image is not experience


Photographers often deserve more credit than architects.

Am I right that other languages have a myriad of words to describe increasing degrees of knowledge? The English language cheats us of this.

As I ride the train returning from this year’s AIA Convention in Philadelphia (#AIACON16), I am thinking about my week and what stood out the most. It seems that words cannot capture what can only be known in person.


Therefore, I should start by stating that despite the several years of knowing (from blogging and all other forms of social media) a team of talented and intelligent architect friends from around the country, I can now proudly say I know them. Our several meetings and celebrations in person simply cement the point that is manifested in my discussion of architecture. Architecture is like relationships – so much better in person.


I love photography; I’ve been an amateur since I was fifteen years old. The image can profoundly tell a story – which is why I enjoy Instagram more than most other social media forms. Photography can be evocative for many emotions. Despite my love of the graphic image, it only engages the eyes. Being present in a space has more capacity to be a redolent trigger of memories or the creation of memories.


During this past week, thousands of architects took time to visit structures in person that they may have never known apart from glossy pages. Perhaps they returned to a place they cherish like an old friend to experience it again. Either way, we leave Philly with a particular awareness and a deeper cognition of those structures and places.


Architecture can only truly be experienced in person. Sure, we’re mesmerized by the carefully cropped images, but these illusions often lie about the true quality of the building, space, or neighborhood. Our eyes need to see the quality of the light in person, rather than how a photographer chose to tell the story. When all (or more) of our senses are involved, we can accurately assess or judge architecture. With only images, we might be pleased by an image, but can we truly have an accurate opinion of the work?


There is no substitute for the real thing – and in one of my visits, it did not disappoint. As I walked around, slowly and methodically, I could begin to speculate the intent and strategy of the architects. Simply mind blowing. A narrative was developing in my mind as the story revealed itself in what I saw, what I heard and what I could smell. I felt the materials with my hands, and I sensed the space as I ascended and descended the stairs, and as I walked outside to the courtyard. Had I gotten the last sense involved, you would have either mocked me relentlessly or called to send me away. The experience was truly a gift and one I’ll never forget. I likened it to something spiritual. My images don’t or can’t convey that. I recommend starting by seeing the professional images and commentary by the architects here, then take a visit and see it in person.




The week was full of great experiences, so I can’t limit it to one afternoon of being in a world famous museum. Even some of the dives where I ate lent a type of experience that added to my memory. Those shared with friends made it all the more important.

My architect friends can attest that you need to experience architecture – in person. Perhaps the reason you suffer from ambivalence or a lack of interest in the built environment around you is due to your lack of interaction with architecture. Furthermore, forget about any fascination with celebrities whom you don’t know and fill your life with your actual friends and family. Put your device down some time and look around you – at real things and real people, real places. This line of thinking is not limited to museums or even to traveling. It involves your community where you live, worship and shop.

  • Are you planning to renovate your home? Why have you only tagged images online or dog eared pages in this month’s copy of Dwell? Have you wondered where you could see similar ideas in person? Tell your architect how you want to feel in your house as much or more than giving them pictures of things you want to see in your house.
  • Are you involved in renovating your church or school? Where have you visited that can lend first-hand knowledge of other’s good decisions (or bad decisions)? Discuss with your architect ways the space can make a better learning or worshiping environment.
  • Are you thinking about making a few changes to your retail store or coffee shop? Where else have you visited to inform your preferences or initial ideas? Tell your architect how your business runs so they can develop spatial and material choices to enhance the experience for your staff or customers.
  • Where do you vacation? Maybe you need to reconsider your plans – I’ll leave it at that.

If you innocently or naively believe architecture is about buildings, bricks, function, or fixtures, you have missed out on so much. Architecture is about experience and it’s about people.

This is why you hire an architect.


image is not experience

5 thoughts on “image is not experience

  1. seanjtobin says:

    Nice post, Lee. Love the photos, and I completely agree with you – visiting a place in person is so much more rewarding and eye-opening than just seeing the photos.

  2. Andrew Hawkins says:

    Great photos Lee. You were able to get a few places I did not make it to visit. Experience of place definitely goes beyond imagery.

  3. I’m just starting out in Architecture as I wrap up my Naval career (hence my name). Your post reminds me of something my mother told me. My mom used to be a professor of anthropology, who had an MArch student take her introductory ethnographic techniques class. She initially wondered why an architect would take such a course, but then realized it was a great fit. Ethnography is all about studying other people, how they interact, move through space etc. etc. I wonder if there should not be more of that in architectural education.

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