We dream of places that are beautiful and fun to live in. We yearn for places that make us feel comfortable and warm, that have delight and charm, character and soul —in short, that make us feel humane.
Two words best embody this concept —but they are German and Dutch (ironically): gemütlich and gezellig. I say ironically because so many German buildings since 1925 are simple boxes, mostly glass, boring, inhumane, and even ugly.
According to the dictionary, gemütlich means warm and congenial; pleasant or friendly. It comes originally from a root word meaning spirit, feelings, mind, and joy.
The Dictionary of German Synonyms says:
Gemütlich is applied to feelings not so much of ease and harmony with the world, but rather of friendly intimacy, with a touch of sentiment and at time, of imagination, It is a much-used term and carried a large number of implications, which cannot all be rendered by any single English word. When applied to things and places, it remains untranslatable, but approximates more to “cozy” than “comfortable.”
The Dutch word gezellig can be translated as convivial, cozy, fun, or nice atmosphere, but can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness that gives a warm feeling.
The French would say: “On se sent vraiment bien ici” (one feels truly well here), or “se mettre à son aise” (make oneself at ease). Agréable, sympathique are similar terms.
Since one parent was French and the other was German, I grew up familiar with these terms. They made each house we lived in cozy, agréable, gemütlich and gezellig.
Childhood was spent in northern New England, where many homes had a natural feeling of warmth and historic charm —long before cookie-cutter subdivisions and ranch houses. Villages and most towns nestled naturally into the landscape.
When we moved to the big urban areas around New York and Boston, I saw a different built environment —at first the modern architecture was thrilling and invigorating (at least the better versions). But it lacked warmth and made people feel ill at ease.
Then in the Boston area I encountered real modern crap, aka “Bauhaus” and “brutalist architecture” in the form of the Boston City Hall. I worked in that hell hole for 2 years. Look what it did to me: a curmudgeon railing against the evils of crappy constructs.
But wait, there is more, there is better. One day I too had a dream, a vision of an urban street where the buildings had a warm, golden glow, people sat at sidewalk cafes, with no cars in the street, no noise. No, it was not a near death experience. A voice whispered softly : “This is Stamford, the way it should have been –and still can be.”
Many architects, developers, and public leaders have succeeded in creating charming places over the past 2 decades. Others have failed. In the posts that follow, I will explain the concept with examples of the good, the bad, and the really ugly.