There have been two things in my life that have been a constant since I was about the age of 8, sailing and architecture. Sailing started when my parents signed me up for the Little Skippers class at my local club. Architecture started when I would peruse my mother’s McCall magazines and see house plans and then sit down and draw up my own dream houses.  Little did I know then that these two interests would take me to some amazing places and experiences in my life.

As a kid, my younger brother (and much better sailor) recruited me to be his crew on a 420, a mini version of the 2-man Olympic class boat, the 470. It required someone without a desire to ever date, as the main objective it seemed was to land as many nasty bruises all over my legs and one specific bruise on the inside corner of my elbow – still not sure why I got that bruise.  Between ages 13 and I8 years old, I wasn’t a pretty picture, but boy did I have a blast.  Full disclosure, when my brother looked at the wind and used phases like its “blowing the caps off the bottles” or “its nuking,” he did so with glee and excitement, I, on the other hand, was relatively terrified but I was the older sister…I couldn’t reveal my fear, and I just learned to suck it up and get out there with him.  My job on board was to “keep the boat flat” by hooking a wire attached from the mast to the harness I wore and basically float my butt out over the water to keep us from heeling too much.

When it was “nuking” I had to try to extend my body as far out of the boat as I possibly could with only my pointed toes touching the edge of the rail, entirely trusting the harness/wire to keep me there.  When the wind was lighter, I was getting a full squat work-out bending my knees in and out with the gusts and responding to the boat. Flat is fast – and our objective was to go as fast as possible.  And each time the race started, and I “got on the wire” – the fear shifted to bliss.  Maybe it was the nervous energy feeling the wind on my face or the rush of water below me, but my body would respond.  I became one with the boat, feeling the energy of the hull on my feet, the rush of wind in my ears and responding with my weight shifting with each gust and wave.  The salt water caked my face and sunglasses.  Even though we were racing, and really wanted to win, sometimes the competition became secondary because we were having so much fun that we would let out a rebel yell – and, as James Bond fans, we both had the James Bond theme in our heads.   It was magical.    After racing, the teenaged “shop talk” about every start, tack, gybe and how to tune our boats for ultimate speed would continue. Day two of regattas would often begin by making adjustments to the rig (mast angles, stays, tension) in an effort to find more speed, and I had knots in my stomach once again.   But boom, when the starting gun went off, I had a perma-grin.  My face would sometimes hurt at the end of the day from the smile I could not stop.

As an adult, I have experienced this high-wind, intense sailing thrill/fear less frequently, but every time I do, the James Bond theme starts right up again in my brain and the perma-grin reveals itself again.  Nowadays, I find sailing to be more cerebral and calming than in my racing days – as I have shifted to pleasure-sailing on a small catboat vs the more technical styles.  The catboat is the perfect vessel in my neck of the woods for enjoying time with friends or solo.  I still prefer the calmer winds when the waves are less frequent and staying dry and enjoying a cocktail is the goal vs speed, however, my racing nature still requires that the boat is tuned right.  On the catboat there are only a few simple adjustments but as soon as they are right, the boat feels right. It’s as if, COLORS (my boat) thanks me. Everything becomes easier when the boat is tuned. To non-sailors, maybe it’s like the feeling when a machine in your space stops running, one that was providing white noise that wasn’t entirely annoying but when it stops, the relief of the silence is revealed, there’s a calm feeling that comes over you… it’s that. When the boat is tuned right – it moves right, it feels right and it provides the most brilliant connection to the water, the magic of the sunlight (or moonlight), and the ever-changing colors.  It just feels right – and we feel content, happy, and satisfied.

So architecture??

Yes, they are connected.

While many times throughout my career, and especially in architecture school, I seemed to take the opportunity to link the two.  Mostly, I found shape and structure of boats and sails as inspirations to my designs.  I often had Utzon’s Sidney Opera House in my mind as a great example of structure that evokes sailing, or, Calatrava’s  Santa Cruz de Tenerife with a floating “sail” of concrete.

I had a constant theme in my student days that has continued throughout my practice, the idea of orchestrating an experiential path through architecture by evoking movement with the structure. Sail-like structures worked for me in school and, while I don’t specifically look towards boats in my current work, this theme has provided me a conceptual starting place.   I remind my clients that structure may be static, but its rare that the user is as well.  Unless it’s time to sleep or meditate, we are often moving though the spaces around us.  The shapes, sounds, light and proportion of the structure and how it guides us as we navigate the space is often interwoven with the way nature effects our bodies and our minds – this is what I learned from sailing. That trigger in my brain to the perma-grin, the “runners high” if you will, had to do with my connection to the natural surroundings of the wind, sun and the water as well as the structure of our boat being finely tuned for speed, and my ability to experience this energy.  Feeling “right” on my boat is the way I want my architecture to feel.  To get scientific, the neuroscience of nature, light, sound and space’s effect on the hippocampus portion of the brain – the part that contributes to memory and spatial navigation is clear and documented.  I feel we need our spaces to be finely tuned to maximize the formation and emotional sensation of memories and feel happiness.  Fine tuning our architecture (our vessel)  to the user, with “right” moves contribute to the hippocampus in a positive way enhancing good emotional response and ultimately contributes to our well-being.  Connection to nature is key. All projects start with the site, solar orientation, understanding of prevailing wind and the experiential path. The spaces are formulated for calm or energy, or the flexibility to support both. Flow and control and the way that our bodies respond to the space are integral to the design.  That knot in my gut before a race needs to have a place to unravel before the shift to elation can happen. This can be the case in architecture too – the path to your home can sometimes contribute the most to the enjoyment once you get in.  But if your path to the door isn’t ideal, opening the door to a clean, calming space free of clutter may be just the necessary “decompression chamber” needed before stepping into the main spaces of one’s home – this fine-tuning of the space to feel right.

For me, the connection to nature is key to my architecture. I focus on how the user experiences nature, how the building is integral with the site, and being a good steward of the earth with a sustainable and carbon-neutral building.  Green design is good design and sailing has provided me the connection to green.   In researching for this article I found a description of a class at USC that Geoffrey von Oeyen offered that describes this,

“Sailboats embody many of our current aspirations for buildings: to convert natural conditions into energy, to reduce material consumption, transport, and construction costs through stronger, lighter materials, and to create spaces that respond technically and aesthetically to dynamic environmental and programmatic needs.”

Ultimately, I feel it’s up to architects to focus on designing spaces that contribute to the well-being of the occupants.  Connecting to the water, air, light and wind on my boat is one of the ways that I have the greatest sense of well-being.  Understanding that the tuning of my vessel makes me feel good on the water – is what I try to capture that in my designs off the water.