Before digital was born
For many years I’ve held in my mind, as a counter to the headlong rush to a purely visual architecture, the memory of approaching a small church in an Italian hill town. This was an experience of architecture of all the senses. First came the feeling of a slight ache in the knees, an ache that told me I had climbed to an elevation. Then the entry into the building, the sudden drop in temperature, the increase in humidity.

Neiman-Marcus
Photography: © Bruce T. Martin
Elkus/Manfredi designed a Neiman-Marcus facade as a rippling ribbon.

The hushed yet reverberant sound. The dim light, after the glare of the piazza, slowly growing brighter as my pupils dilated. The sound of a motorcycle starting up outside, reinforcing my sense that I was inside. The smell of candles and of old stone and mortar. Walking forward, and feeling the unevenness of a floor whose surface had been sculpted for centuries by other feet, a surface placed, thus, in time. Finally, of course, the way the space configured and reconfigured as I moved through it, the kinetic sense that is probably the most essential quality of architecture.

Perceiving architecture
I’ll end with Juhani Pallasmaa, who is my favorite writer on this topic, maybe my favorite writer on architecture, period. He’s a 71-year-old Finnish architect and former director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture. He’s also taught at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s written a lot. One short piece that sums him up well is his essay, “An Architecture of the Seven Senses,” published in a book called Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture (William Stout Publishers).

A few excerpts from this eloquent essay follow:

How materials tell us not only about place but also time: “Natural material expresses its age and history as well as the tale of its birth and human use. The patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time; matter exists in the continuum of time.”

How silence is imaginary sound: “After the clutter of building has ceased and the shouting of workers has died away, the building becomes a museum of a waiting, patient silence. In Egyptian temples we encounter the silence of the pharaohs, in the silence of a Gothic cathedral we are reminded of the last dying note of a Gregorian chant, and the echo of Roman footsteps has just faded on the walls of the Pantheon.”

How we socialize with buildings, not just look at them: “A building is encountered—it is approached, confronted, encountered, related to one’s body, moved about, utilized as a condition for other things, etc. … We are in constant dialogue and interaction with the environment, to the degree that it is impossible to detach the image of the Self from its spatial and situational existence.”

Break the mold
And so on. This is the opposite of considering a building as a merely visual experience. There are some kinds of buildings we may love but hope never to see replicated. The Eiffel Tower, for example, should be the only tower in Paris.

I feel that way about both the GBH mural and the Neiman wrap. I like them, but I hope they’re not the beginning of a trend.

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