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Looking vs. Reading

by Danny Forster on Apr 8, 2010

Every day people move inside, between, and past buildings, but most don′t really think about them. They might notice, on a cold day, how far they have to walk to get from their car to the entrance of the post office; they might marvel that they always forget which way to turn inside the new mall; they might think of their parents′ kitchen as a lovely place to spend a morning. But they probably consider these annoyances or pleasures as just facts of life, like sleet or sunshine.

Of course buildings aren′t natural phenomena; they are the concrete result of a creative act; they are the physical embodiment of a thousand decisions someone made. But we don′t think of them that way. We move among them as if they were weather, or the seasons—subject to complaint, but not to critique; inspiring emotion, but not interpretation.

Actually they are more like words. They hold a wealth of information, none of which we can access until we learn how.
No one ever talks of reading buildings, just of looking at them. But that′s only because they don′t know how to read them. Your average adult faced with a building is like a child facing the written word. A four-year-old doesn′t read words; he looks at them—if he notices them at all. To a four-year-old, the newspaper is an object he is instructed to put under his paint set; the print on it is, at best, decoration in shades of gray. To a nine-year-old, the same paper has morphed, magically, into a source of Garfield cartoons and GameStop ads. A fifteen-year-old might look for a story on his wrestling match; he might even read a news story that catches his eye (to me at that age, the newspaper was elaborate packaging for t.v. listings).

Buildings aren′t too different. At first they just look like the wallpaper of your world, but once you start to learn about them, they begin to tell you all sorts of things. Everything about them—materials, layout, size, design, embellishments—contain information about the time and culture and climate in which they were built, as well as the ideas of the architect who built them. Buildings are creativity and context rendered concrete, a whole set of ideas and assumptions and problems frozen in place.

We all know this about famous buildings. We know the Taj Mahal can tell us certain things about the shah who built it, about Muslim funerary rites, about Indian culture of that century—or at least we wouldn′t be surprised to learn it did. We might not know what information about Renaissance Florence was embedded in the design of the Uffizi Gallery, but we could look it up.
Looking VS Reading
But any building can be read, not just ones that offer guided tours. Any building contains information about its time and culture if we simply learn to read it. And the more we learn, the more the pleasure of reading will deepen: texts and subtexts multiply in our experience; we learn to detect irony and allusion, inspiration and sorrow, cliché and bullshit.

All that in the buildings that surround you, whether you love them or just live in them. All that in the building you are sitting in right now.

If that sounds nutty or grandiose, it′s because people take buildings for granted. Which is odd for something so large, expensive, and essential—something we all use. Maybe that′s the reason: they are so damned useful we can hardly see them. Written words are obviously intended for our interpretation—they have no other function other than to carry meaning that we learn to decode. Buildings have to stand, to keep me warm and dry as I type, to give the really important people a private space. The fact that they are made a certain way, and that how they are made says certain things, feels secondary at best.

Perhaps it is secondary, if secondary means extra, of secondary means a deeper level, if secondary is what gives texture and fun to life. That′s right: fun. If you don′t know how to read buildings, you′re simply not having as much fun as you could be having when you walk down the street; you′re choosing to wear shades when you could be wearing x-ray goggles.

I′m not talking about mindless fun, though; I′m talking about the mindful kind. Architecture is a force that acts upon you, whether you know it or not; different spaces affect how you feel and work and live. Understanding them will help you understand your world better, and even yourself. Seeing more, reading more, of what surrounds you at any given moment simply makes every moment richer.
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