Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen Review and Book Notes

A classic architectural theory book, easy to read with some unique insights but with a couple of large flaws.

Introduction

Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen was a standard text in architectural schools and also for me when I began my studies more years ago than I care to remember.

It was on my reading list as a student and it was one of the first books from the course that made an impact on me. So I was interested to come back to this book after many years and reread it.

Below you will find an introduction, summary and review with a set of notes by chapter for those that want to get into the weeds with detail!

Background

The Author Steen Eiler Rasmussen was a Danish Architect born in 1898 , he studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1916 to 1918 so he was taught in the Beaux-Arts tradition, before modernism. He started his own office in 1919 and so was a young Architect coming through the profession during the birth of modernism an exciting time to witness.

The book itself was first published in 1957, translated into English in 1959 so Rasmussen wrote this book when he was sixty four years old and the book itself is over sixty years old.

Experience is Architecture

How should we look at buildings? Are they objects, a collection of materials joined together? Are they spaces, environments which their form carves out from space? Are they manifestations of social and cultural power structures indivisible from those cultures from which they come? Of course they are all these things but also these are only partial descriptions.

There is also a way to understand buildings from their lived experience, how we actually perceive them from living in and around them, the total of their experiential effect on us. It has come to be known as architectural phenomenology and this book is an introduction of this way of thinking about buildings.

To describe buildings purely through the experiences you have of them and to bring to explanation an otherwise intuitive and barely conscious set of observations is really a key insight of the book.

It is also the first book to read if you want to understand a strand of thought about architecture in which architects like Juhani Pallasmaa (The Eyes of the Skin) are found. A more phenomenological way of thinking and seeing buildings and the built environment.

Something else I love about this book is that often especially in the first generation of modernist architects Modernism is shown as a heroic break with the past. It often was but by describing buildings in terms of their effect on you Rasmussen can look past the style of the buildings to their underlying principles and place them in a natural continuam. Palladio and Corbusier are compared and assessed based on the same basic underlying concepts this takes the heat out of the style wars and allows for better comparison and appreciation of buildings that have different styles but similar underlying principles.

Summary

The book is split into ten chapters covering different experiential aspects of Architecture. The chapters are capable of standing on their own but together the book is a fairly comprehensive attempt at covering the main aspects of the experience of Architecture.

My favorite chapters on Light and Sound particularly are excellent. The way Rasmussen describes the old Dutch shutter system with which they modified the light and sound in their houses is excellent. The way that the sound modification of buildings is explained in reference to our sense of sight is I think exceptional in Architectural writing.

Amsterdam House with their Shutters (Photo by Author)

Criticism

But there are two problems that I have with this book, one small and one big.

The first is that it doesn’t have a conclusion at least my Kindle version of the second edition appears not to have one. As I noted already the chapters are quite capable of standing up by themselves so it’s not a fatal problem but it would be nice to have had an overview and a summing up that brought these ideas together, they are after all in the same book.

This brings me to the thing I dislike and a much bigger problem. Chapter 4 contains a few pages on Japanese Architecture and it’s pretty bad.

Rasmussen finds Japanese Architecture ‘flat’, they never incorporated perspective into their fine arts, that the buildings are ‘thin’ and more like fine furniture than buildings. Japanese art has reached the highest state of refinement in the two dimensional arts but the western three dimensional arts are superior. Finally quoting Rasmussen in his own words;

This architecture of the Far East may be considered as at a more primitive stage than our own. The European learned something during the Renaissance which the Japanese has never grasped.

The first thing about these comments is that they were out of context with the rest of the book. Critisim of the architecture of a country is out of place in the book that is all about the phenomenology of Architecture.

Additionally Japanese architecture being flat in the context of their fine art not developing the same rules of perspective as the West makes no sense at all. Japanese art has perspective and developed differently, how is this inferior?

Additionally purely in terms of Architecture the statement above is wrong. For instance in the Katsura Imperial Villa shows an integration of internal and external space with the landscape and with nature that European Classicism lacks. Japanese Engawas, sliding walls, overhanging eaves and asymmetric plans all make for spaces which flow in and out of the garden a spatial play which is completely absent in Western Classicism. Rasmussen key charge that spatially Japanese architecture is more primitive is if anything back to front, there is a good case the reverse is true. The way he back peddles later on in the book observing the great debt modernism owes to Japanese ideas about space makes me think he knows he’s on rocky ground.

Katsura Imperial Villa (Photo by KimonBerlin)

This is a big howler which I would warn anyone reading this book now about and it sullies almost unforgivably an otherwise classic in its genre.

Verdict

The simplicity of this book is in itself a feat. To be able to describe and communicate ideas that are experiential but not naturally translated into words on a page is a great achievement in itself. Rasmussen has brought to bear many years of writing and teaching about Architecture to synthesize something wonderful.

Some particularly interesting insights are uncovered, the Chapter on Hearing Architecture or Light in Architecture spring to mind.
This book is a foundational text for the idea of architecture as a phenomenological discipline and its a book that can be read and re-read.

However insights into Danish modernism and classical architeture are counterbalanced by a fundamental misunderstanding of Japanese architecture which undermines the whole book.

A stone cold classic with a small but almost fatal flaw and every Architect should read it but with that caveat.

Further Reading:

Book Notes

I have added my detailed book notes below for those that want a more detailed run through of the book;

Preface

  • Wants to be understood by all who bother to read it.
  • Understanding of Architecture is important not least because it was once made by everyone and now is the purvey of a few experts.
  • He struggled with this book more than any other to keep it as clear as possible.

Chapter One Basic Observations

(Lots about Venice)

On the whole, art should not be explained; it must be experienced. But by means of words it is possible to help others to experience it, and that is what I shall attempt to do here.

  • Utility is the factor which separates Architecture from the other arts.
  • Architecture is meant to be inhabited, used, lived in.
  • He is a modernist in the broadest sense of the word. That architecture is of a time and a place.

First Illustration of a building is the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi, Venice completed 1509.

  • Architecture must be explicit. (in order to be built at all).
  • Introduces basic forms.

Already I can feel in the text how the Author is trying to keep things simple and be poetic.

  • Hard and soft forms
  • heaviness and lightness
  • All this connected with the surface characteristics of the materials and in what way they are formed.
  • Talks about paving
  • Every tool has its own physiognomy.
  • arguing that forms etc have a natural innateness they want to gravitate towards? (Am thinking about Louis Kahn and bricks)
  • Best Arch is like a well formed tool, it solves a problem for which it was built and its form is reflects innately the purpose for which it was built.
  • He is not talking about building at all or ‘building vs architecture’
  • details are not important compared to the integrated whole.

But details tell nothing essential about architecture, simply because the object of all good architecture is to create integrated wholes.

  • progress of implement to architecture, mirrored in progress of a child playing with toy bricks to a builder.

Chapter 2 Solids and Cavities in Architecture

(Tour of Rome)

  • act of seeing and comprehending is a kind of act of ‘recreation’
Picture – portal of Palazzetto Zuccari, Rome – entrance is a gaping mouth and a little scary at that! (photo by TheGreatRambler )
  • Forms have their own ‘personalities’ also.
  • Planned views, whole vs part of whole from which you see something set up.
  • We ‘see’ a building by walking around it taking it in over time from different views.

Ordinarily we do not see a picture of a thing but receive an impression of the thing itself, of the entire form including the sides we cannot see, and of all the space surrounding it.

  • impression of something is formed by a series of observations.
  • The architect can work with the solids of a building or the empty space of it.
  • explains and gives examples of this well.
  • gives vase and face profiles example.

Chapter 3 Contrasting Effects of Solids and Cavities

(Tour of Rome – some modern examples)
Observation – with this book you might be able to acquire the basic information and way to see buildings so as to form your opinions about them and reason from this.

  • often the next style of Architecture is in contrast to the one that preceded it.
  • Classical architecture how it presents itself.
  • Description of classical architecture by way of impressions accrued as walked through.
  • Walking us through a set of Roman Buildings describing them in a way he set up in the previous two chapters.
  • Detail of S. Maria della Pace, Rome he shows is truly wonderful.
  • Trevi Fountain is contrasted and compared with FLW Falling Water. (First modern building mentioned?)
  • FLW discussed a little and some other Modernists who use Grandeur and Richness. Eric Mendelsohn is mentioned. Carl Petersen of Denmark is mentioned.

Chapter 4 Architecture Experienced as Color Planes

(tour of Venice)

  • we perceive things differently according to distance, conditions etc.
  • lovely description of Venice – on the threshold of reality floating above the lagoon
  • Venice is the European dream of the orient.

Venice itself looms like a mirage, a dream city in the ether. And this impression of unreality persists even to the very threshold.

  • Talks about the tradition of hanging rugs in Venice.
    • buildings are then transformed into figured coloured planes.
    • you understand many of the buildings there better with the addition of the rugs.
    • they are attempts to make this festive decoration (festivals) permanent.
  • Doges palace decoration can be understood in the same way if the marble is understood more as a sheet of material.
  • Venetian palace facade resembles oriental rugs.
  • Even the windows are treated like surface ornaments not like voids.
  • Venetian Building show us how weight and lightness can be created in architecture.

This architecture of the Far East may be considered as at a more primitive stage than our own. The European learned something during the Renaissance which the Japanese has never grasped.

  • The Quote Above is the first thing I really strongly disagree with the book about. What Europeans learned that the Japanese haven’t I really don’t know.
  • Need to chase up the influence of Islamic Architecture on Western Architecture Book – Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe by Diana Darke
  • Architects can make buildings look ‘heavier’ or ‘lighter’ than they are.
  • Modernism is a serious attempt to return to a weightless architecture.
  • Camoflage painting started by the French army in WWI.
  • Le Corbusier Houses in Pessac, France he tried to design in a weightless way.
  • Denigrates Japanese Architecture and Eastern Architecture- From what I know I don’t agree with this.
  • Kenzo Tange for instance is already quite well into his career. Post War Japanese Modernism makes a pretty strong case for itself.
  • Mentions a book Book – Kokoro (1896) by Lafcadio Hearn
  • Japanese art ‘within its limits’ has attained the highest state of refinement. (Aargh really? – I couldn’t disagree more that it is this way limited!)

Chapter Five Scale and Proportion

  • Music demonstrates clear Mathematical ratios.
  • We all naturally sense these proportions in music though aren’t actively aware of them.
  • Architecture in this way is ‘Frozen Music’
  • Golden ratio
    • Two parts of a line a and b then the ratio of a to b is equal to the ratio of b to a+b
  • Originally various sizes of paper were often based on the golden section
  • Pythagoras held the pentagram was a mystical and holy symbol. Which has the Golden section within it.
  • In the 20’s Scandinavian architecture moved away from a more romantic take to a more formal architecture incorporating often mathematical proportions consciously.
  • Modular man and Corbusiers incorporation of the golden rule into many of his buildings.
  • Story about why Le Corbusier changed his modular man height from 175cm to 183cm tall.

But one day he learned that the average height of English policemen was six feet, or about 183 cm, and as average height is increasing the world over, he began to fear that the dimensions of his houses would be too small if he utilized measurements derived from the height of the average Frenchman. Therefore he resolutely established 183 cm as the definitive quantity from which all other measurements were to be derived

  • A good discussion about Corbusiers modulor that appears to admit it must be ‘tweaked’ for most things.
  • proportions of a foot and inches are fairly easy to make by hand.
  • In architecture it’s natural to have proportion in buildings even basic housing as buildings are made from parts and materials with certain limited proportions.
  • Karate Kline made some deep studies of proportion in buildings and many common things.
  • He designed furniture using these insights.

Chapter Six Rhythm in Architecture

See also Music in Architecture

  • Simple rhythm in Architecture will never become obsolete.
  • Rhythm of a double set of windows for rooms in Venice which is widely repeated.
  • ‘There is something stimulating about rhythm’ is it its unifying effect?
  • Eric Mendelsohn listened to music while designing. (Bach)
  • Frank Lloyd Wright said he heard music when he experienced a building that moved him.

During a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright in the twenties he learned that the opposite was true of his American colleague. Wright told him that when he saw architecture which moved him he heard music in his inner ear.

  • Spanish steps in Rome follow a kind of pattern of a dance.
  • Rhythm can produce different effects also- clarity, mystery, playfulness, different patterns of movement.
  • Palladio villa you always sense the proportional relationship of the dimensions it presents.
  • Different cities have different rhythms
  • He likes Alvar Aalto

There is also a clear and interesting rhythm in all of Alvar Aalto’s work. If we compare his Finland building at the New York World’s Fair, with its undulating interior wall, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s glass shop, I am sure that most people would find Aalto’s work the more natural. But he must be judged by his everyday architecture. His extraordinary employment of contrasting textural effects and the organic manner in which he builds up his structures are immediately apparent. But it is his firm grasp of the whole that makes his buildings so amazingly vital.

Chapter Seven Textural Effects

  • Talks about Cherokee Indian basket weaving.
  • Contrast with clay pottery and smoothness
  • Two key types of texture in Architecture – one rough and like the basket and the other smooth like pottery.

An oft-quoted saying of the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen is that clay is life, plaster death, and marble resurrection.

  • In different periods of time different styles dominate.
  • See the quote about the same statue done in different materials – they can be almost thought of as different sculptures.
  • Talks about painting on stone and facades (he likes it) and talks about how it was in fashion in Georgian and Victorian London but then went out of fashion and came to be regarded as dishonest.
  • For the Japanese and Chinese lacquer is an independent material not just a surface coating.
  • Talks about textural effects with reference to detailing.
  • Compliments Japanese Houses for their sensitivity. So not sure what’s going on. He hasn’t taken back what he said earlier.

Compared to the sensitively designed Japanese house many of our modern buildings are amazingly crude.

Chapter 8 Daylight in Architecture

  • Unlike many things in Architecture daylight is constantly changing.
  • The human eye has an amazing range of visibility it can see from the strongest summer light which is 250,000 times more intense than moonlight which we can also see.
  • ‘Light is of decisive importance when experiencing architecture’
  • Talks about Philip C. Johnson New Canaan House – (which isn’t really a house at all!)
  • Light is good in that building but its because its all glass walls – there is no Architectural setup so I like it less than the author.
  • Talks about the Pantheon – light from above in opening in dome.
  • Rooms with one large skylight give a shadowless interior tend to flatten forms.
  • Nice explanation of Dutch Deep narrow housing that could be glazed front and back.
  • Dutch painting takes advantage of full range of lighting effects, just one of it’s innovations (during the 17 and 18th c)
  • Vermeer is the master of this.
  • Traditional system in Dutch Housing of 4 wooden shutters which allow you to variate and control the light developed a lot further than other European contemporary countries.

After they had perfected their four-shutter system they even went further, adding curtains and hangings. Old paintings of Dutch interiors show that heavy draperies were used as well as thin glass curtains, which softened the transition from the dark window pier to the light opening.

  • In Ronchamps chapel Le Corbusier modulates light as part of his composition.

Chapter 9 Color in Architecture

It is well known that ancient Greek temples were originally polychrome but time has robbed them of every trace of color so that today they stand in naked stone.

  • Color in Architecture also includes all the tones white through black – it’s the architectonic effect of all of this.
  • At some point when man developed technology sufficiently. We could control the color of our buildings.
  • On the whole buildings are still part of the landscape so their colors are often derived from it. I.e. The buildings are of the natural stone found in that area or of the wood cut down in the local forest.
  • There is defended an origin story about Swedish red that it became associated with grander houses but the truth might at least be partly more mundane – it is a waste product of an early industrial process. (Think Falu red)
  • Color is highly symbolic
  • Different colors have different symbolism in different cultures.
  • Color can also moderate form, presence and temperature

Chapter 10 Hearing Architecture

  • Architecture reflects and absorbs sound in the same way it reflects and absorbs light.

Can architecture be heard? Most people would probably say that as architecture does not produce sound, it cannot be heard. But neither does it radiate light and yet it can be seen. We see the light it reflects and thereby gain an impression of form and material. In the same way we hear the sounds it reflects and they, too, give us an impression of form and material.

  • Different shaped rooms have different sound qualities.
  • A feeling of a room is often at least partly given by its acoustic qualities.
  • Church acoustics lend a special ambiance to the space.
  • Speculation that the form of the church with its acoustics directly lead to the singing and playing in harmony. -see quote
  • J.S.Bach couldn’t have written the music the way it was without the particular acoustics of the church he wrote for.

Bagenal’s analysis of the St. Thomas church at Leipzig, where Johan Sebastian Bach was the organist, is particularly interesting. Much of Bach’s music was composed especially for that church.

Hope Bagenal figures the present reverberation at 2½ seconds as compared to from 6 to 8 seconds in the medieval church. The absence of a “note” or region of response in the church made it possible for Bach to write his works in a variety of keys.

These new conditions made possible a much more complicated music than could ever have been enjoyed in the early church. Bach’s fugues, with their many contrapuntal harmonies, which would be lost in vast basilicas, could be successfully performed in St. Thomas’s, just as the pure voices of the famous St. Thomas boys’ choir receive full justice there.

  • End of 18th C Horseshoe designs for churches appeared in Copenhagen – for example Nicolas Eigtved Christianshavn Church 1754.
  • I think there are some examples in Edinburgh too.
  • To better hear the sermon and be part of the congregation much different attitude to the religion than a Roman church crucifix plan allows for.
  • Doesn’t like much Classical and Gothic revivals of the late 18 early 19 c – style war with no substance
  • Invention of Radio created new interest in acoustics.
  • Architecture can be heard is his proposal. (Key insight in this chapter)
  • Where is the conclusion?

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