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Making Sense in the Mid-Lands

The Sainsbury Centre

In a recent lecture at the University of Nottingham, David Leatherbarrow (University of Pennsylvania) set out what might be called – in an echo of his Philadelphia neighbours Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown – a ‘gentle manifesto’ for a not-too-complex-but-just-a-little-bit-contradictory approach to contemporary design. [1]

In a typically precise and measured delivery, and in language of exemplary clarity, Leatherbarrow set out to identify a productive middle-ground between what he sees as the currently fashionable extremes of ‘sense and non-sense’ in contemporary architecture. In a more direct reference to the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty the paper began by suggesting that non-sense should not be seen as something to be avoided, per se, but rather as a stage that must be passed through both in design and everyday experience: a necessary condition of the ‘beginning of meaning’, rather like the body’s pre-reflective ‘grip’ on the world that forms the basis of our subsequent attempts to understand it intellectually.

On one side of the equation Leatherbarrow pointed to three design approaches that suffered from an excess of rationality, showing examples of buildings that seemed to have been slavishly determined by either technical, historical or environmental factors. These included: Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre – a ‘highly serviced barn’; a Sicilian town destroyed by an earthquake and reconstructed stone-by-stone; and a ponderous piece of ‘green architecture’ which seemed to offer little except free energy. All of these approaches he claimed were guilty of neglecting broader cultural concerns. That is, where the rationality of the particular system (whether constructional or conceptual) appeared to override the rationality of the larger human project.

On the other side, and perhaps more surprisingly, Leatherbarrow took aim at some currently fashionable design preoccupations, again under three headings but this time more aesthetically oriented. The first was the ‘expressionist’ approach of Frank Gehry’s so-called iconic architecture, embodying a radical dislocation of space, structure and skin; the second was the minimalism of an Ando or a Pawson; and the third was the ‘sensualism’ of Diller and Scofidio’s Blur Building. In each case the question was posed as to whether the private enjoyment of the designer had closed off any meaningful engagement with a wider public.

In an attempt to find a middle-way between the ‘too clear’ and the ‘not clear enough’, Leatherbarrow then took us on a brief but thoughtful tour of the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn’s Hedmark Museum. Remarking on the sensitivity of the architect’s combination of new-build and restoration, Leatherbarrow delighted in the way the visitor’s journey was choreographed through the museum, providing a subtle narrative of unfolding experiences through a succession of walkways, ramps and bridges. This is a project that I once heard Peter Cook approvingly describe as a classic example of a ‘delving’ building, interrupting his lecture to mimic the route of the main walkway by leaping sideways across the stage. What it brought to mind here was another aspect of sensory experience that David Leatherbarrow did not develop in any detail, one which lies somewhere in that other middle-ground in architecture between the macro and the micro scales. In the space between the ‘iconic’ flourishes of Gehry’s napkin-sketch formalism and Carlo Scarpa’s often indigestibly forensic detailing there is a level of thinking that architects are notoriously reluctant (or ill-equipped) to explore – the ergonomic scale of everyday interaction between buildings and the bodies of their users. Ironically this is an area that is often left for other ‘experts’ to deal with, whether via the pseudo-scientific strictures of the New Metric Handbook or the prosaic pie-graphs of ‘post-occupancy evaluation’. But here, I would argue, is where architecture really begins to make sense, in the realm of what the psychologist James J. Gibson referred to as the ‘affordances’ offered by it. [2]

As Gibson – along with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger before him – described, we navigate through the world as a structured field of possibilities for action, within a framework of motor-perceptual expectations based on our previous bodily experiences. This ability is based on the range of bodily skills that we begin to develop in the first few years of life, by a combination of imitation and trial-and-error, much as we learn to speak our native language. As we continually refine these ‘bodily schemas’ through the course of our everyday dealings with the world, we are constantly striving to match our behaviour to what seems to be ‘called up’ by our situation. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has described in the concept of the habitus, the body is therefore able to act as the mediator of physical, social and cultural forces, which all become ‘encoded’ in patterns of behaviour that constitute a repertoire of responses to the world around us. [3]

A common criticism of phenomenology is that it appeared to want to return us to a time of a supposedly meaning-rich ‘primal oneness’, a time before our apparent alienation from the world brought about by the ‘modern project’. By contrast, it could also be argued that phenomenology today, in all its contemporary manifestations, allows us to confront the process by which meaning itself arises, and to consider this emergence historically across three distinctly different timescales: firstly, the phylogenetic (relating to the origins of the human species, and drawing on evolutionary psychology, cognitive archaeology, systems theory and cybernetics) [4]; secondly, the ontogenetic (concerning the individual, and drawing on developmental psychology); and thirdly in the experience of ‘the present moment’ as we perceive the world unfolding around us (drawing on cognitive psychology and neuroscience, including the new techniques of brain-imaging). This last idea suggests that at each moment we effectively re-stage the historical emergence of meaning out of our embodied interaction with the world, and it is this process that phenomenological description attempts to help us grasp, as it “seek(s) a philosophy which explains the upsurge of reason in a world not of its making..”. [5]

To return to the opening theme of the talk regarding the role of meaning in architecture, there was a final piece of advice that signalled a progressive and forward-looking message: wherever we try to situate ourselves as designers along the spectrum between sense and non-sense, we should at least be always aiming to ‘expand the limits of what had previously seemed sensible’. [6]


[1] R. Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
[2] J. J. Gibson, “The Theory of Affordances”, in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986, pp. 127-143.
[3] P. Bourdieu, “Structures, Habitus, Practices”, in The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990, pp. 52-65.
[4] See, for example: E. Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of the Mind, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2007.
[5] M. Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, trans. H. L. & P. A. Dreyfus, Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. x.
[6] D. Leatherbarrow, “Sense and Non-Sense in Contemporary Architecture”, lecture presented at Dept of Architecture & Built Environment, University of Nottingham, 6 March 2012 (sponsored by T&G).

About bodyoftheory

Jonathan Hale is an architect and Professor of Architectural Theory at the Department of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Nottingham. Currently Head of the research group Architecture, Culture and Tectonics, within the Faculty of Engineering. Research interests include: architectural theory and criticism; phenomenology; the philosophy of technology; the relationship between architecture and the body; museums, exhibitions and digital technologies. Author of numerous articles and books and co-editor of Rethinking Technology: a Reader in Architectural Theory (Routledge, 2007). Founding Chair of the international subject group: Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA): http://www.ahra-architecture.org


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