Phenomenology (architecture)

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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.[1]

Historical Development[edit]

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.[2] In Europe, Milanese architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers, through his influential editorship of the journal Casabella Continuità helped to advance architectural phenomenology in Europe.[3] He collaborated with philosopher Enzo Paci, and influenced a generation of young architects including Vittorio Gregotti and Aldo Rossi.[4] 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.[5][6][7] Christian Norberg-Schulz was, for many architecture students of the 1980s, an important reference in architectural phenomenology,[8] 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.[9] 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,[10] and Martin Heidegger, to include Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty,[11] 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).

Key Themes[edit]


See the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz


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[12]


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[edit]

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:

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.
  • Nader El-Bizri, 'On Dwelling: Heideggerian Allusions to Architectural Phenomenology', Studia UBB Philosophia 60 (2015)pp. 5–30.
  • 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. ^ Otero-Pailos, Jorge (2010). Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816666041. 
  2. ^ Otero-Pailos, Jorge (2010). Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern. University of Minnesota Press. p. 102. ISBN 9780816666041. 
  3. ^ Jorge Otero-Pailos, Theorizing the Anti-Avant-Garde: Invocations of Phenomenology in Architectural Discourse, 1945-1989, (Ph.D. Dissertation: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001)
  4. ^ Vittorio Gregotti and Jorge Otero-Pailos, "Interview with Vittorio Gregotti: The Role of Phenomenology in the Formation of the Italian Neo-Avant-Garde," in Thresholds, n. 21 (Fall 2000), 40-46
  5. ^ Mark JarzombekThe Psychologizing of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  6. ^ He also wrote Intentions in Architecture (1963)
  7. ^ For example, Martin Heidegger's essay "Building Dwelling Thinking", 1951
  8. ^ A Norwegian, he graduated from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich in 1949 and eventually became Dean of the Oslo School of Architecture.
  9. ^ see Thomas Thiis-Evensen, Archetypes in Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)
  10. ^ Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space (1958)
  11. ^ Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (English version 1962)
  12. ^ Mohsen Mostafavi, and David Leatherbarrow, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (1993)