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  • Richard Herriott

Experiencing Architecture

Steen Eiler Rasmussen´s 1964 book is worth a careful read if you are interested in the character of buildings. It deals with this more than functionality or engineering matters. Much of what he discusses is relevant today, the qualitative aspects of buildings. He shows how much can be learned from classical and vernacular architecture.

Two things stand out. One, is his interest in the quality of light inside buildings. He explains how the peculiarities of Dutch housing led to the creation of an adjustable window-shutter design. You will have seen the effects of this in any Vermeer painting, and you´ll have noticed how even small apertures can provide a lot of good quality light. This is something contemporary architects might wish to remember when putting in full-height windows. More glass doesn´t always mean better lighting. Full length windows at pavement level also lead t a lack of privacy (look at the empty street level residences in Aarhus Harbour, for example).

The second thing is to do with language. Eiler Rasmussen uses the word "rhythm" when referring to the repetition or distribution of elements in a building. I wonder if perhaps the word pattern would be altogether more appropriate. Rhythm is a word that indicates pattern in time e.g. a drum beating or the bass guitar line. One doesn´t sense a building in the same way one senses music. The building is something we experience in bursts - our eyes wandering here, focussing, settling, moving as we take in details. In music we can´t freeze the sequence or roam over it. Thus I think "rthythm" is entirely the wrong word and music the wrong metaphor. Architecture isn´t frozen music just as music isn´t moving architecture.

The building is in Grenoble, the Tours Vercors, also from 1964. The pattern is deceptive - remarkable liveliness from the repetition of simple elements. It is somewhat mind-bending to try to work out how the units join up. The foyer is a festival of mid-century: rich materials and simple shapes. The downside is that the building is essentially anti-urban, being a kind of enclave cut-off from the town´s organically grown urban fabric. On its own it´s bold and interesting but it also represents that period when architects and planners violently disrupted the form of urban growth. for more information on the structure.

Rasmussen, S. E. (1964). Experiencing architecture (Vol. 2). MIT press.

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