Phenomenology (architecture)

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Phenomenology is both a current of philosophy influencing contemporary architecture and a field of academic research into the experience of built space and of building materials in their sensory aspects.

In phenomenology, the environment is concretely defined as "the place", and the things which occur there "take place". The place is not so simple as the locality, but consists of concrete things which have material substance, shape, texture, and color, and together coalesce to form the environment's character, or atmosphere. It is this atmosphere which allows certain spaces, with similar or even identical functions, to embody very different properties, in accord with the unique cultural and environmental conditions of the place which they exist. Phenomenology is conceived as a "return to things", maneuvering away from the abstractions of science and its neutral objectivity. Phenomenology absorbs the concept of subjectivity, making the thing and its unique conversations with its place the relevant topic and not the thing itself. The man-made components of the environment become the settlements of differing scales, some large—like cities, and some small—like the house. The paths between these settlements and the various elements which create the cultural environment become the secondary defining characteristics of the place. The distinction of natural and man-made offers us the first step in the phenomenological approach. The second is to qualify inside and outside, or the relationship of earth-sky. The third and final step is to assess character, or how things are made and exist as participants in their environment.

Beginning in the 1970s, phenomenology, with a marked influence from the writings of Martin Heidegger,[1] began to have a major impact on contemporary architectural theory. 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.

However, the philosophical writings of phenomenologists such as Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Hans-Georg Gadamer were perhaps not as accessible to the student of architecture as Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (1958) or Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (English version 1962). Christian Norberg-Schulz was, for many architecture students of the 1980s, an important figure in this movement.[2] His book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1980) provided a readily accessible explanation of a phenomonological approach to architecture and was widely read in architectural schools.[3][4] Thomas Thiis-Evensen, a follower of Norberg-Schulz, also contributed with the book Archetypes in Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

The phenomenon of dwelling has had a pivotal philosophical significance in phenomenology. This is especially the case with the way it is understood in the later thought of the German philosopher 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. His thinking had an impact beyond philosophical circles in what is now identified as architectural phenomenology in architectural theory. Dwelling carries additional phenomenological significance in the manner Gaston Bachelard addressed the poetics of architectural space.

Although interest in phenomenology has waned in more recent times, prominent architects, such as 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, or the academic-architect Adam Sharr in Britain.

Present-day architectural phenomenology has widened its scope to include theorists whose modes of thinking are bordering on phenomenology, such as Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson, and Paul Virilio (urban planner).

Notable architects of this academic movement include:

Bibliography (major works of this movement)[edit]

  • Nader El-Bizri, "'Qui êtes-vous Khôra?': Receiving Plato's Timaeus", Existentia Meletai-Sophias, Vol. XI, Issue 3–4 (2001), pp. 473–490
  • Nader El-Bizri, "ON KAI KHORA: Situating Heidegger between the Sophist and the Timaeus", Studia Phaenomenologica, Vol. IV, Issue 1–2 (2004), pp. 73–98.
  • Nader El-Bizri, "Ontopoiēsis and the Interpretation of Plato's Khôra", Analecta Husserliana: The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, Vol. LXXXIII (2004), pp. 25–45.
  • Nader El-Bizri, "Being at Home Among Things: Heidegger's Reflections on Dwelling", Environment, Space, Place Vol. 3 (2011)pp. 47–71.
  • Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997)
  • Deborah Hauptmann (Ed), The Body in Architecture (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2006)
  • Benoît Jacquet & Vincent Giraud (Eds), From the Things Themselves: Architecture and Phenomenology (Kyoto and Paris: Kyoto University Press and Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, 2012). ISBN 978-4-8769-8235-6
  • David Leatherbarrow, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time, with Mohsen Mostafavi (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1993)
  • Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1980)
  • Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (New York: Wiley, 1996/2005)
  • Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983)
  • Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1959)
  • Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996)
  • David Seamon & Robert Mugerauer (Eds), Dwelling, Place & Environment: Towards a Phenomenology of Person and World (Martinus Nijhoff 1985/Krieger Publishing 2000)
  • Dalibor Vesely, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004)


  1. ^ For example, his essay "Building Dwelling Thinking", 1951
  2. ^ A Norwegian, he graduated from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich in 1949 and eventually became Dean of the Oslo School of Architecture.
  3. ^ Mark JarzombekThe Psychologizing of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  4. ^ He also wrote Intentions in Architecture (1963)