Zinc, Bats, Yuan, Carbon-Fibre

Municipal Bat Roost, San Antonio, Texas, 1914 via shorpy

‘Phenomenological’ architecture emerged in the nineties as a response to an increasingly cerebral and abstract brand of architecture which privileged meaning, process, and the authorial operation of the architect over daily use, materiality, and the sensory experience of architecture’s occupants. Since then it has run as a strong parallel stream to that of digital formalism; offering an alternative for those who find the latter barren and technofetishist (or more cynically, those who don’t know how to work a computer). Phenomenological architecture is often lauded as more humane than its alternatives.

But Phenomenological architecture is open to the same kind of criticisms as the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Phenomenology, by nature, privileges the relation of human and world in a way that causes the universe to fall neatly into two parts. The relation between a person and a table is of an inherently different type to the relation between a glacier and mountain-range. Phenomenology has nothing to say about the latter, except insofar as it is given in human consciousness. In fact, it has nothing to say about any relation that does not involve a human as one of its terms. The result of this is that glaciers, ultraviolet radiation, mesons, and apple trees are reduced to human stimulants. Juhani Pallasmaa’s excellent and influential essay The Eyes of the Skin (2005) exemplifies this. The entire second part is dedicated to cataloguing the diverse ways that the body can be affected architecturally: pressing against the skin, darkening the eyes or glaring at them, pacing the body’s rhythms, echoing in the ears, persisting in the nostrils, resisting the muscles. Pallasmaa offers an embodied theory of architecture, aligning with Merleau-Ponty’s embodied philosophy. But as Merleau-Ponty does, Pallasmaa places architecture between person and world. He writes:

“Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses” (Pallasmaa, 2005: 72)

The universe is severed into human and world by the concept of mediation. Merleau-Ponty’s language of organic unity (“our body is in the world as the heart is in the organism”; Pallasmaa, 2005: 40) denies this schism, but only by centralising the human, and according the human-world relation greater significance than any other relation. This is why, although I have great respect for the phenomenological perspective for pragmatic reasons, and I greatly admire work of so-called Phenomenological architects like Zumthor and Holl; I cannot see Phenomenological architecture as any kind of comprehensive theory. Architecture is, in fact, part of a proliferation of relations; many of which are human, but many of which are not. Phenomenological architecture has little to say about the relation between, say, the zinc used in galvanising steel and the contamination of the Derwent River in Tasmania; or between bats and belfries; or between the yuan and China’s expanding High-Speed-Rail network; or between strands of carbon-fibre.

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