A beautiful, honest mess

I’ve been pondering the nature of spaces. How their design can make us feel the way we feel, and the subtle ways our environments can impact what we do and how we interact with each other and ourselves.

Take where I’m at right now. A Starbucks in Calgary, Canada. It’s -20°C outside, cold wind and fresh snow on the ground. I’m sitting at a long wooden table, typing and hidden away in the corner. Customers stream in, and the chatter of background voices and music drowns in and out as I focus and type. I’m warm, comfortable and productive here. With no one at my table, I feel alone but together – perfect for writing with my introvert self.

In the last months, my interest in the design of public spaces has grown considerably, sparked by the work of urban artist Candy Chang.  In her work Before I Die, a simple prompt written in chalk on an abandoned building led strangers to anonymously share their dreams and aspirations with one another.


Photos of Candy Chang’s work “Before I die”.

In Confessions, voting-like booths allowed people to confess anonymously on post-it notes, which Chang later shared in a public art display – inspired by the idea of ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’.


Photos of artist Candy Chang’s work “Confessions”.

In this talk, Chang says: “People’s responses ranged from the functional to the poetic. […] It made me laugh and cry, they consoled me during my toughest times. […] It reminded me that I’m not alone as I’m trying to make sense of my life” (minute 28).

She says in that eloquent, quiet way of hers, “These public walls, are like this honest mess. An honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, and fear and wonder that you find in every community. Everyone is going through challenges in their life. And there’s great comfort in knowing you are not alone. But it’s easy to forget this because there are a lot of barriers to opening up” (minute 31).

Chang says in our society, When we feel fear or anxiety or confusion, we often do our best to hide it from others. But what if we could make more safe places to share? There’s great power in knowing you’re not alone. You’re not alone as you’re trying to make sense of your life. And you’re not the only one that feels like they are barely keeping it together.” (minute 39).

She asks: “How can our public spaces become more contemplative and more nourishing to our mental health? […]  Through opportunities for collective introspection, I think we can gain great value in self-realization and communal kinship. […] Our public spaces play a profound role to help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.” (minute 39/40).

What a fascinating question. What might a vision of such a public space look like? In this time of prejudice, polarization and isolation, how might such spaces unite and connect us? Inspire us to be our best selves? Extend our compassion to strangers? Instead of our carefully curated self-presentations on social media, how might the design of public spaces encourage us to share with one another in more authentic and vulnerable ways? To visualize the struggles of our common humanity and the beauty of our imperfections and failures?

Exciting questions to ponder. I’d love to hear your thoughts.




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