You don’t need anything but your eyes and your hands. You will not need books anymore. Nothing secondary will help. They will distract you. They have been distracting you since a long time. In front of you will be only the work of architecture, waiting for you to discover it, and to learn from it. How to vary the focus of our eyes? How to vary the ways we use and move our fingers? Observation is a craft, so we need to practice it.
What do you like the most? That’s not a silly question at all. Start with asking that. Observation is personal. It cares only to you. What you learn from it means only to you. And you don’t need to show that you know. What you know it’s yours, and this is good. You have to do what pleases you. Sometimes, what you are good at is not enough if it doesn’t please you.
What do you like the most about that building? What draws your attention? What intrigues you? What awakens your curiosity? Follow your instincts. They will guide you. They are the best guides you could ever have.
The great humanist Richard Sennett says that
“it’s a fundamental principle for us as designers that the nature of the thing is made in advance of our understanding of it.”
He knows, as many others, that practice precedes knowledge, action precedes consciousness. So we will leave understanding, knowledge and consciousness in their second moment, and we will focus on practice and action towards the nature of things –in our case, towards the work of architecture–.
I like to think about observation as the growth of a tree. It may be a stupid metaphor, but I think it’s a good and precise one. Every step you take towards the work is a branch you are forming and also an invisible root that grows without your awareness of it. So every step you take is also a step back. The more you move forward the more you stay still. It’s important to be aware that the roots go deep because the branches lengthen themselves. But also the contrary occurs: the branches grow high because the roots are digging down. Both movements are occurring at the same time. And more important: you are the cause of both growths; you are creating both visible and invisible parts of your own self.
If you think in you as a growing tree, the work of architecture that you wish to observe need to provide you four things: a ground, with nutrients, water, and sun. You will notice if there is something lacking: you will probably feel unmotivated. If you find a solid ground, good nutrients, fresh water and warm sun, you will progress fast. The good difference about a tree is that, unlike it, you can move, you can search for those things, and when you find them, you will know. You will know, which means: you will not need to prove it to anyone, you will not need to demonstrate anything.
Let’s observe. As I said before, observe what you want, what motivates you. Rise questions with ‘what’ and ‘how’. Those are the pronouns that lead to the nature of things. On the contrary, ‘why’ will easily lead you to those aspects related to knowledge and consciousness, and you will easily fill your mind with prejudices. Start by asking ‘what is this?’ To answer that you will need to explore each part of the work. What are the elements that compound it? What is each element and how they relate to each other? What are they made of? Most of questions are in the present tense: the work that you are observing is in the present tense; it is present, even in absence or in farness. But there are also questions in the past tense. They are more fragile to hand. They will ask for your imagination. You will need to imagine the process of formation of the work: a past event. But you will need to be loyal to it, otherwise you will discover just yourself, thinking that you are discovering the work. That’s a very subtle task.
Your answers to those questions should be drawings, sketches; and also words. The words seek for the invisible part of things. Remember: they are just a medium to discover the work. A discovery through you. You are another medium. The sketches and words are not to be shown, they are yours, and that’s it. Draw as you like. What’s the work? Draw that. What compounds it? Draw that. Make appointments of what you see and, mainly, of what you don’t see. Observation is a personal journey towards to see the reality as it is, through our own eyes.