Experiencing Architecture

Most guidebooks to buildings emphasize details of construction: a Romanesque portal, a Gothic arch, or a Neo-classical pediment. Yet every building is much more than a composition of individual parts, as anyone who has walked around the Parthenon will attest.

Margaret Visser, best known as a writer about food and culture, took her approach to understanding everyday, ordinary objects and applied it to architecture in The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, published in 2000. Visser, frustrated with conventional travel guides to architecture, invited readers to go beyond a building’s “physical traits to delve into the compelling meanings that give rise to structure.”

Using Visser’s approach, a visitor to the ancient Greek ruins at Delphi might ask, “How were these buildings used and why were they arranged this way on the mountain?” This is a different question from, “What order of architecture are these columns: Doric, Iconic or Corinthian?”

Typically, the traveller to a medieval cathedral is overwhelmed by a wealth of details about its construction. Many tourists do not realize that the tracing floors for many cathedrals were often etched into the stone floor of the cathedral. This tracing floor is more than a conceptual plan; it is meant to represent a microcosm of the divine world. Designers called master masons generated plans working with geometric permutations of particular numbers which were regarded as having sacred or mystical significance. The resulting structures were believed to have inherently heavenly properties, metaphorically buttressing the actual physical structure.

Understanding meaning in a medieval cathedral requires transcending the guidebook’s description of architectural details in favour of an inquiry into the master mason’s intentions. A cathedral, after all, is meant to be a little bit of heaven on earth.

Experiencing Architecture as an Integration of the Whole

Steen Eiler Rasmussen, a Danish architect, was a visiting professor of architecture at M.I.T. when he penned the book Experiencing Architecture, published in 1959. Echoing the concern that “details tell nothing essential about architecture, simply because the object of all good architecture is to create integrated wholes,” Rasmussen encouraged his readers to examine buildings from many different perspectives.

Rasmussen describes rhythm as a way to experience the whole in the parts in architecture. Referencing a Piranesi drawing of the Spanish Steps, the staircase that connects the Piazza di Spagna with the Piazza della Trinità in Rome, Rasmussen compares the design of the staircase to an 18th century Polonaise, a stately processional dance. He imagines ladies in farthingale skirts and gents in breeches and high heels ascending the staircase as though they were dancing ceremoniously up the steps.

Experiencing the rhythm of the staircase is a far cry from the usual description of its Baroque parts. That is because moving through the space amplifies the viewer’s appreciation of it in a way that no historical critique can.

Architecture that Engages All the Senses

Asked to describe how he looks at buildings, Pulitzer prize-winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker reminded this writer, “Buildings are meant to be experienced, over time and in real space.” Notebook in hand, Goldberger records his feelings and experiences as he progresses through a building, taking in the sounds, colours, textures, and feelings that are generated by the structure.

The joy of a building is in actually experiencing it. The best way to engage with architecture is to move through it, asking: What do I feel? What do I see? What is this building meant to achieve? The answers to those questions will provide the viewer with enduring delight.