architectural journal

architectural travel entry: six

I have been here before but I can never get enough. the darkness of the enormous interior is interrupted only by one large cut in the massive concrete dome which is filled with blinding light. I follow the light cast across the perfect proportions of the space into the depths of the coffered panels which create an intense spotlight. I remember from school the geometric drawings to obtain these proportions and the technical terms for the architectural elements and the mysterious uses of this space over the centuries.

But the duality between light and dark is so extreme here I don’t pay any attention to anything but the ceiling and how this light seeps into the darkness of this massive heavy fortress.

I watch others entering this space and are forced to look up to the oculus, everything else is lost to its power. Although the interior is draped in marble and the ornamentation, the magic here is the dome and oculus alone.

The Pantheon – Rome

architectural travel entry: five

The most interesting event upon entering the Church is realizing the doorway is at the side of the altar. There are references to what direction is considered to be the front. The rectangular space is overwhelming to enter, it rises at least two storeys in height and the walls are made of raw concrete block. Everything within this space is simple there are no distractions and no ornamentation.

The windows behind the choir stalls are cut into the walls on a steep angle and the frame is painted bright yellow, green, and red, which releasing soothing light so there is no view of the exterior, we are forced to focus on what is happening inside.

In the middle of the room resides a large piece of polished sheet metal, it is hung from a single wire attached at the ceiling 25 feet or so above us. The metal is attached at its center and the edges bow to the ground just hovering above the floor.  A short wood bat is nearby and when the metal is struck the entire room echoes, the sounds are reminiscent of the monks chanting.

The sound penetrates the space and brings us all to silence.

La Tourette by Le Corbusier, France


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.

Visit a Modern and Contemporary Architecture Travel Guide

architectural travel entry: four

The façade is undeniably organic.  There is nothing static about this building, everything is alive as the light rolls in and out of the solids and voids which appear to pulsate with life.  The hard stone has lost its rigidity appearing as though it was sculpted from clay but remain strong and grounded in its place.  It is extraordinarily plastic I am amazed at how it defies the essence of the material it is made from.

We move through one of the voids in the facade and enter a courtyard.  It is unexpectedly filled with many calming colours and plant life, reminding me of a protective grotto partially in shadow because of the time of day the air is fresh here and I can see the sky.

Inside the apartment’s curved walls and ceilings unravel in a procession of space, only adding to my curiosity.  The ceilings and walls bleed into one another and again the solid materials appear as if they are fabric, fluid and soft.  There is a harmony between the surfaces one flowing into the next, there are no abrupt ends or connections – it is all one.  I am appreciative of the amount of consideration in these details and the level of craftsmanship.  All the architectural elements are treated with equal importance creating sublime textures and experience.  Doing my best to memorize these small and delicate features we leave to visit the roof.

Out in the sun the extensive attention to detail does not end, the chimneys and ventilation shafts are made of wonderful sculptures unlike any I have seen before.  There is nothing in this building that has not been considered, there is harmony in all its elements.


architectural travel entry: three

I can see the ruins in the distance…

the speed of the train is perfect. They disappear and reappear like blinks of an eye, each rebirth of the ruin was different, a gradation of brokenness to solidity all the while moving closer and closer to me and in a moment the structures vanished.
I realized we passed through them and they are now on the other side so I moved to the other side of the train and watched as we continued to steam forward. How wonderful I thought to see ruins at this speed, in that dimension, at that distance. It was as though I was static and they moved to me and then away from me.

architectural travel entry: two

We are walking down the street and overhear a group of people saying “its awful”  “I don’t get it!”

There is so much emotion as I eavesdrop on the people pointing and looking up. My friend turns to me and says “I love it” of course not everyone feels negatively, myself included.

The overtly contemporary building hovers above us, for those who look up to enjoy it – for those who never look up they will never know.  Underneath the color, extreme form and playful facade there is meaning and reason.  I wonder as I continue to eavesdrop perhaps many people are not open-minded to this ‘new’ architectural style – are people seeing it without bias or just looking and making quick determinations.  I began to worry but soon hear more people pointing and discussing and I am reassured that this building along with many others evokes feeling, conversation and debate.

Colourful architecture    

OCAD by Alsop in Toronto

Do you have an architectural travel story to share…

architectural travel entry: one

We entered the court through the arch, a drummer was playing, the beat echoed, the coolness of the air and the soft misty drops of rain added to the intrigue of this place. It was dim in the court and as I viewed the light and shadow playing on the stone I saw in the distance the light glowing from the pyramid.

It was quiet, few people were there just shadows and silhouettes in the distance.  The sound of the drums had dissipated as we passed through the second arch.  The fountains were off and the romantic sounds from a violinist was faintly coming to life as I looked at the black pools of still water reflecting the beautiful glow of the glass pyramid.  With just enough light to make out the opposing foreground and background of new and old it was a surreal and for a moment nothing else existed but myself and this place.