The Experience of Architecture.

Published 3 March 2023

Written By Saran Kim

Lee Ufan Museum, architecture by Tadao Ando. Photography by Matthew J Tambellini

The word 'architecture' might be one of the most frequently used terms with no singular definition. You see it in a weekend newspaper or hear it in conversations between architecture students and professionals, but 'architecture' seems to have different meanings to different people. As a result, it offers a minefield of mixed subjective definitions of what it means. Here, I'd like to explore how we can understand and relate to 'architecture'.

For the first time in two and half years (thanks, Covid!), I returned to my hometown in Japan. On one beautiful day, I spent an afternoon at Ehime Prefectural Museum of Art, a place I've visited hundreds of times in my childhood. However, on this visit, there was a moment of stark realisation; for the first time, I could 'see' and 'read' the architects' design intent. Although I had experienced the building before, my perception of the building had come into focus. There was an incredible sense of comfort in the realisation that the people who designed and built this museum cared about architecture as much as I do. After returning home, I shared my excitement with my parents, who responded: "Ah, I didn't really notice that building, is it that good?"

I've been fortunate to be an architecture student and a design studio tutor - both learning and teaching simultaneously. As I talk about architecture to my students, I encountered a question that I imagine all architects face at some point in their career: how do you explain 'architecture' to someone who has never thought about it? What is 'architecture' in the first place, anyway?

Ehime Prefectural Museum of Art - Matsuyama, Japan

While there is no definitive answer (or a single definition of 'architecture'), I believe that good architecture makes us feel things regardless of its level of sophistication. However, the experience and feelings evoked by that piece of architecture can change depending on the person. For example, a garden that is serene and peaceful for one person may be too nostalgic, boring or overwhelming for another. How one feels about a place would depend on their understanding, memories or experience of that particular place. Despite this matter of subjectivity, great architecture can be so powerful that it overrides these individual experiences and can give a universal identity to a place. For instance, when people whisper in a cathedral, you know that it is not because everyone read a sign saying "don't speak loudly inside". It is a result of the unified sensory experience they collectively share within that space. You might not know anything about the place, but you know how to respect its atmosphere.

How, then, do we understand what is good or poor architecture in everyday life? Again, it is something architects can discuss all day - what we consider architecturally significant depends on what we pay attention to. For example, in the age of social media, you may see an image of a 'luxurious' marble kitchen benchtop and fall in love with it. Is it because it is aesthetically pleasing, as a product? Or because you can imagine cooking in that kitchen, touching the coolness of the marble while having a glass of red wine? Or maybe it reminds you of the time in Italy, having a shot of espresso at a marble bar counter. Whatever the feeling is, there must be a reason you feel so. When you gaze upon the object and feel that desire – do you notice its dimensions? The height? The detailing of the corners? Its connection to a window? How the marble is shimmering under a ray of light? How it aligns with the floor and wall tiling? Do you notice how it relates to the rest of the kitchen, creating a well-functional space? When you become conscious of a place, see the intention and become aware of the detail, you begin to notice what is working, what makes sense and what doesn't. Along with this growth in practical awareness, a connection to how it makes you feel also grows. Good architecture, by its nature, helps make these connections and understand why we feel what we feel.

What I was doing in that art museum, after five years of study, was quite simple: observing the overall spatial composition and small details where elements interact. The specific dimensions and arrangement of tiles that gave a consistent proportion and rhythm; the way the glossy finish of finger tiles upstairs caught natural light, illuminating like jewellery boxes; a subtle shadow line separating two levels making clear independent volumes of spaces; full-height glazing facing a courtyard brought people's attention toward three heritage-listed trees, having a dialogue with a massive public park on the other side of the museum. The intent of the architect was clear. So many things made sense. And walking through the art museum felt like I was having a conversation with the (imaginary presence of) architects - discussing the critical aspects of the site, the curated views, the role of the building as a civic space, and the distinctive nature of exhibits between levels. Architecture helped me understand the place, and discovering it made me feel.

So, if you have a moment to think about architecture, consider: how does it make you feel? And what aspects of the space do you think are making you feel so?

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