PhD by published work

Architectural Interpretation: Philosophy, Technology, Embodiment

[Abstract of PhD by Published Work, submitted July 2008]

Taken together, this collection of publications offers an original contribution to what I would claim is an emerging field of ‘embodied architectural hermeneutics’. It is my contention that a theory of architectural interpretation must be grounded in a thorough understanding of the role of the body in the experience of space. As the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty famously described, our ‘primordial encounter’ with the world inevitably takes place through the medium of the lived body. I believe this observation has profound implications for architectural theory and criticism but until now these have remained under-explored and poorly understood.

The studies are presented here in two groups. In Part I the primary objective is to critically review the possibilities and limits of the recently dominant interpretive frameworks mainly drawn from philosophy, cultural theory and literary criticism. In Part II the aim is to outline a new embodied approach to architectural criticism based on the philosophical legacy of phenomenology – including its recent re-evaluation and resurgence within the disciplines of cognitive psychology, the computer sciences and the philosophy of technology. The phenomenological analysis of the embodied experience of technology highlighted in Part I is developed and applied in Part II in the context of two distinct areas of architectural production: buildings and exhibitions. These studies employ a variety of research methods, including written analysis and practice-led ‘research by design’, in order to explore a range of possible applications of the embodied approach to architectural interpretation. They also begin to address the broader implications of architectural experience in contributing to our sense of self and the extent to which the designed environment could be seen as both an extension or projection of the self into the world and likewise as an extension of the social and cultural world towards the self.

Part I begins with the single-authored book Building Ideas which provides a critical survey of contemporary hermeneutic practices in the field of architectural theory and criticism. The book describes and analyses the major interpretive frameworks employed in the field during the second half of the twentieth century and also presents their key historical and philosophical sources. A series of recent buildings are referred to as examples of how these approaches might be employed as interpretive strategies in architectural criticism, highlighting their possibilities and limitations, together with areas of conflict or complementarity. Based on the model of other recent texts in literary and cultural theory, geography and material culture, the book makes an original contribution to the field in calling for a stronger engagement with debates in related disciplines in developing a more rigorous and theoretically informed approach to architectural criticism and design.

The book Ends Middles Beginnings is a critical interpretation of the work of Edward Cullinan Architects, covering built and unbuilt projects from the early days of the practice in the 1960s to the present, focussing especially on work completed in the last ten years which has not been published previously in book form. The text also undertakes an original thematic analysis of the Cullinan design approach, and is structured around phenomenological and technological themes such as ‘Territories’, ‘Place Making’, ‘Cave and Horizon’, and ‘The Art of Making Buildings’. It concludes by situating the work of the practice in a broader theoretical context, drawing out the relationships between their approach to the handling of form and material (based on the physical and sensory enjoyment of the process of construction) and the political implications of their concern with sustainability, participation and user engagement.

The co-edited publication Rethinking Technology provides a survey of architectural literature published over the last 100 years on the impact of technology on the making and meaning of buildings. Focussing especially on the writings of architects – plus a number of urban and cultural theorists – it includes several essays and extracts that specifically address the relationship between technology and the body, drawing on the phenomenological analysis of technology developed by Martin Heidegger. Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty describe the traditional hand-tool as an extension of the body and I believe this notion can usefully be expanded to the scale of equipment, furniture and buildings. I go on to argue in the publications included in Part II that this embodied understanding of technology has implications for architecture in at least two distinct ways: during the process of construction and also in the act of inhabitation.

Each of the publications in Part II makes an original contribution to the field of ‘embodied architectural hermeneutics’, by focussing on the ways in which meaning emerges from the various relationships between architecture and the body. In addition to the links between buildings and their makers (evidenced when the traces of the construction process are expressed in the finished building), and the encounter between buildings and their users (recorded in the gradual erosion caused by repeated patterns of movement and occupation), the body also plays a significant role in the way in which buildings are represented: firstly in the embodied act of drawing carried out during the design process and secondly in the ways in which buildings are ‘reproduced’ and interpreted through the medium of architectural photographs, publications and exhibitions.

To read the full abstract (10,000 words) please click on this link to download a PDF:

Hale, J., Architectural Interpretation: Philosophy, Technology, Embodiment, (unpublished abstract of PhD by Published Work), University of Nottingham, 2008.


Part I

Hale, J., Building Ideas: An Introduction to Architectural Theory, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2000, pp242. ISBN 0-471-85194-9.

Hale, J., Ends Middles Beginnings: Edward Cullinan Architects, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005, pp288. ISBN 1-904772-17-X.

Braham, W., & Hale, J., (eds), Rethinking Technology: A Reader in Architectural Theory, Abingdon: Routledge, 2007, pp466. ISBN 0-415-34654-1.


Hale, J., “Signs of Resistance: Re-membering Technology,” in Journal of Architecture, Vol. 5, No 1, Spring 2000, pp91-97. ISSN 1360-2365.

Hale, J., “Gottfried Semper’s Primitive Hut as an Act of Self-Creation,” in ARQ (Architectural Research Quarterly) Vol 9/1, 2005, pp45-49. ISSN 1359-1355. Reprinted as “Gottfried Semper’s Primitive Hut: Duration, Construction and Self-Creation,” in Primitive: Original Matters in Architecture, edited by Jo Odgers, Flora Samuel and Adam Sharr, London: Routledge, 2006, pp55-62. ISBN 0-415-38539-3.

Hale, J., “Architecture and the Body: Materiality, Movement and Meaning,” in MAJA: Estonian Architectural Review, Kirjastus MAJA OÜ, December 2006. ISSN 1023-0742.

Hale, J., &  Schnädelbach, H., “Moving City: Curating Architecture on Site,” in Proceedings of the 4th AHRA Annual International Conference: Architecture, Urbanism and Curatorship, Kingston University, 17-18 November 2007. Reprinted in Curating Architecture and the City, edited by Chaplin. S., & Stara, A., Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.



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