Steen Eiler Rasmussen: Experiencing Architecture

This little book, now largely forgotten, used to be recommended reading for first year students. The fact that is has been forgotten, or fallen out of favour, says something about the way architecture is perceived today. I’ll come back to this critique at the end. First I think it’s best to focus on what is useful about the text. If you find yourself cringing somewhat at what may feel like old-fashioned or overly simplistic ideas, then jump ahead to the critique at the end.

The interest in this book starts with the title, Experiencing Architecture, especially given the original publication date, 1959. This is a very early instance of a popular book focusing on how we experience architecture rather than the thing or object itself (what was the most common approach at the time). As such it is somewhat phenomenological and it surprises me that it isn’t still recommended even by advocates of that particular approach. Personally I find Pallaasma tiresome and rather essentialist (if not absolutist) in his approach to phenomenology. Rasmussen maintains an interest in form while allowing for (and even giving greater importance to) the experiential side of architecture. I find this in-between or negotiated position more satisfying and convincing.

In the end there is no substitute for reading the book for yourself, but I think it worth quoting a few lines and providing an outline of the book (something I said I would not do).

“Architecture is a very special functional art; it confines space so we can dwell in it, creates the framework around our lives. In other words, the difference between sculpture and architecture is not that the former is concerned with more organic forms, the latter with more abstract. Even the most abstract piece of sculpture, limited to purely geometric shapes, does not become architecture. It lacks a decisive factor: utility.”

This is straightforward, perhaps too obvious, but is likely one of the reasons the book is not in favour. Utility has too often been confused with functionalism, which has fallen out of favour, for some very good reasons. Nevertheless, there are many who confuse sculpture with architecture and who cannot define the difference for themselves. I don’t think that in the end the difference is as simple as that, but you need somewhere to start, and this isn’t a bad place to do so.

“The architect is a sort of theatrical producer, the man who plans the setting for our lives. Innumerable circumstances are dependent on the way he arranges this setting for us.”

Although this book is entry level, and Rasmussen himself notes in the introduction that a teenager should be able to pick this book up and understand it, there are some complex ideas being suggested here (perhaps no so novel for us, but certainly not generally agreed upon at the time). The idea of the architect as a theatrical producer places the emphasis not on the thing, but on the ‘play’, on the events that architecture frame, instigate or suggest. Such an idea is sold today with much fanfare – I’m thinking of Bernard Tschumi’s overly fat books ‘Event Cities’.  This isn’t so much a critique of Tschumi, but to make the point that very little is new, no matter how much emphasis is placed on its novelty, radicality or invention. The second sentence also acknowledges the multiplicity of forces that enter into the making of architecture (not to mention the number of participants). Again, we make quite clear today that architecture is a team sport, though the myth of the head architect as designer or great author persists. In two short straightforward sentences, easily digested and passed over, Rasmussen exhibits a rather complex and nuanced understanding of architecture. If you read the book in this way, then you are in for a treat. If you make the mistake of thinking you are above such obvious and simple ideas or notions you are going to miss the real significance of this book.

“Another great difficulty is that the architect’s wok is intended to live on into a distant future. He sets the stage or a long, slowmoving performance which must be adaptable enough to accommodate unforeseen improvisations.”

There is a nuance in this passage that suggests that the architect must actually design something. That is, this ‘stage’ isn’t a fixed functionalist solution (frozen in time) but something that must anticipate and incorporate flexibility for future ‘improvisations’ (I love that he uses this word rather than ‘uses’ or ‘functions’). This is different from the idea of trying to provide a neutral or empty frame that users complete, fill in, or transform. That is to say, there is something lazy, and indicative of a bucking of responsibility, in the way some architects put the onus on the ‘making’ of architecture on the users, by providing solutions that are mere shells or frameworks.[1]

 I could go on – there is a lovely passage about how the architect differs from the artists in that they do not produce things for themselves but provide instructions (not far off from Robin Evans’ point of view). Again, there is an interesting parallel with the theatrical producer or director. Instead, I think it’s worth listing the chapter titles, to provide a flavour of the contents before moving on to some critical points.

I. Basic Observations, II. Solids and Cavities in Architecture, III. Contrasting Effects of Solids and Cavities, IV. Architecture Experienced as Color Planes, V. Scale and Proportion, VI Rhythm in Architecture, VII. Textural Effects, VIII. Daylight in Architecture, IX. Color in Architecture, X. Hearing Architecture.

When looking at the chapter titles one could be forgiven for thinking that Rasmussen’s approach is formal, that is, object-centred. Nevertheless, in each area he is careful to focus on how these formal characteristics are not only experienced but also on how they are historically and culturally specific. The explanation for why this book isn’t recommended as much as it should be may have several roots. One reason may be that the book has been judged by its cover and table of contents, that is, it hasn’t been read carefully, or dismissed out of hand because it’s aimed at such a novice level. Personally, I find it astonishing that Rasmussen could make the material accessible while not simplifying the complexity inherent in making, thinking about, or experiencing architecture. More likely, I think the book’s fate is sealed by today’s hostility towards summaries and attempts at defining or categorising things. We know architecture to be so complex that any attempt at a summary or definition must be reductive and futile. I don’t agree. We all have to start somewhere, and groundwork, basic knowledge and simple definitions are a good way of beginning to untangle something that is, in reality, ultimately extremely complex. Some theorists refer to this approach as establishing a scaffold or a foothold. It’s a temporary framework from which you refine your understanding of something.

We could quibble with Rasmussen’s specific categories, and suggest that he has left out some important areas. But that doesn’t make what he says for the ones he has chosen unhelpful. Perhaps the idea of proportion is now no longer terribly useful or meaningful, but most other areas are difficult to get away from.

It is interesting that with the emphasis on technology today we often find that structure and materials play a major role in the conceptualisation process. This is no bad thing. What is troubling is the lack of understanding or interest around problems of scale, proportion, rhythm and texture, inherent in structural and material choices. If the suggestion is that such issue are merely aesthetic or representational and somehow pollute a structural, material or other technological concept, then what we have is a kind of technological essentialism, that is, the idea that there is some underlying truth that technology can reveal or access.[2] The idea that technological concepts are more essential or truthful, and that aesthetics are secondary or unimportant, contradict the nearly universal (postmodern) belief that architecture (and, in fact, everything) is a representation or set of representations.[3] The point here is that I think Rasmussen has something to offer anyone who is interested in architecture and that any kind of dismissal of his work or this little book can only be some sort of elitism.

 A final point (for now) – Rasmussen’s little chapter on hearing architecture is one of two that I’ve come across that has suggested that sound is a significant aspect of architecture (the other is Kenneth Frampton). This shouldn’t be confused with problems of acoustics – this is always a concern. Rather, this is the idea that sound can be as central as light, colour, texture and so on, as an architectural idea, not just a technical issue. Curiously, students often wish to use sound as a form or concept generating idea, but find that there is little help from theorists or historians on that subject.

 To be clear, this book isn’t’ mind-blowing nor a theoretical or philosophical masterpiece. It’s an entry-level primer. It is readable, enjoyable, and direct in the way it imparts some basic knowledge about architecture; basic knowledge that too few graduates (and architects) possess.

Notes:

[1] I recently juried a competition in which many entrants’ designs consisted of ‘plans’ for public consultations, user generated designs, and user built solutions based on the first two steps. It all sounds noble, but the designer’s laziness and sloppiness was more than evident in the fact that firstly, the consultation had already been carried out in great detail (it was provided in the competition pack) and that this approach had been tried before (and failed). Many proposals thought it was enough to propose events rather than spatial designs (this had been tried too). I hope to find space to write about the ‘fear of design’ which seems to plague many architects today.

[2] This isn’t a new idea. have a look at the writings and work of the 19th century architect Violet-le-Duc.

[3] Don’t worry if you don’t understand this idea about ‘representations’. I’m sure to come back to this in another entry. What is important here is that I’ve heard the technological essentialist argument come from the same people who cite the ‘representation’ mantra not aware of, or ignoring, the contradiction. This is where I lose faith and where rigour goes into deep sleep.

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3 thoughts on “Steen Eiler Rasmussen: Experiencing Architecture

  1. I had to read this book as a pre course assignment. In all honesty, I wish my university had recommended something much easier to understand at novice level. Straight out of high school, I had a hard time grasping concepts and trying to picture relief or different lighting as I had never read about them before and neither was I aware of most of the terms used in the book. I wished to study architecture as I’ve always been passionate about creating something and a book which would have given me a head start by teaching about history and terms would have been a better option.
    Hence, I feel this could be a reason why the book is no longer recommended for reading for first year students.
    Also, the press should reprint this book and try to add coloured photos in this edition. Due to socio- economic reasons I won’t be able to visit Rome or Venice any time in the near future, but I’d like to appreciate these through the eyes of Rasmuseen and it’ll help express his views much easily to the readers.

    • The idea of reprinting this with new photos is a very interesting one. I wonder what it would look like if it were illustrated with contemporary projects alongside the historical ones. Could we find good examples today of the points discussed by Rasmussen? That might help people understand and engage with the ideas.

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