Reaching People/Distributing Daylight

“What is your objective?”

The G Center sparkles. It is not so much like walking into an office building as like walking through the center of an enormous, high-caret diamond: from the ceiling, shining beams of sunlight,refracted off spinning chandeliers, glittering in ponds of water, rainbows on the wall. I’ve never walked through a diamond but if you could do something like that—make yourself lighter-than-air, dissolve into a million particles and flow through a precious stone, emerge unscathed on the other side—surely this is what it would look like.

It is tucked away in Cambridge, the part of Cambridge that looks perpetually under construction. It is a city at its roughest, rawest—the guts of buildings gaping, exposed; spindly beams reaching up, naked and rusted; cranes sweeping across the skyline, bulldozers parked in muddy lots, men in yellow helmets. Industrial looking office boxes—grey 1970s designs, murky, heavy, and dark—line wide boulevards. People know Cambridge as the home of Harvard and MIT, overlooking the dark blue Charles, charming old brownstones on narrow tree-lined streets, intellect fairly seeping into cobblestones, but here, on the fringes of a college town, architecture has come wearily, setting out to look dry and anonymous. It is a tired piece of town, this. On a sparkling winter morning, crisp, sunny—things feel wrong. This Cambridge belongs to the gloomy day.

I’d never even seen the G building before. It’s not on the two-minute walk from my office building to the train station. I’m a wanderer, typically, but become shockingly businesslike when I’m in heels and a suit (because, I suppose, I’m so fundamentally uncomfortable like that). So when we went in today, the whole thing was a revelation: “oh, this is where it is?” and then a series of “oohs” and “aaahs” while I walked through a series of warm spots of sun; I got dizzy if I looked up, because of all the spinning chandeliers; dizzy if I looked down, for all those spots.

The building is among the most environmentally responsible office buildings in the United States. What this means is that all of the ultra-modern, super-shiny features have a purpose beyond to dazzle: the chandeliers actually help reflect light throughout the building; the glass exterior and huge central atrium reduce the need for artificial lighting; and so on. A pamphlet on the building explains that “daylight is distributed within G Center through a natural-light-enhancement system”.

We go up to the cafeteria, on the top floor, looking out at the urban sprawl as it crawls its way towards the woodlands and hills beyond. I eat a baked potato and we talk about communication: “Who is your audience?” asks a G employee, who we’ve come to for advice on a project. “What are your objectives?” Between sips of green tea or chocolate milk, we try to explain, but what we keep coming up short on, we realize, is story.

“How do we show this?” we wonder. “Whose face can we put on this idea, or that one?” It’s such a crucial way of reaching people—and in this case, it is merely an issue of framing. We can tell our story in dry terms, or in narrative ones, and it will mean the same thing—except no one will listen to the dry terms, and everyone will listen to the narrative ones.

“Distributing daylight”: each prismatic tile refracts, has a job, a purpose, a hand in the distribution of something so ceaseless, so regular, that we cease often to think of it as a resource. And yet there it is, and this building—a building! a building can be just as full of story as a human being—carefully distributes it. Doesn’t use it; distributes it. The cynic in me wants to say it is merely an issue of semantics: some clever wordsmith decided to say that it would be better if the natural light-enhancement system was thought of as allocating or sharing something rather than of vacuuming it up.

But there is something else.  The G Center houses daylight: its energy costs are lower (significantly lower) than those of a comparable, conventional, office building; similarly, waterless and efficient plumbing reduces water usage; 90% of construction waste was recycled.

And I know there are always many sides to one story: but the fact that it is a story at all is remarkable. Here we are sitting in this cafeteria talking about stories, and where we can find them.  We’re making one all the while.

Image of Natural History Museum, Oxford