Phenomenology in architecture can be understood as an aspect of philosophy researching into the experience of built space, and as shorthand for architectural phenomenology, a historical architectural movement.
The phenomenology of architecture is the philosophical study of architecture as it appears in experience. In contrast, architectural phenomenology is a movement within architecture beginning in the 1950s, reaching its apogee in the late 1970s and 1980s, and continuing until today, which is both intellectual and an aesthetic in character. Architectural phenomenology, with its emphasis on architecture as a human experience that is historically contingent, stood in sharp contrast to the anti-historicism of postwar modernism. As a movement, it helped give new legitimacy to idea that historical buildings contained valuable experiential lessons for contemporary designers. The emphasis on history was a challenge to postwar modern architecture which eventually led to Postmodern architecture.
American architects first started seriously studying phenomenology at Princeton University in the 1950s under Prof. Jean Labatut, whose student Charles W. Moore was the first to write a PhD dissertation, titled Water and Architecture (1958), that drew heavily on the philosophy of Gaston Bachelard. In Europe, Milanese architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers, through his influential editorship of the journal Casabella Continuità helped to advance architectural phenomenology in Europe. He collaborated with philosopher Enzo Paci, and influenced a generation of young architects including Vittorio Gregotti and Aldo Rossi. By the 1970s, the Norwegian architect, theorist and historian Christian Norberg-Schulz achieved international acclaim with his book “Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture” (1979), which was markedly influenced by Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic ontology. Christian Norberg-Schulz was, for many architecture students of the 1980s, an important reference in architectural phenomenology, especially because the combination of texts and images in his books provided readily accessible explanations for how a phenomenological approach to architecture could be translated into designs. Norberg-Schulz spawned a wide following, including his successor at the Oslo School of Architecture, Thomas Thiis-Evensen. In the 1970s, the School of Comparative Studies at the University of Essex, under the influence of Dalibor Vesely and Joseph Rykwert, was the breeding ground for a generation of architectural phenomenologists, which included David Leatherbarrow, professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, professor of architectural history at McGill University, and the “architect” Daniel Libeskind. In the 1980s, the phenomenological approach to architecture was continued and further developed by Vesely and his colleague Peter Carl in their research and teaching at the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge. As architectural phenomenology became established in academia, professors developed theory seminars that tried to expand the movement’s range of ideas beyond Gaston Bachelard, and Martin Heidegger, to include Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer Hannah Arendt and an ever wider group of theorists whose modes of thinking bordered on phenomenology, such as Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, and Paul Virilio (urban planner).
See the works of Christian Norberg-Schulz and Nader El-Bizri
See the work of Jean Labatut
See the work of Charles W. Moore
See the work of Kenneth Frampton
Building materials in their sensory aspects
See the work of Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow
The phenomenon of dwelling was a central research theme in architectural phenomenology. Much of the way it was understood in architecture was shaped by the later thought of Martin Heidegger as set in his influential essay: “Building Dwelling Thinking.” He links dwelling to what he refers as the “gathering of the fourfold,” namely the regions of being as entailed by the phenomena of: “the saving of earth, the reception of sky (heavens), the initiation of mortals into their death, and the awaiting/remembering of divinities.” The essence of dwelling is not architectural, per se, in the same manner that the essence of technology for him is not technological per se.
Influence in practice
Prominent architects, such as Daniel Libeskind Steven Holl and Peter Zumthor are described by Juhani Pallasmaa as current practitioners of the phenomenology of architecture. In more recent years the phenomenological orientation in architectural thinking has been reinforced through the research of a new generation of younger architectural phenomenologist, such as the philosopher-architect Nader El-Bizri, who is a Heideggerian scholar with extensive works in phenomenology and commentaries on Khôra, and a metaphysician in his own right, or via the practice of the academic-architect Adam Sharr in Britain.
Notable architects associated with architectural phenomenology include:
Ernesto Nathan Rogers
Charles W. Moore
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