Martin Heidegger continually described the notion of a building being understood as a tactile and imaginative experience – suggesting that a person’s identification of a place and its meaning are based upon what they think or feel. To Heidegger, a building was more than a product of the construction process that is understood solely in terms of ‘mathematical boundaries’. His work explored the appreciation of architecture through its non-physical sense, thereby enhancing people’s experience and offering enrichment in meaning.
Sharing similarities with the thoughts of Heidegger, American architect Louis Kahn practiced this philosophy throughout his career. Kahn was concerned with immeasurable qualities like the thoughts and emotions of people interacting with buildings. He referred to these qualities in his work as ‘Silence’. To him these were the hidden aspects of architecture that could only be revealed through the physical experience of a space. Reading about the work of Kahn and his affinity with Heidegger reinforced my belief that to truly understand any building you have to experience it first hand and feel what it is like. Photographs in books or images on websites offer nothing by comparison.
I was in Cologne with some friends in October and we found the time to travel across the Dutch border to visit St Benedict’s Abbey built in 1961 by Dom Van Hans der Laan. We met a monk in the front porch who showed us to a cobble stone courtyard that had large wooden doors on each side. There was a concrete flight of steps that ascended behind a brick colonnade – almost like an invitation to the chapel entrance.
Quite suddenly we emerged from the shadows of the colonnade and, as though we had walked onto the main stage, there was the chapel filled with natural light. It was a moment of pure magic so unexpected I stood transfixed – there was an overwhelming sense of tranquillity in the air. The Chapel is still. Peaceful. Animated only by the treetops swaying in the wind through the high level windows. Daylight falls from above on all sides and illuminates the lime washed brick columns that march around the room. Together, the proportions and composition make this an effortlessly timeless piece of architecture. I had seen photographs of the chapel before, but this wasn’t a page in a book or an image on a website; this was real.
I took a pew and thought about how such a simple room can have such a profound impact on the senses. The thoughts and emotions that we experience in a building may seem like an obvious aspect of architecture to consider – yet today I believe it is rarely pursued or taken seriously.