Understanding Architecture is highly experiential. It is a complete sensory experience that requires use of much more than the eyes to understand and generate a response. This is why visiting architecture is the only reliable method to understand architecture rather than looking at a photograph of it. I have always tried to refrain from a strong opinion of a building until I have had a chance to see it in person. From experience I know that a photograph doesn’t tell the whole story. You likely know what I mean; similar to the way art can have a profound effect in person and almost none at all in a textbook. For example I remember when I saw Klimpt’s painting ‘The Kiss’ – I was surprised I could not look away it was hypnotizing to me. I had never given this painting a second thought in my art classes but the really life experience was profound for me. This is not to say Architecture is always better in person sometimes it is just the opposite, however we cannot overlook the three-dimensional aspect of architecture as well as how the human body relates to these spaces.
“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves” (Ways of Seeing by John Berger pg 9)
So how can we understand architecture? Let’s begin with the human senses:
Of course seeing is the most obvious way to understand and experience architecture but are you conscious of what you are looking for or at? Do you see the bigger picture and the small details? Are you looking for natural light or the use of materials? Are you watching how people use the space? Seeing is profoundly useful to experience architecture if you are consciously processing what you see. Sketching can be tremendously beneficial because what you are seeing must be processed and then regurgitated on paper thus requiring a lot more attention and consciousness.
In some cases architecture’s success or failure is based on this human sense. Sound can be the most profound and memorable element of a building. I attended mass in Notre Dame and when the organ began it was palpable and the entire space changed, it made sense, the space, the light and the sound came together. Sometimes the lack of sound is most desired; such as in a library. When you visit a building listen for a moment, is it quiet? Does the space create an urge to speak low or not at all? How does it do that? Become aware of the acoustics? Is there an echo? Can you hear people talking? Can you hear anything at all?
This is not the first thing you think of to experience architecture however, building materials have a smell, they are not always good but the smell will influences your experience. If a new building is off-gassing due to the choice of materials your experience will be poor. However there are other smells such as wood or concrete. Is it fresh or stuffy? Does the building smell old or new, close your eyes for a second you may be surprised what you discover.
I touch a lot. Touching gives you tons of information and architects spend a lot of time thinking about surfaces, texture, and materials, what people touch how they interact with the material. Some architect’s believed that people should always touch wood so handrails would always be made of wood. If you are in any of Tadao Ando’s buildings you must run your hand over the concrete – it is soft and silky like butter – not what you would expect.
I don’t think this applies, however if you have experienced architecture by taste let me know.
There are other senses we can use to experience architecture such as:
How do you feel in this building, some architecture intentionally throws off your internal sense of balance to bring out a specific frame of mind. The Berlin Jewish Museum Daniel Libeskind tilt some of the walls slightly so when I was reading and looking at the exhibits I felt particularly moved and effected by the exhibit and its content. It was very intense and made me uneasy which in this instance was appropriate – the architecture powerfully provoked a sense of instability.
Feel the air, become aware of it. Do you feel warm or cool? Is there a breeze? How does this happen? Are you shaded from the sun? or roasting in its light. Is it natural or mechanical? Are you surprised by the change in temperature from the outside?
Architecture transforms as you move through it and around it, it unravels over time. How does your experience change during your visit? Is it predictable or does it surprise you?
Time can also make itself known on the building itself in the way materials age and patina. Can you see time in the building you are visiting? Has time made the building more rich with texture and color or does it look worn down?
This is an addition of an old french Villa, the concrete was mixed with pulverized limestone and copper to replicate the aging of the existing Villa.
Villa am Romerholz by Gigon Guyer 1998
So how do all these stimuli make you feel?
Architecture provokes a reaction, pay attention to your immediate reactions as well as the feelings you have at the end of your visit as well as those you have upon reflection, did your opinion change? Sometimes you will need time to formulate an opinion – don’t be worried if you do not know what you think or feel immediately. Enjoy visiting these buildings and practice becoming aware of how you experience architecture.
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