Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen (1962)

This semester, I’m taking a course called Architecture and Society (ARC 308). The professor, Dr. Larry Speck, has a reputation for causing students to switch their major to architecture. So far, I can certainly agree that the class has been important to my intellectual development, so to speak, and has opened my eyes to several interesting topics.

Now, you yourself may not be able to take the class, but you can take a look at the three books we’re reading. The first is Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen.

4 STARS

Overall: 8/10

Entertainment: 3/5

Intellect: 4/5
+1 for accidental lessons

Rasmussen’s book is meant to explain architecture to the average person–or rather, explain to a person how architecture isn’t what they think it is.

Intellect:

Positives

“Subliminal” Architecture

I was extremely skeptical in class when Dr. Speck first said that architecture’s effects were mainly subliminal. The word “subliminal” reminded me of literary analyses of why curtains were blue or film analyses of how that particular rock represented fertility. But I quickly found, both from class and from this book, that the definition of “subliminal art” that had been beaten into me during k – 12 education is not what he meant.

I can briefly explain what the “subliminal experience” of architecture turned out to be: something that feels right. Imagine you’re helping to make a fantasy Disney film, and you want to design three buildings: one for your protagonist, who up until the conflict was just a regular teenager like you and me; one for your villain; and one for the one true king who returns to power at the end of the story. You design three buildings: a towering marble palace with Greek-style columns with murals of wild horses on the inside; a humble little cottage next to a meadow; and a black stone, decrepit castle with spires so pointy they look like swords. You, of course, give the marble palace to the everyday protagonist, the humble cottage to the villain, and the pointy black castle to one true king. Right? You probably re-read that sentence a few times trying to see if I’d made a mistake: you likely instinctively think that the pointy building belongs to the violent villain, the humble means belongs to the humble protagonist, and the grand, royal, good, white dwelling belongs to the good king.

Likewise, the young protagonist may occasionally say “awesome” while the good king says “whom” and the villain says “foolish mortal.”

From this class, I’ve learned that “subliminal” means “instinctual.” Instinctual means that my school’s computer science department isn’t in an ornate, church-like building from the 1800s; it means that if you want your church to be impressive, you need to make the doors big enough to comfortably allow a giraffe to pass through; it means that boring jobs are put in cubicles and not in open-air pavilions; it means that it feels weird to walk into a McDonald’s in Madrid and discover that it’s located inside some royal-looking building from the 1600s; it means that a child’s bedroom can be yellow with pink polka-dots, but the same paint job would be unacceptable in the bedroom of the U.S. FBI director; it means that it just feels fitting that my school’s history building deserves to be in a dusty little thing with wooden floors, while the engineering building is basically several brick blocks stacked as high as they can go (which is 15 stories). It’s all intuition, and it all makes so much sense. By pure cultural conditioning, we see certain buildings in certain ways. And that’s all there is to it. It feels right because we know our own cultural patterns, by pure, subconscious, instinctual association.

“Experiencing” Architecture

As for the “experience” of architecture? Rasmussen is trying to say, “Don’t just look at the buildings.” Recognize their intended purpose. Know their historical context. Think about replacing one part of the building and how weird it would feel if that aspect were different. If you can, go to the building itself.

When I was in Spain, we toured the Alcazar in Seville. Southern Spain isn’t known for its cool summer breezes, so it was all the more powerful when we stepped inside the actual building to find that the wall material made it feel as cool as nighttime. There was no air-conditioning: the material had been chosen so that the owners wouldn’t feel like they were in a dry sauna every second of every day. An example actually from the book talks about the effects of perceived “weight.” Because we know that some materials are heavier than others, we can associate certain building materials with being heavy. The book points out several places where the building feels heavy and precarious because of which material was used for the floor. The room you’re in likely has plaster, brick, or wooden walls. Now imagine that the top half of your room is instead made of marble. Sure, an engineer could design the walls to be strong enough to hold up that marble. But marble is something for colossal pillars, or tile floors, something on bottom, because it’s “heavy.” Better yet, imagine that your ceiling is made of marble. That may very well be scientifically feasible, but I would personally be worried that the roof was going to cave in on me.

The book has plenty of other examples of how architects experience architecture: how you feel walking past regularly-inter-spaced, rhythmic windows; the effect of color on weight perception; the contrast between concave and convex; etc. And most of these chapters are 100% convincing. Not all of them, but a lot of them really point out how architecture can make you feel by showing you some examples of where something just feels wrong.

This is the main reason for the book’s 4-point intellect rating. Did it put my life on a new course? No. Did it teach me some things that I’ll be noticing and using for years to come? Yes.

Subjectivity

I knew that the book was promising from the very first chapter, when Rasmussen stated something along the lines of, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and in this book I’ll often talk about building styles in a subjective manner. But it’s impossible to grasp my full meaning without expressing opinions, so I will go ahead and do that; just be warned that everyone has a different favorite style.” And it definitely paid off! It’s hard to get a sense of how architects think of architecture–or how people feel about architecture–without hearing someone express an opinion, even if you disagree with that opinion. For instance, Rasmussen seems to love Le Corbusier’s work, but I have yet to find a Le Corbusier building that I would actually like to enter. But his description of what he admires about Le Corbusier is infinitely more valuable than just saying, “The rooms are tubes. The walls are concrete. Some people like that and some people don’t.” I admire the fact that this works: he doesn’t pretend that his opinions are facts, yet he doesn’t let this objectivity detract from the experience.

Even at the end, he returns to this message: it is impossible to rank buildings by greatness because there is no objective way to quantify beauty or personal experience (This, of course, coming from the person who’s trying to rank books). Because of his adeptness at being both objective and subjective at the same time for the optimal effect is what earns Rasmussen a +1. He didn’t set out to teach young readers how to express opinions without forcing them on you, but teach that he did.

Negatives

As you can probably tell by the intellect score, the negatives in this book really boil down to knit-picks. And they’re both less reflective of Rasmussen himself and more reflective of the year the book was published, 1962.

The first is fairly minor: all the book’s pictures are in black and white. Most of the time, this doesn’t detract from the lessons. But when he’s talking about color and lighting, it can get pretty darn frustrating. There’s not much the publisher can do about this, unless he wants to release a second edition with different, colored pictures, so I’ll give it a pass. Minor annoyance.

Another minor annoyance has to do with mentions of “primitive cultures” or the “less intellectually-advanced Japanese” and things like that. All sorts of discussions of the noble savage who hasn’t lost his relationship to nature and the superiority of European design customs was pretty distracting.

Overall

You’ll notice that I didn’t include an entertainment section. That’s just because there isn’t much to say: the book wasn’t addictive at all, but it also wasn’t hard to slug my way through. There were a few fun facts about acoustics in there, but any “delight” that came from the book came from finding out, “Hey, that does make a lot of sense.”

The book is great if you’d like to understand why artists are always raving about “subliminal effects.” The book and class each do a great job of explaining how straightforward these feats of “artistic genius” really are; but Rasmussen doesn’t detract from admiring the skill of architects, either, because he also shows you all the ways that you can go wrong if you aren’t careful or experienced.

I may not recommend this book to the average person just looking for something to read. But if you’re going to travel overseas anytime soon, I would highly recommend it. I really wish I’d read this book before going to Spain this past summer, as it would have made building tours a lot more interesting.

That’s all my thoughts on this book for now. Until next time, when I update you guys on the next book we have to read for this class: Thermal delight in architecture by Lisa Heschong.

 


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