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I have always wondered where our tastes for form come from. Why are people so selective about certain object forms, the same way they discriminate against each other? What do we look for when we enter a shop full of glassware, for instance? Most importantly, what do our selections say about us?

On one of Kyoto’s cold autumn evenings, I remember going into this tiny café on a street corner with a close friend. The guy who worked there approached us in his long wide robe. He served us our tea in the most humble transparent cups. While my attention was seized by past moments in time, my mindful friend, who always lived in the moment, got captivated by the cup that was just served and kept staring at it as if it were a monument of precious beauty. She held the cup carefully with her two hands, sipped some tea, and stared at it again. She nudged me with her elbow and said: “Look at this cup.” Suddenly I was brought to the present and joined her admiration. This friend of mine was one of the most humble women I knew, and I understood why she was drawn to such a humble-looking cup with its subtle and gentle turns, lack of harsh angles, and its beautiful yet reserved proportions. She was that cup!

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The humble cup - No attribution required

I realized that the objects we choose, dwell in, or like say much about who we are.

A more proud cup could be long, or wide, upward with sharp edges, resembling a person with his nose up.

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The proud cup - No attribution required

If houses were people, their interiors would reproduce their resident’s character in every object and choice that their owners make to arrange their spaces and their elements. However, although many times we fall in love with matter that carries hints of our souls, we may sometimes be drawn to objects and architecture which elements are lacking in ourselves. The rustic and simple may appeal mainly to the wealthy who are longing for an authentic life, hungry for spirituality and emptiness. On the other hand, the luxurious and detailed may appeal mainly to those seeking more.

The first time I walked into that humble friend’s apartment, its elements spoke to me. Her choices spread all over the place. The colors in the room were autumn-like. She covered her bookshelves with two pieces of gentle navy blue cloths. She slept on a modest futon under a soft paper light. The bathroom was like a gallery with walls splashed with happy pictures of special moments and optimistic affirmations. Even the fonts that were selected in the pictures had soft edges and delicate bends. All the elements seemed friendly and fragile, like herself.

Objects in that way, or at least in the way we perceive them, have human-like features. Objects have a heart as well. Just like we choose to hang out with people who reflect our values, we tend to be drawn to objects that reflect who we are, or at times, who we wish to be. Thus, the proportions in physical elements, the subtle curvatures, the choices and compositions of color and texture, all mirror our souls.

I can’t count the times I decided to lose myself in the narrow streets of Kyoto and gaze at the elements to decipher its people. The entry lane to a residence was sometimes slanted. Was it because its people were indirect? It faced a triad of rocks rather than the door. Was it because its people valued the overwhelming power of nature more than their selves? The openings of the houses were guarded by vertical bars and bamboo blinds. It seemed to me like a sign of introversion. It reminded me of the traditional houses that I witnessed in Damascus that are now becoming hotels and high-class restaurants. They had the same kind of reserved windows. But trees and natural elements were invited, just like in a Machiya house, where I beheld an appreciation of the enriching relationship that a building can arrange between nature and the man-made elements.

Those traditional houses were like the modest cup in that tiny café and those delicate fonts I saw on that bathroom door. The cup, the fonts, and the house all had human characteristics, and could be described in human terms, at least to me.

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A Machiya house in Gion – Image by Ryutaro Tsukata


A house in Damascus revealing the reserved windows - Image by Hanadi Traifeh

Opposed to those are the buildings that I found in Dubai or Beirut, for instance, tall and proud modern architecture, with huge windows symbolizing openness and a kind of transparency and freedom.

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Beirut terraces by Herzog & de Meuron - No attribution required

The building we choose to inhabit is interconnected to our state of mind.

As I walked along Dubai’s business bay deck once, and aside from the scorching sun, I couldn’t help but notice that the buildings were competing on openness and strength. The field was like a boxing ring with numerous fighters showing muscle.

It seemed to me like the glass is slowly eating the solidity of the buildings, forcing its people to convert to transparency and openness, and slowly uninstalling their mental prison bars of cultural restrictions.

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Competing towers of Dubai – Image by sergei.gussev on Visualhunt.com

Although the houses and building facades are practically starting to look the same, their interiors do reveal some truth about their people, reflecting their spirits and acting as solid affirmations of their character and aspirations.

One type of building that strongly displays the impression that form and beauty leaves on the spirit are religious structures. Churches, mosques, temples, and shrines have exhibited some of the most sophisticated works of architecture throughout history. Religious buildings signified not just safety and beauty, but wealth and abundance. Why were they so intricate, rich in color, details, and magnificent decorations?

Perhaps outstanding buildings with their seductive allure in form, can keep us faithful. Beauty in architecture, just like in a graceful woman or even an elegant cup, can leave us in a trance, reorient our souls, and turn us into different people.

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Milan cathedral - No attribution required

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The blue mosque of Istanbul - No attribution required

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Byōdō-In temple in Kyoto - No attribution required

The overpowering scale, the well-thought proportions, and beautiful inscriptions on a temple, cathedral, or a mosque’s interior are not just aesthetic selections but a kind of aesthetic arrest created to overwhelm. A place of worship full of industrial ducts, for instance, would be spiritually breaking and wouldn’t be inviting enough for one to kneel and believe.

The same kind of overwhelming architecture is used in governmental buildings designed to command a respectful following.

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Reichstag Building in Berlin demanding respect – Image by Alex Tim

That is how form can sway with its power, from tiny utensils like cups and jugs to vast structures like houses, buildings and developments. The matter can be quite persuading. But most importantly, it has character and it speaks through the elements it carries, narrating itself.