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Critical Phenomenology

Book cover: Architecture's Historical TurnOne of the latest products of Columbia University’s formidable factory of theory is Jorge Otero-Pailos’ book Architecture’s Historical Turn [1] which threatens to overturn at least two longstanding conventions. One is that the rise of postmodernism in architecture was mainly due to the influence of structural-linguistic and semiotic models of meaning and communication; the other is that phenomenology is a dangerously conservative, a-social, and even solipsistic discourse.

In the first of four engagingly intimate personal case-studies that form the major part of the book, Otero-Pailos considers the career of French-born and Beaux-Arts trained architect and academic Jean Labatut (1899-1986). After establishing the first PhD programme in architecture at Princeton University in 1949, Labatut is credited with the creation of a new academic archetype: the ‘architect-historian’, someone trained first as a designer and only later as a scholar. It could be argued that the schism that resulted from this is still with us in academia today, in the tension that often exists between trained architects who go on to study history and art-historians who study art and then later specialise in architecture. In Labatut’s time the field was dominated by the latter in the shape of figures such as Nikolaus Pevsner and Vincent Scully.

Labatut was also well known as a practitioner in the area of both exhibition and church design, where his success was born of an interest in both the experiential and communicative aspects of architectural space. Having previously worked as a French army artist camouflaging ships during World War I, he was particularly attuned to the visual effects of movement in three-dimensional space. Within the narrative of the book Labatut is most notable for the academic lineage that he established at Princeton, supervising students who went on to become key figures in the rise of postmodernism in North America such as Charles Moore and Robert Venturi. Princeton at this time was marked by the strong influence of phenomenological and existentialist ideas, partly through its popularity with students from catholic schools and colleges – the key places of academic sanctuary for what were seen as dangerously left-leaning philosophies during the McCarthy-led purges of the 1950s. Chapter 3 looks in detail at the career of Charles Moore, whose PhD thesis on ‘Water and Architecture’ was directly inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s series of writings on the metaphorical significance of the archetypal four elements. [2] Moore went on to produce perhaps the key text introducing phenomenological ideas to architectural students in North America, Body, Memory and Architecture, written with his teaching colleague Kent Bloomer and published in 1977. [3]

Prior to this, as discussed in the following chapter, Christian Norberg-Schulz had also moved to America, taking up a teaching post at MIT where he came under the influence of Rudolf Arnheim, Gyorgy Kepes and Kevin Lynch. Although his first book Intentions in Architecture from 1965 [4] was mainly reliant on Gestalt psychology, his mature and more influential writings were based on the idea of Genius Loci, or spirit of place, inspired by the later work of Martin Heidegger on the poetic practices of dwelling. Throughout these publications Otero-Pailos points to a growing reliance on the use of visual images – both photographs and diagrams – to carry the main thrust of the narrative. Perhaps inspired by his teacher Sigfried Giedion’s famous use of the twin-slideshow lecture, this shift comes to fruition in the full-blown photo-essays of the 1979 book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, where the images attempt to engage the reader in a more directly visceral and embodied encounter. [5]

Recalling Labatut’s interest in the visual effects of camouflage, and Charles Moore’s use of anamorphosis and supergraphics in his 1960s house interiors, the notion of what Otero-Pailos calls ‘surplus experience’ becomes a key theme in the final chapter. In the writings of Kenneth Frampton (b. 1930) this idea also takes on a political significance, as part of his redefinition of what constitutes a work of architecture, as distinct from mere building. For Frampton what distinguishes the former is the capacity to engage with a public realm beyond the immediate confines of the individual building, offering something extra to the wider polis that exceeds the narrow technical and functional requirements of the architect’s programmatic brief.

In biographical terms Otero-Pailos traces these concerns back to Frampton’s early upbringing and the influence of his father’s work as both a building contractor and a joiner. Allied to his later reading of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt – particularly her key distinction between (essential) labour as mindless toil and (surplus) work as self-realisation – Frampton attempts to identify an intrinsic connection between what the critic Fredric Jameson has described as the ‘tactile, tectonic and telluric’ dimensions of architectural experience. [6] In each instance Frampton suggests that architecture is able to offer the user something extra, a connotation of ‘excess’ or overflowing that might threaten the established order. Through its exaggerated materiality and its articulated tectonics the building invites a heightened level of sensory engagement which emphasises the importance of the here-and-now. Likewise in its suppression of generic imported technologies and forms in favour of locally sourced alternatives. Clearly a ‘regionalist’ approach is implied here in this relation to the specifics of place, but to what extent it really deserves to be called ‘critical’ is still left open to debate.

While this idea of excess could be accepted as political in the ‘weak’ sense – suggesting some kind of generalised disruptive force aimed at destabilising the status quo – it is perhaps more difficult to substantiate the claim that it is also political in the strong sense, in terms of promoting a specific political programme like two of Frampton’s early sources of inspiration: the progressive politics of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Russian Constructivists of the 1920s. Unlike, for example, the work of Russian cinematographer Dziga Vertov whose celebration of the tectonics of film also tried to educate the novice director in the practicalities of movie-making, it is less clear what new freedoms are meant to follow from Frampton’s much-vaunted ‘architecture of resistance’. [7]

My own reading of Frampton’s preoccupation with the ‘critical’ as a bridge between the private realm and the public, involves the phenomenological idea that individual subjectivity actually emerges from collective experience. Echoing the Bakhtinian notion that all individual voices are originally abstracted from dialogues, [8] this idea provides another link back to phenomenology via one of Merleau-Ponty’s final statements. [9] In describing the ‘flesh of the world’ as that primordial realm of collective subjectivity from which we gradually learn to identify ourselves as individual embodied subjects, Merleau-Ponty also reminded us that there is nothing immediate about so-called ‘immediate bodily experience’. If even embodied experience involves the acquisition of skills and habits in learning how to perceive the world around us, this process must inevitably take place within a social and cultural framework that always exists before us. To understand experience we therefore cannot simply begin with the sovereign individual ‘reaching out’ towards the world – we must at the same time begin with the socio-political world ‘reaching in’ towards the emerging individual.

It is here perhaps that we can redefine the ‘critical’ as the point where the ethical and the aesthetic begin to coincide, by recalling an idea that I remember once hearing Peter Smithson declare in a lecture: “A building’s first responsibility is to the fabric of which it forms a part.” To which I would want to add: a fabric both physical and social.


[1] J. Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
[2] G. Bachelard: The Psychoanalysis of Fire, trans. A. C. M. Ross, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964; Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. E. R. Farrell and C. F. Farrell, Dallas TX: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988; Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. E. R. Farrell, Dallas TX: Dallas Institute Publications, 1983; Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. K. Haltman, Dallas TX: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002.
[3] C. Moore and K. Bloomer, Body, Memory and Architecture, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1977.
[4] C. Norberg-Schulz, Intentions in Architecture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965.
[5] C. Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, New York: Rizzoli, 1980.
[6] F. Jameson, “The Constraints of Postmodernism”, in The Seeds of Time, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 189-205.
[7] K. Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. H. Foster, Seattle WA: Bay Press, 1983, pp. 16-30.
[8] M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist, Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1981.
[9] M. Merleau-Ponty, “The Intertwining – The Chiasm”, in The Visible and the Invisible, trans. A. Lingis, Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968, pp. 130-155.


I am grateful to Roger Connah for suggesting the term ‘critical phenomenology’ (Personal communication, Terrazzo del Giardino, May 2012)

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


4 thoughts on “Critical Phenomenology

  1. Great essay! Evolution of phenomenology in theory of architecture an interest of mine, learned a lot here. Wigley also made argument that phenomenology is reactionary in a Threshold article, I think this not in its DNA, but how it’s applied by some, reactionary-liberal binary needs to be retired anyway – Another source of proto- phenomenology is J B Jackson’s 1950s-60s journal (Landscape?) – early writings on place by Moore and others.

    Posted by Don Armstrong | September 7, 2013, 8:41 pm
  2. This is very strange timing – I’m at an airport waiting to board for a workshop in Vienna on hapticality and texture. Before checking your blog out I *just* downloaded Frampton’s essay ‘Rappel a l’ordre’ from the collection Architecturally Speaking. The subtitle of this essay is: ‘The case for the tectonic’. Interesting how you place his upbringing into the frame – his father’s work encompassing the planning as well as the building, where _tekton_ in Greek is both…? It is an absolute coincidence that I just stumbled upon Frampton at the same time as this blog entry then; also I think there is much here to think about what the uptake of phenomenology has done in the past (Bloomer and Moore’s volume that you mention was one of those books that opened up an early portal into this area, for example), but I’d like to know more about the genealogy into what you’re identifying as a ‘critical phenomenology’ – I’ll have to read around your blog more and subscribe for new posts – that comment about Merleau-Ponty, that there’s nothing ‘immediate’ about bodily experience, might attest to this – that attending to early twentieth century findings at the crossover between psychology and art history is also potentially productive as a proto-phenomenology – e.g. Wolfflin?

    Posted by Mark | February 17, 2014, 10:10 pm
    • Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments. I am still working on building a more robust argument for what I’m calling ‘Critical Phenomenology’. As far as a genealogy goes, my starting point was to try and understand something of the debt owed by Bourdieu to Merleau-Ponty’s (and Husserl’s) notion of the habitus. The term itself I owe to John O’Neill’s book ‘The Communicative Body’, and the project overall also owes a lot to the social theories of Nick Crossley and Ian Burkitt.
      I’d be interested to hear any other thoughts you might have.

      Posted by bodyoftheory | February 17, 2014, 10:44 pm

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