The architect’s skills and sensibilities have expanded into the areas of spatial analysis and the problem of large scale urban planning. Combined with the renewed historical considerations, these factors have compelled me to concentrate on investigating our personal responses to certain aspects of the man-made environment. These responses to architectural space are not only physical, but they are possessing of values related to them.
The first activity in the curriculum is designed to heighten one’s sensory encounter with space. In beginning with this activity I am acknowledging this mode as vital to the learning process. Paradoxically, the activity achieves this objective by depriving the student of one of his senses in an effort to increase the value for them. This “Blind Walk” through the confines of the school will form the basis for our analysis of buildings in the future.
Simply stated there are four sensory categories that form our reactions to space. (I am omitting the olfactory because it is not a factor that is often considered in building design aside from the location of certain activities away from areas of unpleasant odor and the building issue of ventilation.) These four categories are: the visual, the tactile, the aural, and the haptic. My use of the aural will be brief and refer only to the associations we can make from sounds. The visual and the tactile are familiar because they are tangible. The final mode, the haptic, is less tangible and therefore more abstract. While it is separate from the other two, it utilizes, transcends, oscillates, integrates, and expands upon what we understand from them.
We first encounter buildings through our eyes. We remain outside and separate from the building and observe it at a distance, taking note of some particular detail. We recognize colors and shapes and record the placement of a door or a window. We may allow our eyes to linger upon an ornament or the play of light and shadow. We might associate the door to the mouth and the windows to eyes as we “face” the building. This process of association is to be encouraged. It will form the basis of values which will continue to develop as we precede further in understanding buildings as capable of expressing and revealing more than mere functional static object.
Based upon this visual encounter, we are either compelled to examine it more closely. Or perhaps, we are repelled by its forms and arrangement and precede to another place. If our curiosity is stimulated we move closer to the building and can touch the surface to feel the coolness of the metal or the roughness of the stone. We might even find that in touching it we have been incorrect as to its nature. Our senses, though normally trustworthy bearers of information, can sometimes deceive us. By combining a variety of sensual modes we can become more certain of our experience. We can begin to separate architectural illusion from fact.
As we investigate further, we now see that what our eyes had convinced us was an easily accessible window is now out of arms reach. Our curiosity is further aroused and as we look back to consider the point from which we first spied this window, we learn that we have come down a short flight of steps and along a curved and narrow path bordered by a well kept lawn. Had we been alert rather than insensitive, we might have heard the tone and rhythm of our shoes as we walked this route. As we turn to pick up the pencil we had dropped, we bend down and our eyes are now facing another flight of stairs which we see we must descend to enter this increasingly mysterious place. Now, as we hurry down these steps, we pay close attention to the sound of leather on the low but deep granite steps.
We have begun to experience the layering of visual, tactile, aural, and hepatic senses. The latter can best be described as the basic psychophysical coordinates of up, down, left, right, back, front, and centeredness. We stop and wonder whether this might be a conscious act on the part of the architect who designed the building. We conclude that it is and discover a new understanding of his tasks. We look up at what is now a much taller building than we had expected. As we open the glass door at the entrance, our eyes are delighted with the pattern of black and white stone on the floor of the lobby. But as we push through the door and glance once again at our shoes, we see that they have become darker. What we thought was black stone is now a shadow. We look up to find the source of these lines to be the concrete supports for the glass ceiling overhead. We also noticed that they are arranged in a sunburst pattern that is not centered but is at an angle. We follow these rays as they converge on our right and arrive at the inner door of the lobby. Before we walk in we turn once again and look back and up to our left and realize that the lobby is two stories high. From the outside, the glass entry seemed to be only one story because of the stone facade above the glass entry.
I have been describing an imaginary building, but this experience is possible whenever one goes to a new place. The possibility of surprise and the necessity of attention and participation can be exciting. It is not exclusive to the imaginary or the new, but through an awareness of these sensory modes, we may encounter familiar places in a new way. What activities take place in front of a building? What do we see and what do our bodies feel as we approach? Or as we enter? These are the things the architect considers as part of the building design. They are what transform an ordinary building into a memorable place.
The activities of contour and gesture drawing can illustrate and increase our awareness of the visual, tactile, and hepatic sensory modes. Drawing is one of the most useful skills of the architect. Even before he measures and marks a site, he will make quick, freehand sketches of the site. He will begin to create volumes and start to organize forms that will be the basis of more detailed and accurate drawings in the future. He will sketch the contour of the site, the surrounding elements of the land or cityscape, and may even start to furnish paths of movement and approach. He will note the direction and quality of the light and begin to locate doors and windows. Familiarity and comfort in making these quick sketches are invaluable for recording our response to a place. The recording of images during site visits will be refined and this skill can be used in later projects.