Course Outline H – Understanding Architecture: Now I Get It!

Winter Term 2018 – Room A100
Fridays Jan. 12 – Mar. 16, 2018
Mornings 9:50 to 11:50

Co-chairs: Paul Muther and Tiiu Ambus

Course Director: Marta O’Brien, architectural historian; instructor, School of Continuing Studies, U of T

Architecture is everywhere: it affects our daily experience of a street, a neighbourhood, and a city – often subconsciously. Through hundreds of images, this stimulating course will help you really see the architecture around you and understand your reactions to buildings. We’ll examine the use of ornament, proportion, and other architectural elements, and explore how and why their uses have changed.

WEEK 1 Jan. 12 Fundamentals of Visual Perception
Examining how we perceive objects visually will help us to understand what we notice and react to when we look at architecture. We view objects – including buildings – through perception and cognition. Perception is physically seeing and absorbing visual content, and is an innate process that is similar among people. Cognition involves integrating the perception with one’s knowledge and experiences, and is affected by our individual life experiences and views.

WEEK 2 Jan. 19 Perceived Structural Integrity
Apparent structural integrity has been connected with visual appreciation. People subconsciously render their own assessment of a building’s structural soundness based on an innate sense of the effects of weight and gravity. Although building collapses are rare, we feel uneasy if a building or a component appears unsteady. See how you feel as we view examples of architecture that flirt with this concept.

WEEK 3 Jan. 26 Materials: Wood & Clay
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we assign certain attributes to materials. These attributes can affect our assessment of a building’s strength and durability, as well as our emotional response. Based on our knowledge of the materials seen most often in architecture, we mentally describe a building’s surface as soft or hard, warm or cold. Research has shown that people consistently describe wood and brick in positive terms. We’ll look at examples of architecture using wood and clay, and consider why these materials elicit positive responses.

WEEK 4 Feb. 2 Scale
The urban environment is by nature extensive, and the scale of individual buildings plays a significant role in facilitating people’s relationship with their built surroundings. Scale refers to more than a building’s overall volume: it comprises the general size relationship between the building and its environs, and – most importantly – humans. Architects and their clients have used scale to send strong messages about the role and function of buildings. Human scale and super-human scale elicit very different responses.

WEEK 5 Feb. 9 Solids & Voids
In architectural parlance, solid usually refers to the wall portions of a building façade and void to the window and door openings. Research shows that we subconsciously survey and assess the ratio of solids to voids when we view architecture. For architects and building users, this ratio is a significant consideration in the design and function of any building. As we look at examples of architecture, we can contemplate the powerful effect of this design component.

WEEK 6 Feb. 16 Materials: Stone & Glass
Although stone is a hard, cold material, it has consistently been seen as desirable. Why is this the case? We’ll see how the many textures and colours of stone affect the appearance of buildings. Glass has been described by one architect as “a seemingly magical product.” Once used almost exclusively for windows, it is now common to see entire buildings sheathed in glass. This material can play with our perception of a building.

WEEK 7 Feb. 23 Proportion
In architecture, proportion comprises comparative relationships among various elements of a building’s surface and between individual elements of the whole building. It is a particularly subtle – yet important – aspect of a building’s façade. Various systems have been used by Western architects to regulate the proportions of buildings and seek the magic formula for pleasing design. You can judge the success or failure of a selection of systems illustrated in this lecture.

WEEK 8 Mar. 2 Variety & Complexity
Perceptual experience and pleasure are usually enhanced through variety and complexity in architecture. People enjoy looking at buildings which reward observation with interesting and even surprising elements. A homogenous, uniform façade does not trigger our natural curiosity. We like to make more visual discoveries as we approach a work of architecture. We’ll examine how some Modern architecture failed in this important regard.

WEEK 9      Mar. 9      Materials: Metal & Concrete
These two manufactured materials have often been considered unappealing and cold by members of the public. Various metals have been used for building exteriors, and their finishes range from somewhat raw to highly finished. Concrete was seen as a material of the future in the early 1900s, but was later derided (few people admired the “concrete jungle”). We’ll see some imaginative architectural uses of metal and concrete that may surprise you.

WEEK 10 Mar. 16 Beauty
Widely considered a subjective concept, some maintain it is feasible – and essential – to explore the role of beauty in people’s experience of architecture. Our final topic raises many questions, including how important is it for people to find buildings that they may never enter or use beautiful? How can architects make their buildings beautiful when there are many different criteria for beauty? We’ll look at images of buildings that have been considered by many to be beautiful or ugly.