Architecture by Walking Around

Something a little different for our readers in this holiday season. Happy holidays to all!

The phrase “management by walking around” became popular in business circles in the 1980s and 1990s. Its import was 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 colleagues, 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 satisfying the full sensory range that a great work of architecture would offer.

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 very 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 draftsman or architect is unskilled at two-dimensional representation via blueprints, or three-dimensional via scale models. Even models can be deceiving on the good or bad side.

Photography has amplified this quandary because beautiful pictures can certainly make a building appear better than it really is. Architectural photography is a full-fledged business and the best photo professionals deliberately 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 painfully unremarkable the rest of the time or when seen through the lens of an average photographer.

In this vein, I remember being told 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 akin to being a food critic and judging a restaurant simply by looking at glossy professional photographs of the appetizers and entrées. Clearly that would not do because food is mainly 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.

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 critically 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 or a nice face enhances your initial enjoyment of that book or that person. 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 which, as things stand, is now monopolizing attention to itself. 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, say a sixth sense, which in this case we can describe as a sense of light and space, an intangible feeling of ethereal 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, you will never experience by looking at a magazine or website. Touch has to do with texture and temperature. Smell is generally neutral and most people prefer it that way, notwithstanding the current propensity of expensive hotels to flood their lobby areas with various flowery scents. Still, there is no denying that these scents convey an idea of wealth and cleanliness, and could be seen as part and parcel with the design, ephemeral as they may be.

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 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 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.

The touch and hearing experiences cannot be fully evaluated from a remote location, a fact that sometimes leads a critic to misjudge the quality of a building. In this case, it should not be a complete surprise if a building turns out to be not quite what you expected, once you do finally visit it.

In the same way that photography can mislead the sense of hearing, it can completely distort the sixth sense which is the sense of light and especially of space. Photographs, blueprints and models cannot capture the all-encompassing and all-consuming feel of space and light that you experience when you visit a building. 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.

For example, I remember my disappointment upon visiting Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Photographs generally portray it sitting alone in a quiet empty field, just as it was when it was built. Commenting on its pastoral 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, Poissy, France. 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 of Poissy closes in all 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 has the overbearing temerity of bending around the house, as if to capture it under its spell. That it is called the Lycée Le Corbusier despite its intrusion on (not to say destruction of) the architect’s seminal masterpiece is a cruel irony that should not be lost on us.

No one would ever locate a new house in such a setting and the quiet serenity achieved by the initial design, a serenity which was an integral part of the design, has been lost forever. The sixth sense which was greatly stimulated in 1930 by the sight of a futuristic white object, the house, sitting on a wide expanse of green is now struggling to make itself felt at all.

Of all the senses, the sixth sense is in my view 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 sixth sense is difficult to convey even in words but I will try to describe it by referring to some buildings that may be familiar to you as a reader. If you recall experiencing a nebulous sense of happiness upon visiting these buildings, you will understand the point.

Grand Central Terminal in New York certainly is one such building which nearly overwhelms the sixth sense. 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 the main entrance on 42nd street are first led through Vanderbilt Hall where expectations are built up before the climactic arrival into the great space.

Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

Another example is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, arguably a rather plain building on paper and in photographs, but one which 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 your sixth sense.

I know that 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 grandiose buildings but could be found in any random design.

For example, in Manhattan, the feeling of space in a prewar apartment with high ceilings is entirely different from that in a postwar apartment with a generic cookie-cutter ceiling height. Although it may seem like a small thing to the uninitiated, the experience is radically different and can range from uplifting to oppressive. The influence of European luminaries 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 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 square footage at a lower cost.

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, backyards, trampolines, swimming pools etc. 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 exposure from a single side and very few have it from two. In addition, daylight in a house is nicely filtered by nearby trees, an effect that is lost if you live on the fourth floor or higher of an apartment building.

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

Note in passing that many of the newer individual homes also try to stimulate the sixth sense through ‘cathedral ceilings’, two floor high living rooms and the like, but often fall short by overdoing the effort.

Higher ceilings and rooms with multiple exposures are costlier than the alternatives. Therefore I readily concede that superior design often requires a bigger upfront budget, but not much bigger, than merely good design. In my view, it is an investment that produces huge returns in health and well-being. Further, we should accept that there are also financial costs to bad design which 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 upon us to evaluate 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 most important sixth sense of light and space. In my view, this sense can only be experienced by walking around.