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Looking Up

Photo: Spencer Olinek

Doris peered up at the three-story high ceiling and zigzagging staircase angling toward the rooftop, a timid smile on her face as she scanned the vertical volume of her grandson’s loft.

Frail and 92, she lived her dimming days in the confines of an apartment designed to keep her safe. On that sunny day, it was clear by the look of tentative pleasure in her green eyes that the cubicle where she lived had been compressing her perspective to a height limitation of seven feet.

We’re all shaped by the dimensions of our own circumstance.

Novelist Chris Offutt wrote of a Kentucky man venturing through the flatlands of Indiana and Illinois, away from the hovering mountains of home. He felt exposed and vulnerable in the wide-open expanse as he slept beneath the sky.

“Something bright cut across the night, and he thought someone had shot at him until he realized it was a shooting star,” Offutt wrote. “The hills at home blocked so much sky that he’d never seen one.”

Brittany Maynard, the 29-year old newlywed with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon so she could legally die on her own terms, said in a video statement released weeks before her death that she hoped to spend as much of her remaining time as possible outdoors. Her planned exit from life evoked the closing lines of The Incredible Shrinking Man — that “the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle.”

Most of us chafe at our surroundings. The very walls and ceilings that keep us warm, that we embellish to our liking with paint, wallpaper, fixtures and art, also imprison us.

All the more important, then, that we design homes, offices and public places with an eye toward scale and how it affects our well being.

Studies reveal that we think differently in differently configured spaces, and our brains are particularly affected by ceiling height. Researchers Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet) Zhu found that higher ceilings correlate with creative cognition while lower ceilings prompt detail-oriented thought.

Classroom shape, no doubt, plays a role in learning. As a child, I recall trying to count the random pattern of large and small perforations “decorating” the acoustical tiles that sheathed the ceilings in my public school. Were the No. 2 pencils stuck into those tiles an act of defiance against bland ugliness? Were the students who pierced the surface with graphite points acting out, like caged zoo animals rebelling against confinement?

On the other end of the age spectrum, housing designed for the elderly often functions as an architectural Band-Aid. Barrier-free becomes the exact opposite. Should senior-friendly dwellings focus on more than safety? Harvard physician Atul Gawande says yes.

“We live for more than just our survival,” he told Diane Rehm on National Public Radio. “People have priorities besides just living longer.”

All of us, maybe especially the elderly who have narrowing lives, need the inspiration of expanded vistas. Humans’ negative reaction to restrictive and artificial boundaries is as obvious as the international border skirmishes they spark.

Even daily life illustrates our need for elbowroom. Just turn a toddler loose in the wide-open, ‘echoey’ expanse of a shopping mall and witness the joy of experiencing space without constraints. Or watch adults swoon at the euphoric sense of being a speck among the giant redwoods.

Voluminous space can be gratuitous and overwhelming, too, of course. While visiting a 25,000-square-foot house once, I recall the mistress of the manse sitting in a far corner of the “gallery” (living room), nestled against the arm of a sofa with her feet curled beneath her, as if seeking asylum from grandiosity.

Perhaps the ideal structure includes low-ceilinged retreats for cozy contemplation and soaring spaces to remind us that the sky’s the limit.


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