Chapter II “Solids and Cavities in Architecture”. Role of imagination in experiencing architecture.

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Have you ever looked at some building and thought “All right, that is very, very pretty and solids are in harmony and elements are proportional, but, gosh, how boring it is!”

Yes, it may be unpleasant to look at something, what actually stays the same; no motion, no process – how architects can possibly gaze at it, sometimes for hours?

Answer to this question may be found in Chapter 2 of “Experiencing Architecture” by Steen Eiler Rasmussen. If somebody is not familiar with this volume I recommend looking at my previous post.

We love being in motion

Novels are different. We have a plot, characters talk with each other and quickly we become amused as time proceeds. Just like movies; they are sculptures, which full message we can only read, when we spend on them certain amount of time. Movies are dynamical and we feel it, but can we somehow convey these experiences onto architecture?

According to Professor Rasmussen indeed, architecture can be read as well. However, just like books, it requires imagination. In Chapter 2 of “Experiencing Architecture” we can witness the mental process, which Professor Rasmussen describes over the Church of St. George in Nordlingen (page 42, First MIT Press paperback edition). This part of the book presents two methods, in which we can perceive the buildings, and still it doesn’t neglect even more options. These methods are named:

  • From a general form to details.
  • From details to major parts; then again to details and again to major parts and so on.

Release your imagination

Working out of the box I will start with the second way of perceiving motion in architecture, which is not unambiguously stated in the chapter, however we can notice how Rasmussen leads our imagination over the church’s tiles, towards the tower and just before the inevitable crush with the stone wall, he lifts us suddenly from the level of roof through the next layers of the standing construction, right to the verticular roof. Now we are standing on the highest point in the city and we can adore the marvelous view spreading before our eyes.

The first way more obvious. We see the building from distance and drawn by curiosity, we start to discover its form with more and more detail. This mental process was beautifully described by Prof. Rasmussen, therefore I eagerly encourage to read this part, because moreover it may be further helpful in experiencing other buildings. Perhaps we already know the form; maybe the building is in our neighbourhood and we see it everyday. Then there’s one more way of using the first method. We can firstly try to simplify the seen form into the most basic solids, like in the example of the Church of St. George, it would be a prism and a cylinder.

I especially like this type of displaying, because it reminds me about  the moment in my life, when after a whole month of drafting geometry I endeavored to depict real objects. What stunned me then was the beauty of physiognomy of piers, cornices, bricks, coffers, doors and windows and although they were irrelevant objects looking through the geometrical standpoint, but some subconscious power was present in them, after all. Therefore this profound energy may be released when we start to sculpt our prism and cylinder.

We feel how camera depicts workmen putting tiles on wooden beams and after this picture goes down along the flying buttress and falling we see how vertical decorations shoot out from the featureless solid, and then falls on the roof built over the aisle. Roof starts to get dirty. We see how signs, left by fallen through the ages rain, show themselves and now we look up and see, how the arc above us is becoming heavier, harder, because of the stone texture, which embeds on it. Then camera zooms out and we get the whole view of the roof, the wall and the roof over the aisle, all now decorated, sculpted, with its very own character. But something happens on the left side and camera suddenly zoom into this fragment to proceed the dance of emerging architecture.

To simplify the idea – do you remember when in the game Assassin’s Creed the world around us was materialising when we were moving back in time? Generally, that’s what I am talking about.

Understanding, imagining, designing

How this techniques may help us in better understanding architecture? First of all, inside buildings are hidden ideas. Everything what has been built must have also been previously designed. The process of design on the other hand means that we must agree for some simplifications, like instead of sculpting in the center of Gothic facade a giant rose, we can design a window to recall rose’s shape. If a viewer wants to experience this mental process better, the best to do is to stand before a Gothic cathedral, imagine an actual giant sculpture of rose sticking out of the facade and try to imagine how the sculpture transforms into a flat window, and how its shape gradually becomes more transparent until the holes turn into geometrical shapes, so dramatically letting sunlight into the building.

Needless to say, that the shapes which designer conceive are not utterly finish forms. A finished rose window may be rather considered as only a one frame from video, which is being played in the designer’s mind. In relation to this, I shall recall well-known comparison, that architecture (as well as other branches of art) is like a frozen music – it’s just an instant of the dynamic mental process occurring through the artist’s imagination.

References:
Steen Eiler Rasmussen, “Experiencing architecture”, First MIT Press paperback edition, 1964
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