Thought-shifting spaces

"On weekends, that alley is taken over by books."

I said that to myself, accompanied by heaps of envious feelings, as I was walking along the historic district of Mexico City last week. It is the same alley that I had been crossing to go to the museum where my colleagues and I had been holed up for days, trying to craft a plan that – as most international groups hope and think with a mix of good intentions and immodesty – could change the world, or at least some morsel of it.

During my walk, I scanned the books as they were arranged in varying piles that, with the curving tents that sheltered them, made them seem like they were book paper extensions of the 200 to 400-year-old structures that they straddled in that alley. Many books were familiar – the ones that lettered our academic days, teenage romantic episodes, political awakening chapters – but of course, in Spanish. Every time I come across a place that allows its spaces to be inhabited and even overtaken by the printed thought (at least on weekends), I always think it deserves a high-five of the highest order.

Spaces transform how we think. One of my colleagues in my work group in Mexico reminded us of what Winston Churchill famously said, "We shape buildings but afterwards, the buildings shape us."

We became very conscious of this that we allowed ourselves to roam the spaces around the city as we thought of ways on how to genuinely encourage a cross-fertilization of ideas about science engagement with the public. By physically exploring where those conversations would be, we were able to imagine an explosion of creative formats to discuss for those sessions.

For example, there was a room where the seats were divided into two sides, and there was some sort of area in the front and center for a third set of seats punctuated by a pulpit. It was lined with sculptures that were the muses for "Chemistry, Hydrology, Mechanics" and the like, backed up on the surrounding walls. It was a smaller version of the room of the UK House of Commons. The seats were uniform, but they were linear and spiky. We imagined a meaningful debate or some sort of trial on hot science topics.

There were also courtyards of differing sizes, divided by arched sections. They looked like plenary spaces where we could have a science version of an opera – an aria – where a keynote could set the tone, allow us to take in what the state of affairs are, whether it be biodiversity, the future of work, health, and their intersections.

My most favorite one was the room that paid homage to the past deans of a university. It was a sizeable room lined with extremely fascinating portraits of the deans who all happened to be male. Each portrait seemed to have been a very deliberate attempt to characterize each one. The most interesting to me was the portrait of one dean who was literally coming out (or peaking out of) a closet. My female colleagues and I had a blast suggesting ways on how the room could be the most fertile ground for gender issues.

Those buildings and spaces we visited were designed almost 200 to 300 years ago, when there were no dedicated studies yet to how spaces affect the way we think and feel, and ultimately, how we live. But the designers and artists then seemed to have been more intuitive about how they wanted the people who inhabited those spaces to feel.

Today, while there are certainly many architects and designers who are brilliant and evocative, much of our spaces – especially our urban environments – are built the same way. It is as if design uniformity is the only imperative of living in areas with limited land area and with large numbers of people. After we build the structures, we become oblivious to the continuing force of these structures to shape who we are – personally, and as a collective.

I have a friend who is also a science writer and whose wife was an architect. A few years ago, they built their own house, and naturally, his wife asked him for the guidelines he may want to contribute to her design. He said he wants his love for books and light to guide the design. And so it did.

How would you want your work and living spaces to reflect what you love about life? –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at