by katie zhu

7 Nov 2015

the rothko chapel and creating spaces of intentionality

Welcome, everyone, to the Rothko Chapel. This is a sacred space for all. We invite you to unplug from technology while you are here. Quiet your phone. Let your emails wait. Turn off your camera. Snack later. Allow yourself to be completely present, a few steps back from our treasured works of art. The experience is in the silence.

A few weeks ago, I visited Houston and spent some time at the Rothko Chapel. I always try to visit some museum, art gallery or some place of cultural significance whenever I visit a new city.

The Rothko Chapel is named for Mark Rothko, one of the great artists of the twentieth century who played a prominent role in New York’s Abstract Expressionist movement. Rothko was commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil to create a meditative space filled with his paintings — an opportunity to shape and control a total environment for his work. He created a group of fourteen paintings specifically for this space.

I turned my phone off, put it away and entered the chapel. It’s a small space, an octagonal brick building with gray stucco walls. Large black and dark color-hued canvases of Rothko paintings adorn the walls. I sat on one of the eight benches towards the back, taking in the silence, enjoying the uninterrupted time to focus on my own thoughts. I opened my notebook and started journaling. My mind wandered back to the sign greeting you before entering. This is a sacred space. A space where the rules of engagement were made perfectly clear upfront, and by choosing to enter the chapel, I was committing to upholding their rules.

The Rothko Chapel is a space of intention. It’s a physically enclosed space, but open to everyone and anyone, of any faith or none. Visitors come with a purpose of their own, but the chapel also imposes a set of behavioral expectations on its visitors. It was refreshing, a welcome break from the overload of information I normally experience in a day. A small place to catch my breath, chill with myself and just let my mind wander, completely free of any sense of obligation.

I’ve long been intrigued by the art of physical space, and how the specificities of an environment affects our mood, behavior, and emotions. My space needs to reflect the nature of my work; I can never be productive in bed. I want a large table to sprawl my paper, notebooks, and other analog materials endlessly over if I’m trying to work through a high level, abstract problem. If I have a specific task I need to get done, I sit at my desk in my office — my space for focused thought and execution on my computer. But if I’m looking for some inspiration, I’ll park in a coffee shop and soak up the ambient sounds, observe the way people conduct themselves, eavesdrop on conversations, and just take in the space.

Rothko Chapel was created as a sacred space. A space that emphasizes silence, a space for people to be completely present. Enclosed, but open to everyone. A space to bring people together. It was so refreshing to sit in that chapel and have a breath of fresh air from being inundated with information. How do we translate a similar notion to the web? As creators of digital spaces, we can we be more intentional about the behaviors and experience we want people to walk away from our products with?

If you consider the sort of spaces we’ve built on the internet, by and large, it’s not a great look.

We have far too many spaces where marginalized people do not feel safe, are subject to harassment and obscene threats. Our current social platforms are all about publicness and broadcast. It’s about competing for attention and eyeballs and clicks, saturating people with things demanding their attention. Nothing is sacred.

If we impose some rules, some constraints from the beginning, can we help create social norms rather than letting conventions evolve wholly organically?

Space informs a particular posture, to borrow a concept from Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan. There’s a spectra of posture to think about when you consider how you want to fit into people’s lives. What’s the posture in which you want someone to consume something? Is it lean forward or lean back? Stand up and walk around? Curl up or scrunch forward?

Consider a movie theater. Dark room, surrounded by Dolby 5.0 sound, sitting upright facing the front. The very act of facing forward creates a distinct form for how we receive storytelling.

We’re constantly chasing what posture an audience is in, trying to reach them at the best moments and push relevant information to them. What about the opposite dynamic— where we create an intentional space, meant for a specific posture (which encompasses everything from mood to time of day, from weather to a person’s physical state), and simply let people come to the space on their own terms? And make these intentions very clear upfront, so people can judge for themselves whether they’re in or willing to get themselves into the right frame of mind to enter.

Let’s bring some of the intentionality of Rothko Chapel—an experience rooted in silence and being completely present—to the spaces we build and create on the web.

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