Inspiring Delight

Design for joy, adventure and discovery elevates a space and creates greater connections with ourselves and others.

Architecture is more than concrete and steel. To quote Roman architect Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture, De architectura: “Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight.” Yet delight is an aspect rarely discussed, even though it is an essential ingredient to a successful design. To me, delight embodies those moments that elevate buildings to architecture.

What is “delight”? It could be a well-composed design that brings a sense of harmony and balance. Or it could be a sublime detail — the way water runs down a building or a ray of light entering a space. It could be a comfortable shady spot or a circuitous path with a view.

Delight creates joy, amusement or discovery. It brings us a greater connection with ourselves and one another. It can also bring us into a closer relationship with nature or with the built environment. Whether serendipitous or carefully planned, it elevates the making of the place, beyond the mere prosaic. Some may question elements of design that seem to be beyond the immediate obvious need. However, it is exactly these facets of design — the playful, quirky or even imperfect — that make moments to inspire, provoke and challenge us and create a condition for deeper meaning.

When designing buildings where people go to grow, learn, think critically, develop friendships and generally prepare for real life, it’s important to create places that inspire. Delightful moments that pique curiosity, give respite or simply bring joy can provide the necessary spark.

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For the Menlo-Atherton STEM building, the preservation of oak trees and the circuitous stair help connect students to nature.

When designing buildings where people go to grow, learn, think critically, develop friendships and generally prepare for real life, it's important to make places that inspire.

During the design of the new STEM building for Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, California, we often talked to the school about the importance of creating moments that would inspire. The design preserves two very large Valley Oak trees that shared the site. An unnecessarily circuitous stair to the second floor entwines the canopy of the trees, bringing students into close proximity to the branches, birds and bugs. At the roof level, an oversized leaf-like gutter directs rainwater through playful downspouts to a permeable rain garden, giving the project a sense of scale, adventure and celebration of rain. By combining a sense of delight with the proven stress-reducing benefits of nature and space for hands-on learning, the school provides an environment for student happiness and success.

Delight can also inspire engagement and interaction, an important aspect of any campus. At Piedmont High School in San Jose, California, LPA’s design navigates the site’s natural slope by connecting the upper and lower floors with circular ramps that traverse all levels and frame an intimate courtyard.

When we looked at how the school functioned after it opened, we saw kids running and playing tag all along the ramps –-true moments of delight. Could we have made the ramps shorter and more straightforward or included an elevator instead? Sure. But by bringing a more inventive solution to the site’s challenging topography, the design encouraged students to connect with each other through play.

Delight is a useful, practical architectural tool in many situations. For many higher education campuses, keeping students on campus as much as possible is a top priority, reflecting data that shows that students who spend more time on campus perform better academically. What better way to encourage them than through moments that enable them to connect?

For Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, California, our integrated design team created a “living room” for the campus. New outdoor areas extend interior gathering areas to the exterior with plazas featuring a grove of trees. From an intimate dining terrace to expansive terraced seating areas, these spaces provide a welcoming atmosphere, shaded from the sun, protected from the wind and connected to the rest of campus. That encourages students to linger. By improving the campus experience and keeping students on campus longer, these moments of delight can be critical to the success of students and the institution.

Creating delight sometimes means embracing a site’s natural features that others would have hidden. The site for Santa Clara County’s new library administration annex is in an industrial area neighboring a series of percolation ponds teeming with flora and fauna. The other buildings along the street turn their back to the ponds, treating them as a nuisance. But we saw an enormous opportunity to connect our project to the ponds. The design trains the focus of the spaces where people spend their days on the ponds to offer an immediate connection with nature. Tall windows allow occupants to observe the changing of the seasons in the changing colors of plants and trees, the comings and goings of birds and the rolling of fog over the mountains. Natural materials that are in harmony with the setting line the spaces. By truly committing to this gift of the site, the design will harness the effects of biophilia such as reduced stress and increased focus and concentration.

Instead of viewing elements of design that at first may seems frivolous or impractical, we should see them as an integral part of any project’s success. By inspiring kindredness, happiness and wellness, delight becomes key to fostering human goodness through the built environment.