For most writers, setting – where you place your characters – is really just another character in the story. It’s the ground on which the action takes place, and if it’s real enough, if you get the details right, your human characters feel more real, allowing your imagination to take flight. In The Heart of Henry Quantum, San Francisco is as important an element as Henry or Daisy or Margaret. Maybe it’s even more important. The book is a love letter to that wonderful city and I worked very hard to get the it right.
Setting drives emotion. Think about the different feel you get when a scene takes place in a gloomy back alley contrasted to a lovely tree-filled park, or a cramped office cubicle compared to a sun-filled loft.
Of course the emotional power of place doesn’t only happen in books. The spaces we live in and move through on a daily basis also hold great power over us. Imagine yourself walking though a romantic plaza in Rome, flocks of pigeons chattering on the fountain, lovers strolling by, ...
Now compare that to what you feel hurrying through a canyon of glass and concrete towers. You might feel awe and wonder at their sheer size, or you might feel quashed and isolated by their icy façades. It’s unlikely you’ll feel same as you did at that fountain in Rome.
I recently listed to a fascinating TED talk by Justin Davidson, in which he discussed the seemingly ubiquitous epidemic of glass towers in cities. He made the point that glass has become the default wrapping material for most new high-rise buildings. Davidson suggested there are legitimate reasons for switching to glass. It’s cost effective, easy to construct, and easy to replace should something break. And most important from a consumer point of view is the ability to bring the outside world in: a major selling point for high-rise luxury apartments is the 360 degree surround-view from the 15th or 20th floor. Not bad if you can afford it.
The challenge with glass, however, is that there is only so much range an architect can achieve in the external appearance of a building. Because of this, Davidson argued, many skylines of global cities are becoming homogenized. The simple designs required to sustain glass exteriors severely reduce diversity -- the very diversity that has drawn so many people to travel around the world to see new, different, and wonderful structures.
In The Heart of Henry Quantum the texture of the buildings and neighborhoods Henry passes through gives textural significance to his life. So too are our lives enriched by the texture of the buildings that surround us. Do we want to revel in those spaces, as we might in the Roman plaza, or merely pass through as we might in the financial district of San Francisco?
As Davidson points out, architecture is only one factor in how we use (or ignore or avoid) our public spaces. How often we look up from our phones is clearly another factor.
But do take a few seconds now to indulge your senses in some of the remarkable buildings and spaces that Davidson shared in his talk. And perhaps ask yourself: What kind of buildings would I like to see in my city or town? And, how would being surrounded by buildings like these change my perception of the world around me – or, even, perhaps, my perception of self?