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


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.

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

Critically on Zumthor’s “Thinking Architecture”

Giorgione_-_Sleeping_Venus_-_Google_Art_Project_2Recent Pritzker’s Prize laureate Peter Zumthor wrote the book, which regardless country or boot’s size is praised in architecture schools around the globe. All professors and all teachers speak along “And before you start making your funny, deprived from the practical function models, take your time to look at “Thinking Architecture” if you want to regard yourself as an architect.”


There is something in this book what have drawn the academics to it, but what? Perhaps this sudden uproar is only matter of fashion; can it be expected to become in the future alike the classical masterpiece of writing on archtiecture, “Experiencing Archtiecture” by Prof. Rasmussen? I dare to realize that “classical” may be the key word to case…

Let’s take a look at the most famous chapter of our book, “The Hard Core of beauty”. Maybe it’s only my impression but doesn’t the title sound familiar to the Renaissance of turning art into scientific subject? Didn’t humanity already once tried to neglect the previous period’s expressivness, by finding inspiration in the eternal beauty of nature?

“I feel (…) that beauty lies in natural, grown things that do not carry any signs or messages, (…)” said Peter. But wait… what? That’s exactly what they have done! Have people, although hundreds of years made no further reflection? Just next and next generations of creators are trying to sell the same thing? It is not even flattering nature for it’s timlessness; “not to stir up emotions with buildings, (…) but to allow emotions to emerge, to be” – it’s just marketing; decorated in complicated sentences and vague terms and we are getting feeling that we are witnesses of some eternal wisdom. But we are not – we’re only given the new, same product.

This mental stagnation was visible throughout the ages. Here is Giorgione and his “Sleeping Venus”. Look at its calmness, look at harmony, look at the pure appreciation of “naturally grown” things (what’s wrong?- if He can do do it, I can as well) which are beautiful just as they are. That’s right here lies the beauty. Let’s now turn into the corner, where hangs Ingres’s “The Source”. Look at its calmness, look at harmony, look at… uh, have we just returned to the same point? No, keep calm, it’s not a curator’s mistake, actually he is standing and sighing next to us. Squint your eyes and make a few steps away-can you now see the mistification?

There is Renaissance. What Giorgione did was innovative, because (most probably) inspired by listening to lyrical music and looking at calmness of landscape, had an idea to capture the truth lying behind objects he had seen, therefore becoming the first one to do it. If now, you want to be a splendid creator, same as Giorgione, you just can’t listen and see and think in the same categories, because it gets us nowhere. It just teaches us nothing new.

Nothing new Peter have you found. And now you are daring to sell it to us?

On page 29 you are referring to the interview with the contemporary poet William Carlos Williams, but in what purpose? To dress the old in new clothes? “And then I learned from the radio program that the poetry of William Carlos Williams is based on the conviction that there are no ideas except in the things themselves, and that the purpose of his art…

“except in the things themselves”

Reneissance inspiration nature influancing architecture. Beauty did from pure objects. Archtiecture from purity. No,… pure object digested. Geometry. Harmony and proportions. It;s not natural. Then their architecture really didn’t praise nature, but used it only as an inspiration. Also Gaudi was inspired by nature, but to what extent? Antonio Gaudi’s buildings look vividly like something what must have naturally grown up. But his materials haven’t grown naturally. His materials were artificial. Now, thinking about Zumthor, he actually uses natural materials, materials which praise nature, at its most raw state and without arbitrary making them part of some other message.


Let’s collect our data one more time; Peter Zumthor is a contemporary architect whose philosophy is to build with raw materials. That is because materials have its own language and should be deprived any additional messages which vague their natural value. I have to admit that it’s a powerful, minimalistic way of thinking. It makes me renew my previous point of view; he is the architect who brings something new to humanity.

Not only nature but also something else inspired Zumthor, what is common to both him and the Renaissance masters. I mean the opposition to noisy and incoherent expressivness of the contemporary architectue, just as in the XIV century the intellectuals opposed to the Gothic style.

The beauty lies in stone, wood, bricks, grass and trees, time and life and they do not need any additional meaning. That’s because they are now just the same, as they were yesterday, and as they will be tomorrow.

What defines architecture? What differs architecture from Fine Arts?

Essai_sur_l'Architecture_-_FrontispieceWhen you are looking at a contemporary building, don’t they appear to you rather like a sculpture than a real building? It’s amazing how close to Fine Arts may architecture come today. Starting with the Charles Jeanneret’s Church in Ronchamp, through the densly sculpted facades of Gothic cathedrals, ending on Bilbao Museum, architecture often, although physically standing firmly on the ground, seems to be swinging in the clouds.

Egyptian method

During the yesterday’s lecture with Richard Weston I learned that understanding of what is architecture and what is not varied considerably throughout the time. People who gathered around Egyptian Temples were not allowed to enter the interiors. No wonder that for this common crowd architecture was only something alike a giant sculpture.

Roman method

Let’s now move forward to the next level of civilization; we’re now standing in front of the newly built massive Colosseum during a festival, let’s say the Bacchus day. What we are seeing is the mass of people striding towards the stadium crowding in the building. We realize that we’ve just witnessed social progress which opened interiors of bulidings on the public.

What stays the same?

Therefore we have now two ways of looking at architecture and we cannot really say if one is better or worse than the other. They are just different. However, there is something common in each of them and on the question “what exactly is it?” we can get the answer from “Experiencing architecture”. According to the book similarity lies in the utilitarian aspect of both ideas. We can think about architecture as a piece of art, but we can never forget that the functional aspect must be included. (page 8, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, “Experiencing Architecture”, Third Edition).

Archtiecture finds its start at the moment when human undarstands that he needs to organize his surrounding. He wants to possess a shelter, to have somewhere to sleep. Only after this, when his lower Maslov’s pyramid’s needs become fulfilled, he starts thinking about making his house more appealing. Only after this Fine Arts become conceived. Architecture will always depend on practical demands of the world.

Reviewing “Experiencing architecture” – the beginning of the series

20131001_201012I like coming back to the time of about six or seven months ago. Then, except the passionate striving to load my mind with a handful of information for my high school exams, I especially recall the time of my weekend trips to the capital city. I take delight in going back to this challenging age, in which dreams were daily fighting for survival against the demanding world. Particularly I remember this time for all its laborious working and studying and all that struggling to do my best and to prepare myself a fruitful ground for the future.

On this battlefield also peace was coming from time to time. I will never forget the moment when I was first handed the book, with a man leading two peoples’ sight deep into the perspective, on its cover.

Steen Eiler Rasmussen, “Experiencing architecture”, is the book to which I am coming back over and over again. Therefore, from now on I am proud to declare the start of a series of posts, in which I am going discuss, explain and interpret Rasmussen’s masterpiece. Needless to explain why it is a series. Not only would I would act unfairly toward my readers but I would also betray myself if I would endeavor to confine the enormous content of “Experiencing Architecture” just in one post.

It’s really hard to express the excitement of mine about this project. I will do my best to convey at least some part of the spirit in which Professor Rasmussen writes, at least some part of his, so expressive and passionate way of explaining all these difficult problems.

I also hope that this small part will encourage you to leave a comment on the posts.