective, I’m Clarence Wong.
Clarence Wong lives in San Francisco and works at a community health center in Oakland Chinatown.