How can architects and designers reference the past to create stability and a sense of safety and community in unstable times? According to Katy Flammia AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, design director at the architecture firm Spacesmith’s Hudson, N.Y. office, “Often as a response to tragedy and turmoil, people feel a need to retreat; to find security in the familiar, traditional, and recognizable.”
As Flammia writes, architects and designers today are being asked to react to the emotional landscape in order to provide uplifting places that will nurture safe, strong, resilient communities.
“In times of rampant change — be it technological, political, or social — there is often a call to simpler times of safety and authenticity,” she says. This moment in time raises interesting questions, such as: what is the most appropriate and authentic response to the current crisis in terms of form, function, and style,” she says.
Flammia explains that in the past, large-scale social disruptions and times of trauma and fear have led to historic stylistic revivals, vernacular quotations, and back to the land movements — a general effort to reference something solid or known. Cities are now also seeing an exodus as large numbers of people flee to places that they perceive to be safer. “In terms of providing the public with a sense of stability and security right now,” says Flammia, “our design response should not be a retreat into stylistic cut-and-paste from the past.”
Proliferating technology allows design professionals to work at greater speeds, which according to Flammia may be the reason the architecture world sees so much stylistic montage without careful thought to its relevancy. But the architecture and design professions are able to offer novel aesthetic, logistical, and spatial solutions that are appropriate to this moment’s unprecedented challenges, she notes. “Designers and architects are as imaginative today as we have ever been, but we have to double down on our creative resources to provide truly sensitive, precisely tailored environments that satisfy real human needs — without directly copying aesthetic expressions from history.”
While Flammia admires a lot of traditional and contemporary architecture and interior design, she believes we need to use references to our past in an original and creative way in order to create the sense of comfort and security we all crave. “Culturally, we may be at one of those times when we have to think about what really matters to us. As designers, we are inherently inventive. We know how to design for physical and mental health, and we can go well beyond an image montage to build real, enriching environments. Let’s aspire to create authentic and meaningful places,” she urges her peers and the public.
Flammia points to renowned architectural works that, in her opinion, got it right — they go back to basics, seek meaning in history, and feel both solid and authentic. Among the examples she extolls are: Saint Benedict Chapel by Peter Zumthor, Ekouin Nenbutsudo-temple by Yutaka Kawahara, and Säynätsalo City Hall by Alvar Aalto.
“The thing all these projects have in common is that they refer to something culturally recognizable, but they don’t rely on the image they are referencing to create resonance,” says Flammia. “There is something so essential about their materials, form, scale, and environment that even though the buildings are culturally and programmatically specific, they are able to communicate a universal sense of groundedness.”
Flammia concludes with the hope that in the coming years, “when we look to design spaces that heal and nurture, we will look into our past, but with a creative energy that pulls tradition forward, is thoughtful, inventive, and above all optimistic and forward-looking.”
For more information about Katy Flammia, Spacesmith, or high-res imagery and image credits, contact C.C. Sullivan.

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