Learn from your body

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

18. Learn from your body

Your body can teach you many things about architecture.

Sitting in your studio, it can teach you about dimensions, the appropriate heights of desks and benches, the depths of cupboards, the widths of chairs. It can teach you about size and proportion, about the distances between things, how hard it is to reach a high shelf, the spaciousness of a room. Carry a scale ruler and a tape measure with you at all times. You will find yourself referring regularly to them both, to measure both your drawings and your surrounds.

Outside your studio, your body continues to teach. Two activities in particular impart fundamental lessons.

Rock climbing teaches you about triangulation, efficiency and balance. Hanging from the face of a wall by your fingertips and toes, the tensions running through your limbs and core tell you precisely what you need to do to keep from swinging out like an opening door. Climbing elegantly, with minimum effort easily concealed, is to climb efficiently: to place your foot in this place at that angle; to push off at this speed to that height. There are yet deeper lessons here, about the purpose of structure, the beauty in efficiency, the ancient appreciation of poise and balance.

The uncommonly vertical movement of rock climbing, and the extreme effort required of parts of your body not used to the exertion, reveal insights readily overlooked.

Running teaches you about endurance, patience and the long haul. Setting out for a 20km run, you must fight two simultaneous but opposing urges: first, the temptation to run as fast as you can. Instead of expending all your energy too quickly, you must pace yourself, building into the run with increasing speed and planning the use of your body’s resources with the distant finish line in mind. Second, you must resist the (far more powerful) temptation to stop. Running hurts, a deep, low burn that spreads uniformly through the body, occasionally concentrating itself sharply in this joint or that muscle. You must overcome the reflex need to protect yourself and avoid pain, instead pushing onwards with the higher-cortex knowledge that you are improving yourself.

Architecture is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Like running, it must be endured. Like running, it has its steep hills and head-winds, its easy flats and tail-winds. Like running, it requires that you pace yourself for the long haul, understand that the tedious day-by-day minutiae will ultimately be rewarded with the big prize at the finish line: a built project. Like running, architecture takes as much will power as it does inspiration.

Learn from your body.

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