Vocation and the power of certain spaces

Have you ever had an experience of a physical space so powerful and so sudden that it energized your creativity and prompted the open question, “What if . . . ?” This happened to me recently, at the national NetVUE conference in Dallas. During downtime, my colleague Dr. Amy Hermanson let me accompany her on a long walk from our hotel to the site of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. As we walked, Amy fondly recalled the seminars and lectures she attended at the Institute earlier in her academic career. We were met by our host, Francis Ryburn, who graciously gave us a tour of their facilities at the Stroud House, on Routh Street.

The Stroud House is a modest, late 19th-century brick structure. Originally built as a residence, it was later used as a business center for small, arts-related designers and dealers, and the Dallas Institute acquired it in 2014 through the generosity of Dr. Joanne Stroud, who died in 2021. After chatting briefly with us, Francis offered to show us the interior spaces, which include a couple of large meeting rooms on the second floor. It’s here, in these rooms, where I was immediately impacted by the simplicity, dignity, and possibility of space—for the kinds of spaces that are perhaps needed for thinking about vocation and vocational discernment. These quiet rooms are places in which to dream, reflect, be befriended and mentored, and get clarity.

I was immediately struck by how rooms such as these would be a great space for the activities of vocational reflection and discernment on my own campus. Reflection and discernment can be amplified in spaces that are slower and quieter than most classrooms, in spaces that have a sense of entering and belonging. A room such as these would invite and signal to a student that what we are doing here is different, just as being in chapel and in the lab and studio is different.

That’s what powerful spaces can do: they bring time and memory (past-to-present-to-future), imagination and agency (creative and otherwise), and grounding and centering (I am especially interested in the personal response) to the attention of our consciousness and unconsciousness. They become images of a kind of space. Here I plant the flag for my argument: that such a place is where we can be primed to be most fully embodied in our thinking. Such a place primes us to think about things such as identity and calling and purpose.

Being simple and dignified and freeing, for purposes of embodied thinking, is not a requirement for all spaces. But holding out for those things is a requirement for some spaces. Being a multi-purpose, utilitarian, efficient space is usually not effective to this kind of thinking. This space should have a special character or it should express a specialized clarity. My design concept for such a space does not include budget office furniture, institutional surfaces, or overhead lighting.

Click here to learn more about the connection between Pegasus, the passage by Alexander Pope, and the Stroud House. Click here for an article from the Dallas Morning News on why Dallas is so obsessed with Pegasus.

Ever since that visit, I have regretted not taking a few pics of the Stroud House rooms. As I remember them, both had a rectangular footprint, high ceilings, old refinished wood floors, bare and clean brick walls, very tall windows of about the same width as the brick between them, and sturdy furniture—a large table surrounded by matching chairs. But pics would probably obscure the powerful, ambient quality of their space. My intuitive perception for the ambient qualities of the spaces owed somewhat to them being on the second floor, to the spring sunlight being filtered through trees and foliage, and to the fact that the rooms were quiet and empty of people except the three of us. The rooms helped me recall important memories, real or imagined.

From my background as a designer and artist and project manager, I know that choices are crucial to the solution’s “success.” There is no such thing as the perfect or only right set of choices, but there are better and worse choices for every design concept. What is the space’s purpose; what will it express? Is it a box or a bowl? What are its materials? Where will it be situated? How will it be lighted; what will be its acoustic quality? Etc.

Another important question is: can such a space be remade or repurposed from space that already exists? The answer is, of course, and the Stroud House serves as an excellent example of a “found” space that becomes something else. A primary benefit of a found or remade space is that it is much more readily available to campus processes of planning and budget, and it is likely less expensive than a newly built or designed space. The downside of found or remade space is that it is more vulnerable to design decisions based on convenience and cost.

Here’s what a space like the rooms at the Institute’s Stroud House might look like at a campus similar to my own (small, residential, mostly undergraduate, Christian liberal arts college, having several professional programs, and with a growing percentage of biology-related and business-related majors.)

  • A dedicated, specialized space that parallels, strategically, other specialized spaces, such as chapel worship space. This is an “inspiration” and “reflection” space.
  • A smaller, special space that clearly expresses a physical and ambient value for the potential synergy between small groups and persons, between community and individual, gathered around important activities of embodied thinking. It is not designed to host large gatherings or be friendly to normal classroom operations.
  • An open space to faculty, staff, and students to reserve for activities that have affinity to its intended purpose. No single department or program owns this space; instead, this space “owns” its guests and uses.
  • A memorable space, which is attractive to admissions visitors and campus guests, and becomes part of warm and pleasant memories engraved into the memories of alumni. Alum might say, “This is the room where we gathered as small groups of seniors to measure our narrative arcs against our possibilities after graduation.”
  • A slow and quiet space where intellectual and vocation-al cultures may be introduced to students or is amplified for them.

In my perfect world, such a space would result from the right faculty and staff working with an administrative liaison and with architectural design expertise to create a clear concept, that can be discoverable by (an) interested donor(s.)

In fact, I’d like to emphasize that such a space gets framed by its being discoverable rather than by its being ideal. Isn’t this what we emphasize with our students: that, in the present, they are to be open to what is discoverable rather than being focused on what might seem ideal in the future? This room becomes a space for imagined possibilities; it is situated in the present (who am I, and what am I doing?), and it helps me imagine the future (what can I be, and what will I be doing?)

And finally, this room is well remembered, an important part of the student’s past, when they walk back, physically or conceptually, to that space where they first asked questions about their callings, where they were mentored in their strengths and gifts, and where they contributed to a safe community of supporting peers.

For more posts by this author see Creative Agency: A Lutheran Perspective (on how to to avoid becoming systematic in our work with students about their vocations); Vocation Was Always Creeping From Her Room, inspired by Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues; this piece on the education of an artist, inspired by the writings of artist Ben Shahn; and this post on using poetry as aid to vocational reflection (including links to some of his favorite poems for doing so).

Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. His presentation at the recent NetVUE national conference in Dallas pertained to this post, Letter to a Young Colleague.

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