ESSENTIALS ARE INVISIBLE TO THE EYES – perception of architecture

8 min read

Perception of our environment takes place at the subconscious level. The outside world exerts an influence on the inner self, is filtered by individual character, circumstances, origin and current situation. Perception takes place automatically; it just happens. Associations are generated, which create stories and pictures in our minds, trigger emotions and cause either comfort or discomfort.

“For the conspicuous to draw attention, do they not require a contrast with the inconspicuous, which remains unseen? Aren’t inconspicuousness and simplicity just a form of reticence, with its own quiet and secret ways of drawing attention?”
Philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels
2 building photographed in worm's-eye view

Alexandra Abel has studied philosophy and psychology and currently teaches Perception of Architecture at Bauhaus University in Weimar. She also publishes books on the topics combining architecture with philosophy and psychology. “Perception of Architecture” is the title of her book published in 2018; “Need-oriented Architecture” will be the title of her next book. POINTS of Contact has dedicated itself to the first chapter dealing with perception and interviewed Alexandra Abel. The following article depicts the categories of various types of perception.

"We spend 90 percent of our time in buildings and the remaining 10 percent almost entirely within (visible) distance of them. Everything that happens in our lives (…) is influenced by the character of architecture. …"
Alexandra Abel

Architecture and attention

“We spend 90 percent of our time in buildings and the remaining 10 percent almost entirely within (visible) distance of them. Everything that happens in our lives (…) is influenced by the character of architecture. Architecture shapes the reality of our existence. It is the area in which our lives unfold. Its identity and our own are interwoven and interdependent.” With this introductory statement, Alexandra Abel begins to sharpen the awareness of our surroundings. Even when our attention is not fixed on the building or the room, they affect us nevertheless. Subconsciously. Invisibly. Eluding interpretation. Yet generally noticeable. Architecture has an immense influence on our being – and when we increasingly and deliberately focus our attention on it, its significance reveals itself to us.

Alexandra Abel encourages us to tear down intellectual barriers, which stipulate that only experts may evaluate architecture. Why should anyone who is surrounded by architecture not have the right to evaluate it as well? A comprehensive evaluation, however, requires deliberate perception, which also allows for differentiation. A differentiation between the external influence and our inner state of mind. If I am deeply depressed myself, I will not be able to perceive even buildings of the highest quality or the most beautiful rooms. At best, they will have a healing effect, but the place will have a negative connotation.

“Perception of architecture means the ability to see ourselves and our counterparts alive in and with it.”

The dimensions of our existence

“To be human means to exist in space and time. These dimensions define the condition of our existence.” A basic intro first distinguishes between what is just perceptible and what is both perceptible and controllable. Time passes regardless of what we think about it. Its perception may be subjective, but the seconds always tick away at the same speed. Space is quite a different matter. We can shape it, walk through it, measure it, explore it, optimise it and leave it. Alexandra Abel writes: “We only feel secure when we are in an enclosed space. This feeling is not to be found in the infinite universe we perceive in the starry sky at night.” A protective home, characterized by our own identity, which combines the designed space and – here the factor of time does play a part – which can be passed on. For example, to the next generation. “The abstract dimension of space surrounds us in the form of a real space that is essentially characterised by architecture.” This real space is the location of our human existence. We can and must feel it, we perceive it in order to perceive ourselves, we learn more about ourselves through its surrounding characteristics and grow thereby. It becomes clear that architecture is more than just an accumulation of buildings, to be judged as beautiful or ugly, perfect or questionable. It is our resonating body. It is a reflection of ourselves, allowing us to perceive ourselves, and questioning our answers.

“Lemon Squeezer”, dome of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts by Constantin Lipsius
Chapel roof of Notre Dame
Chapel roof of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier, 1950-55

Perception as relativization of reality

Try to understand your own perception! This is the gist of Abel’s appeal to everyone. Perceive. Reflect. “The functionalities and effects of (all) encounters (…) are only disclosed to us through understanding our own perception. For perception is our reference to reality. It is more real to us than reality itself.” Using the daily sunrise as an example, she explains the principles of our tools of perception. We notice that the sun rises on the horizon, behind the row of houses, or at best on a line between the horizon and the sea. We are not aware that the earth revolves around the sun and one half of it constantly turns away from it and then towards it again. And it is the same with many other things. “Our awareness is limited, selective, individual, complex, constructive and creative.”

Part of the series:

HIDDEN THINGS [#5] or: What are you concealing?

More about this theme

Our perception is limited …

… and depends on our imagination – and of course on the abilities of our sensory organs. Radioactivity, frequencies of up to 2,000 Hz or ultraviolet light are things we just cannot perceive. “We only see what we know” is a generally accepted statement. What should be perceived in abstract art, photography or stage performances when we know nothing about the history, development and background? Only the personal taste and the emotion triggered by seeing decides the positive or negative resonance.

But how often does people’s attitude towards a work of art, an artist or a text change when they find out who has created what, when and why?! Suddenly, identification and recognition occur, and the perception is fed with the memories of things perceived previously and now anchored in the person’s imagination. Alexandra Abel makes this statement: “Ideas in the sense of such expansions of perception distinguish architects from non-architects, for example. Can non-architects perceive the structure of a house if they have no concept of it in their minds? Can they see eaves? A cornice? The function of a building behind its façade? To make things perceptible, they must be made imaginable.”


Our perception is selective …

… but controllable. At least in part. “Our attention is drawn to factors to some extent, automatically and without our consent. We can, however, decide what we focus our attention on.” Attention imposed from outside is generated by impulses from our environment, while inner, endogenously generated attention is based on our own decisions. The first variant is the dominant one, by the way; it wins when both types compete against each other. One another thing is that we are actually not very good at perceiving things during our everyday lives, but we sure are when we are travelling, surrounded by new things. That may be partly due to the mode in which we find ourselves, but also to the fact that new things are more conspicuous and likely to attract our attention. Another aspect seems to be relevant here as well: “Conspicuousness is based on the contrast to inconspicuousness.” When we focus on something, this calls for masking other things or the invisibility of the surroundings. So when we focus on a certain object, this makes whatever surrounds it invisible. The quote from Bernhard Waldenfels at the beginning puts it in a nutshell.


Our perception is subjective …

… and influenced by everything that make us individuals. Our current emotions, our origins, and the cultural background we have come to know from our parents, from school and from friends. Depending on the mode we are in: working hard under stress, relaxed and at leisure, in love, ill or searching for something. Alexandra Abel clarifies this by using a church as an example. Five people enter a church building. One person is old and tired, the second is interested in ancient tombs, the third is an architect, the fourth a tourist and the fifth a small child. On the basis of these details alone, it should be quite obvious to everyone that these people have different ways of seeing things and perceive different things. They are all inside the same building, but each of them perceives things which remain invisible to the others. “We are unable to perceive things neutrally and objectively”, writes Alexandra Abel, and she is probably right.


Our perception is complex …

… because we perceive things not only with our eyes. Acoustic factors are essential when we think of the sounds in a church, in a congress hall, in a small room or even out in the open. Moving through a room, touching objects, surfaces and shapes enables us to form a comprehensive picture – it delivers input to perception for developing a genuine idea of andattitude towards something. “Seeing is an ability to sense distant objects – intellectual, closer to thinking than to feeling. We can only come into really close contact with it when we also start to hear, feel and smell it. When we reach out with our hands towards it and touch it. When we tart to communicate with it via our footsteps and the echo of our steps from the wall.” This is why it is so difficult to exhibit architecture. When a building is not represented in a 1:1 scale, does not consist of genuine materials that give it strength, coolness, space and an atmosphere, you need tools of abstraction and connotation to generate comparable segments of perception.


Our perception is constructive …

… and targeted. It goes back to our evolutionary history – a time in the distant past, when dangers were lurking behind every bush and survival depended on the accuracy of the spear. “Our perception is still fixed on movement to this day. Our perception is optimal while we are moving. And movement of other things is what we perceive best. That is why architecture sometimes finds it difficult to catch our attention, since it does not move in space and not in time that can be perceived by us.” Alexandra Abel distinguishes between perception in motion, which occurs when people walk around a building or approach it, and the usage, which occurs as soon as it functions as a workplace, a residence or a temporary venue for an event. This context also raises the question of the correlation between usability and the value of architecture as such.


Our perception is creative …

… since we want to participate. To look at something simply in order to find it beautiful, perhaps to admire it, is not enough for us. “Our wish for creativity in perception comes from our wish for participation. Only when we can add something ourselves to the process of perception do we really play a part in the world that surrounds us.” As co-creators, we bridge part of the gap that separates our ego from our environment.

Person in a dark alley
2 houses close to each other in blue and beige

The power of attention

When people and architecture converge, it is real – very real and complex at the same time. We cannot approach architecture in theory, but only in practice. And then it becomes clear whether the space in which we find ourselves really fulfils the promises made by the building and its function. Is this a comfortable place to live in? Does it offer a space for retreat or views into the distance? What sounds can be heard? What picture is created by the combination of surfaces and materials in this room by its perception?

“The meaning of architecture must be understandable to our senses. Theoretical solutions that our perception is unable to grasp should remain theories. These are not created with us in mind. Architecture shapes the reality in which our lives take place. It surrounds us like no other environmental factor does.”

So Architecture does not belong solely to experts, and its perception is more multifaceted than one would perhaps think. But with the knowledge of its complexity, it can be controlled; it helps us to become more sensitive, more alert and more agile.

Alexandra Abel has studied philosophy, German philology and psychology. She teaches and researches at the Bauhaus University in Weimar on the perception of architecture as one of her main subjects. The publication to which this contribution refers, was published by Transcript in 2018. In 2020, her new book “Need-oriented Architecture” will appear, which deals with the results of her current research.

EzraPortent; Francesca da Lipsia; PolaRocket; jock+scott; about

Architektur wahrnehmen (Perceiving Architecture)
By Alexandra Abel and Bernd Rudolf
Published by Transcript in 2018
ISBN 978-3-8376-3654-3

Cover of „Architektur wahrnehmen“ from Alexandra Abel and Bernd Rudolf
Order Lookbook