Architecture by Walking Around

Great architecture is all about the archsense.

The phrase “management by walking around” became popular in business circles in the 1980s and 1990s. It meant that a corporate manager at any level, even the CEO, should not just manage from his distant marbled office at the top of headquarters but should walk around the office, the factory floor, the store, holding impromptu conversations with co-workers, suppliers, customers etc. Only then, the theory went, would he get a full picture of operations and only then would he adequately lead his organization.

This idea of managing on the ground instead of managing with a detached mindset could also be applied to architectural design and to architectural critique. The architectural design equivalent of managing from afar is to produce blueprints that competently address the programmatic requirements of a project but that fall short of creating great architecture.

In particular, a floor plan, an elevation, a scale model can make a building more appealing than it would be as built. Plans have their own peculiar aesthetic which can be compelling irrespective of the actual building they represent. A beautiful rendering of a mediocre building is still a beautiful rendering, with its own artistic value. Conversely, the superior quality of a great design can be masked by poor communication if the architect is unskilled at two-dimensional representation via blueprints, or three-dimensional via scale models.

Photography has amplified this quandary because beautiful pictures can make a building appear better than it really is. Architectural photography is a full-fledged business and the best practitioners apply their unique talent on a perfect day with perfect light and color in order to make a structure look beautiful, even though this same structure may be unremarkable the rest of the time or when seen through the lens of a lesser photographer.

In this vein, I was surprised to learn that awards for good architectural design are sometimes bestowed on buildings by people who have never actually visited these buildings but who develop their opinion merely by looking at photographs and plans. If you believe in the Architecture by Walking Around idea, this is a bit like a food critic rating a restaurant simply by looking at glossy photographs of the appetizers and entrées. Clearly that would not do because food is not about visual appeal but about taste, though of course you also want a dish to look attractive.

Similarly, architecture is not mainly about visual appeal but about a sense of light and space, though of course you also want a building to look good.

Archsense

Judging a work of architecture through photos or blueprints or scale models puts too much emphasis on the visual element which is only one of several important elements in the success of a design. You can’t judge a book by its cover or a person by their looks even if a nice cover and a nice face make a favorable first impression. Similarly, a beautiful building is only a beautiful building until further investigation proves it to be a superior work of architecture.

This investigation requires the assessment of a building through several senses, not only the visual one. Good architecture appeals to all of the senses, not just to the sense of vision. The other senses are touch, smell and hearing. We can exclude taste for obvious reasons but we should on the other hand add another sense, call it an archsense, that is a sense of light and space, an intangible feeling of well-being or of mild oppression.

Running down the senses quickly, they are fairly obvious. Vision includes an appreciation of color, light, massing, proportions, flow etc. and is well documented in photographs. Touch, smell and hearing, one would never experience by looking at a magazine or website. Touch has to do with texture, temperature and the choice of materials. Smell is generally neutral and most people prefer it that way, except perhaps in high-end spas and hotels where scents are an integrated design feature.

Hearing is critically important and requires its own experts in architectural acoustics. This is true not only for designing sound in an optimal way as in a concert hall, but also in the types of sounds that the architect chooses to add inside a structure or the types of outside sounds that he chooses to neutralize. As an example, adding an escalator in a hotel or museum lobby where there is minor traffic may result in a dominant and awkward recurrent sound every time a visitor steps on. An escalator may look like a good idea in a floor plan but can be an unwanted noise intrusion when built.

In the same way that photography is unable to address touch or hearing, it can also distort the archsense which is the sense of light and especially of space. Photographs, blueprints and models cannot capture the all-encompassing and all-consuming archsense. Some buildings that are boring on paper are entrancing when visited in person. Others that are exciting on paper are a let-down in person.

Experiencing the Archsense

Like many, I felt this disappointment on a visit to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in the city of Poissy, not far outside Paris. Photographs generally portray the house sitting by itself in a quiet empty field, just as it was when it was built. Commenting on its idyllic setting, Le Corbusier had written that “the inhabitants, who have come here because of the beauty of this untouched landscape with its rural lifestyle, will contemplate it preserved intact from the top of the hanging gardens or from the four sides of the elongated windows”.

Villa Savoye in the center. Not at all what you saw in the photos.
Villa Savoye (in the center). No longer in an 'untouched landscape'.

But now a mere 85 years later, the house is holding a shrinking and increasingly noisy piece of ground as the city closes in around it with a number of large institutional buildings. Looking out from the house today, one would not see an “untouched landscape” but on two sides a modern long and low-slung school building with a floor plan that bends around the house, as if to capture it under its spell. That it is called the Lycée Le Corbusier despite its intrusion on the architect’s seminal house adds a cruel irony.

No one would ever locate a new house in such a setting and the quiet serenity that was a key feature of the initial design, has been lost. The archsense experienced in 1930 by the sight of a futuristic white object, the house, sitting on a wide expanse of green is now suppressed by the cityscape.

Of all the senses, the archsense is the one that defines great architecture, the thing that separates the good from the great. It is the difference between competence and art, talent and genius. The well-being produced through the archsense is difficult to convey even in words but it can be described by referring to some known buildings.

Grand Central Terminal in New York. (Photo by MTA)

Grand Central Terminal in New York is one such building that stimulates the archsense. The feeling of belonging to New York touches every person who enters the Main Concourse with its soaring vault and clerestories. But this sense is neither sudden nor immediate and was carefully staged by the architects. Visitors coming in from 42nd street are first led through Vanderbilt Hall, a great room in its own right where expectations are built up before the grand entrance into the Terminal’s main space. Grand Central’s website uses fitting enjoiners such as “Be Transported” and “Experience the Crown Jewel”.

Another example is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, arguably a rather plain building on paper and in photographs, but one that lifts you up as you approach, lifts you higher once you are inside, and keeps you aloft for a day or two after you have left. Here as in the case of Grand Central, the architect designed not only what you see, but as importantly what you don’t see, the flow of the space and the change in the light. The true mark of genius was to tap successfully into visitors’ archsense.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith)

The Archsense in Everyday Design

By using these grand examples, I expose myself to criticism that these buildings are not normal architecture but landmark buildings built with large budgets. But I chose these examples not because they are grand but because the odds are that many readers have visited them. I am trying to describe a feeling by referring the reader to a setting where he may have experienced it. In truth, this feeling does not occur only in landmark buildings but could be found in any random design.

For example, in Manhattan, the feeling of space in an older apartment with high ceilings is entirely different from that in a postwar apartment with a generic ceiling height. Many find the former uplifting and the latter occasionally oppressive. The influence of European modernists such as Le Corbusier did some damage to New Yorkers and other Americans in the postwar period when in the name of pure functionality, a ceiling height of 8 feet or less became common for new apartments. The adoption of concrete flat plate construction in most Manhattan residential projects also allowed developers to dispense with interior structural beams and to further reduce the floor to floor height, creating more rentable square footage at a lower cost. It is difficult to look at the resulting structures as meaningful works of architecture. They are more telling about late 20th century societal and economic pressures.

Yet another example can be found in the single-family home. Most Americans prefer to live in separate free-standing houses, with their own driveways and backyards. This lifestyle is highly reliant on the automobile and has sometimes been criticized by architecture and urban planning theorists as too wasteful and isolating. But it is hard to dispute that the quality of light in an individual home is impossible to replicate in an apartment because most rooms in a house have exposure to natural light from two sides and some have it from three. By contrast most rooms in an apartment have natural exposure from a single side and a few have it from two. Daylight in a house is also nicely filtered by nearby trees, an effect that is lost if you live on the fourth floor or higher of an apartment building. Finally, the quiet of house living compared to city living is a hearing benefit that many people find desirable.

These things may seem trivial but they add up to what differentiates a great space or room from one that is simply good. At any rate, it is clearly a difference you cannot capture accurately through photographs.

Higher ceilings and rooms with multiple exposures are costlier than the alternatives. Therefore superior design may require a bigger upfront budget than merely good design. It is however an investment that produces huge returns in health and well-being. There are financial costs to bad design that should be factored in, albeit costs that are not borne by the developers but by the users of the building. Poor design has quantifiable costs when sterile or oppressive buildings lead to depression, crime or ill health.

So going back to the notion of Architecture by Walking Around, it calls for the evaluation of a building not only for its visual drama but for what it offers in the way of a holistic appeal to the senses, in particular the archsense of light and space. This sense can only be experienced by walking around.