In The Flow

One word that has recently popped up in architectural conversations with a new usage is: flow. People I know will visit a house and declare that it “has great flow,” or “has a flow problem.” But when I ask what they mean they only say, “You know…flow!”

Flow sounds self-explanatory, but the word has no discernable roots in architectural thinking. It is not, as you might expect, a synonym for circulation—the way we move around and through buildings. It goes deeper. Instead, the word comes from psychology, and specifically from the work of noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose 1990 book, Flow, was a best-seller.

Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as that state of enjoyment we experience when unselfconsciously immersed in an activity we have mastered; what athletes call “being in the zone.” Flow can be achieved in any activity. My novelist wife, for example, experiences it when lost in her writing. And I experience it regularly in two activities: while racing my Sunfish on Sunday mornings, and while designing houses.

Flow is not merely a subjective experience, either—we can sense it in others. And this is especially true when we have tried their activity. Tennis players will know exactly when Serena Williams is on her game, and when she’s not. Painters can intuit in a painting the flow of its artist, even if he or she lived 400 years ago. Which gets us closer to what people really mean by flow in houses.

With houses, we are already practiced—we have each lived in many, and visited hundreds. And because we view them as creative works, we expect artistry, and look for signs of architectural brilliance. And when we find flow, the theory suggests, it is not the house itself we are sensing, but the moments of its conception, the state of mind of its architect.

Now consider that people who experience flow regularly report two sensations while at peak performance. The first sensation is a loss of self, and the second is a loss of time. And don’t we describe the best designs as “timeless” and “unselfconscious”?

Where timeless houses are concerned, few are more iconic than Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, in Vicenza, Italy. Completed in 1592, this villa still stands today and is occupied by its owners. While many attribute Palladio’s success to the rules of his classical style, I now imagine that he was “in the zone” as well.

For a century now, the Hamptons has been a laboratory for architectural innovation. A few of my favorite examples are Charles Gwathmey’s rationalist vision for his parents in Amagansett, Norman Jaffe’s shingled sculpture for the Perlbinders in Sagaponack, and the playfully ornate Victorian Hannibal French House in Sag Harbor. As I visit new houses in the Hamptons today, I look for the qualities of timelessness and unselfconsciousness as the hallmarks of flow and great design experience.

One word that has recently popped up in architectural conversations with a new usage is: flow. People I know will visit a house and declare that it “has great flow,” or “has a flow problem.” But when I ask what they mean they only say, “You know…flow!”

Flow sounds self-explanatory, but the word has no discernable roots in architectural thinking. It is not, as you might expect, a synonym for circulation—the way we move around and through buildings. It goes deeper. Instead, the word comes from psychology, and specifically from the work of noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose 1990 book, Flow, was a best-seller.

Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as that state of enjoyment we experience when unselfconsciously immersed in an activity we have mastered; what athletes call “being in the zone.” Flow can be achieved in any activity. My novelist wife, for example, experiences it when lost in her writing. And I experience it regularly in two activities: while racing my Sunfish on Sunday mornings, and while designing houses.

Flow is not merely a subjective experience, either—we can sense it in others. And this is especially true when we have tried their activity. Tennis players will know exactly when Serena Williams is on her game, and when she’s not. Painters can intuit in a painting the flow of its artist, even if he or she lived 400 years ago. Which gets us closer to what people really mean by flow in houses.

With houses, we are already practiced—we have each lived in many, and visited hundreds. And because we view them as creative works, we expect artistry, and look for signs of architectural brilliance. And when we find flow, the theory suggests, it is not the house itself we are sensing, but the moments of its conception, the state of mind of its architect.

Now consider that people who experience flow regularly report two sensations while at peak performance. The first sensation is a loss of self, and the second is a loss of time. And don’t we describe the best designs as “timeless” and “unselfconscious”?

Where timeless houses are concerned, few are more iconic than Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, in Vicenza, Italy. Completed in 1592, this villa still stands today and is occupied by its owners. While many attribute Palladio’s success to the rules of his classical style, I now imagine that he was “in the zone” as well.

For a century now, the Hamptons has been a laboratory for architectural innovation. A few of my favorite examples are Charles Gwathmey’s rationalist vision for his parents in Amagansett, Norman Jaffe’s shingled sculpture for the Perlbinders in Sagaponack, and the playfully ornate Victorian Hannibal French House in Sag Harbor. As I visit new houses in the Hamptons today, I look for the qualities of timelessness and unselfconsciousness as the hallmarks of flow and great design experience.