Exercise: Observation

| July 2, 2016

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Observation and engagement of the senses are the keys to gathering data, and this simple exercise will help you hone both skills. Ideally, you will perform this exercise in a public place outdoors or in a city. While it is possible to do the exercise within your own home (or even in an outside space near your home, such as a yard), it is best done in a setting with which you are not familiar. This exercise has four components, each of which should take you between five and 10 minutes. You should also have a notepad or other device for writing down your thoughts and impressions. You should perform this exercise alone, but you may have someone nearby if you feel like you need to have someone you trust close by. Ensure that this person will not interrupt you or break your focus. Be safe and be careful.

 

Begin the exercise by selecting a place with which you are relatively unfamiliar. You should choose a place where someone will not interrupt you; likewise, you should choose a place where you will feel safe.

 

Some possible places for this exercise:

 

a public park

a waiting room or lounge

a friend’s home or yard

a public building, such as a museum

a church or cemetery

a public square

a beach or nature preserve

Do not feel you need to choose a remote or far-off place; this exercise can be effective in almost any setting.

 

Stand in a safe spot where you will not block pedestrian or automotive traffic. Take the time to find the right spot where you can stand safely and comfortably.

 

Next, close your eyes. You might need to cover your eyes with a hand if it is bright outdoors. Take a deep breath and listen. Pay close attention to the sounds around you. What are you near? What is happening close to you? Are birds flying? Are dogs barking or playing? Is traffic going by? Do you hear voices, near or far? Children making noise? Machinery working, or simply the wind blowing? Pay attention to how sound moves and how it flows through and echoes off of walls and buildings. You can even form a sort of sound map in your head. It’s likely that there is no real silence. Even if they occur far away, sounds are still happening. After a few minutes, open your eyes. Take this time to record your impressions and thoughts, not only about what you experienced, but also about the experience of observing with your sense of hearing.

 

Continuing the exercise, find another spot near your original one. Start again by finding a safe and comfortable place to stand. Again, close your eyes and take a deep breath. This time, sniff the air. Smell your environment. What scents surround you? Can you smell the city around you? If there is traffic, can you smell the exhaust? Can you smell the green of the plants around you, or the soil? What about the people around you? Can you tell if any of them are wearing perfumes or colognes? Can you smell the moisture in the air, or identify the current weather based on smell alone? If a smell interests you, you may open your eyes and pursue it in order to get closer to an object. As before, take a few minutes to observe and record your impressions of both your senses and the act of sensing.

 

The third portion should begin with the same steps: Find another spot, select a safe and comfortable place to stand, close your eyes, and take a breath. If you are in a grassy area, consider going barefoot. Now, feel the world around you. Your feet are in contact with the ground—is it moving at all? Vibrating? What is the texture of the surface on which you stand? Firm concrete? Sliding sand? Soft earth? Are you on a moving surface? Now open your eyes and find something you have never touched before. Examine it with your hands. Is the texture smooth or rough? What is its temperature? Is it dusty or clean? Of what substance is it composed? What does it feel like? After a few minutes, record your impressions. Clean your hands, if necessary.

 

Repeat the same steps one more time. This time, after you take your deep breath, open your eyes. See the world around you. Notice the shapes of the structures near you and your position relative them and other buildings. If there are people near you, look at them and note what they are doing. Look at the trees and plants. Are there any animals close? Insects? Examine them closely if you can. Pay attention to the buildings around you—do they shine? Are they lit? Can you see into them or through them? Spend a few minutes observing with your sense of vision and record your impressions. Use the appropriate Discussion topic to relate your experiences and post your observations.

 

This is an excellent exercise with which to begin any process of understanding a given building. Architectural programming starts with understanding the physical spaces within a building, and we experience those spaces through our senses. Architects often see the world and their buildings through professional representation—on a drawing board, through plans, on a computer screen, and so on. It is easy to habitually visualize buildings through these specialized lenses. However, most people using our buildings will never see a section or construction document, and will instead experience the space through their senses. Activating and using our senses allows for a greater amount of information about a space to be available for us to use, making us better designers.

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Principles of Geographical Inquiry

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