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Architecture of happiness: How to design emotions

The founding director of Studio Weave explains how to build an environment that makes people feel happy.

Je Ahn. Photo by Gleb Leonov / Strelka Institute

Studio Weave is an award-winning design practice based in London that creates projects combining art, architecture, and infrastructure within the public realm.
Founded in 2006, it relies on an approach that takes human emotions into account. According to its founding director Je Ahn, Studio Weave aims at creating not just attractive designs, but places where people can feel comfortable.
Je Ahn is a RIBA Chartered Architect and a visiting critic at a number of universities in the UK and around the world. He is also the director of Project00, an interdisciplinary studio practicing design beyond its traditional borders.
Strelka Mag spoke to Je Ahn about the importance of taking a human-centered approach to architecture.
 

CREATING A PLACE THAT MAKES YOU FEEL AT HOME

We are not just architects and an architecture practice. We have various people from different backgrounds. We work in art, master planning, and in research. What is important to us is how to create an environment that we feel happy in. I know that it sounds incredibly vague, but we don’t have such a dogma that something has to look like something or it is all about material authenticity.
Even if you design something really beautiful, if people do not use it, it is a dead space. If people do not look after the place, it is just going to degrade.
All of those are a part of what we are trying to do: create a place that makes you feel home. Are you a part of it, does it make you feel warm and happy? If it doesn’t, then maybe there is something wrong.
It matters where people are from, what environment are they in, and what makes them feel comfortable. Understanding beyond the physicality, and why people respond in a certain way, is very important to us.
I have to admit that I rely on my instinct a lot and the instinct of the people I work with and do projects with. A hard analysis in such things is very difficult. The hard analysis has to go with the very qualitative soft element; if you hard analyze it, it becomes dry. Maybe I just haven’t found the way to analyze it properly, but it is more of a conversation for me, not just hard-line mathematics or pure logic.

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‘The Longest Bench’ – A 324-meter bench that provides seating for 300 people. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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‘The Longest Bench’ – A 324-meter bench that provides seating for 300 people. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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‘The Lullaby Factory’ – A secret music machine made of pipes to bring some joy to young patients at a hospital. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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‘The Lullaby Factory’ – A secret music machine made of pipes to bring some joy to young patients at a hospital. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

Not just scientifically pluses and minuses, but how we qualitatively feel about a space matters. Things have to be justified and quantified to a degree, but at the same time, they need to be human. We create that by gathering emotions and information from lots of different people.
 

TRANSLATING ART INTO ARCHITECTURE

A lot of our projects are about a narrative that carries emotion, asking how would you describe this place. The Belvue School, a secondary school for boys and girls with learning difficulties and a range of other additional educational needs, was one of our projects where we translated an art installation into a building.

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'The Belvue School' – A secondary school for boys and girls with learning difficulties. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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'The Belvue School' – A secondary school for boys and girls with learning difficulties. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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'The Belvue School' – A secondary school for boys and girls with learning difficulties. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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'The Belvue School' – A secondary school for boys and girls with learning difficulties. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

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'The Belvue School' – A secondary school for boys and girls with learning difficulties. Photo courtesy Studio Weave

While working on Belvue School, we were thinking of how to involve these children throughout the journey in order to create a space they are comfortable in and feel part of.
This is very different from asking them about every single tiny detail, but it means knowing who they are and creating something together.
We did a series of workshops with kids, their parents, and school staff, involving them in the project. We wanted to know how they felt about the forest that the building is facing, whether they are scared of it or they find it enchanting. To find this out, we did a story writing workshop. It was based on you, as a person, going into the forest and meeting someone who lives there. It could be fantasy, a person, anything. It gave us a lot of good ideas; some students were scared of the forest, some found it dirty, some thought it was magical.
It was important for us not to ask them directly “How do these woods make you feel,” because it is a difficult question to answer. They answered this question through a drawing workshop, clay making, and a building workshop, where they made little huts. And eventually, for our studio it became a larger workshop which was making the building for those children.
First we work with people and then we see the result. We do other workshops, where we partner up with a local institution or local craftspeople and see what they have been doing, and what kind of outcome they have been creating and why. That is all part of our research in order to create something, to have deep, really meaningful dialogue with people who are in it, and see how they are working. Through a series of workshops, we see how people behave in the environment and put that into our work.

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