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Is phenomenology in architecture dead?

posted Jan 26, 2012, 9:02 AM by Patricia Martin   [ updated Jul 6, 2012, 3:11 AM ]

According to Jorge Otero-Pailos, phenomenology in architecture was the crucial movement for the development of the early stages of postmodern architecture (Otero-Pailos 2010). The emphasis on experience brought by architectural phenomenology originated a new way of looking to architectural history and theory: “Phenomenology appeared to them (architectural phenomenologist) as a potentially liberating re-framing of the age-old dyad of ‘man’ and his environment” (Otero-Pailos 2002, 13). Nevertheless, Otero-Pailos determines the dead of phenomenology in architecture in the late 1980’s, due to its attachment to a specific time in history and the singularity of the situation. This thesis has been refuted by other authors, such as Bryan E. Norwood, who defends that architectural phenomenology “can still have a productive future” (Norwood 2010-2011).

In philosophical terms, phenomenology is the interpretative study of human beings through their experiences in and of the world on an everyday life basis (Seamon 2000, Moran 2002). In other words, phenomenology seeks to describe the complexity of the experience through a better understanding of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. Because, as Dermot Moran states, “In this world, there is no objectivity without subjectivity” (Moran 2002, 22).

First stated by Husserl at the beginning of the XX century, phenomenology appeared as a reaction to the Cartesian method of analysis, which sees the world as subjects and objects acting and reacting upon one another. Cartesianism, as well as Rationalism, consider mind and body as detached entities and do not accept any knowledge derived from perception or sensory experience. Conversely, Husserl proposed a “return to things” away from the neutral objectivism and abstractions of science.

While Husserl highlighted consciousness as the essential constituent of phenomenology, following thinkers developed different attitudes towards the phenomenological method. For example, Martin Heidegger focused on the human experiences taking place in time and Maurice Merleau-Ponty emphasized the foundational role of perception in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world.

Nevertheless, the variations on styles and emphases of this knowledge have evolved in very different disciplines such as gender, anthropology, art, education, environmental design (Corner 1990; Mugerauer 1994), geography, psychology, social science and natural science. The relationship between architecture and phenomenology was first stated during the 1960’s, with Christian Norberg-Schulz (1926–2000) as the most influential representative of architectural phenomenology during the 1960s and 1970s. After him, many architects such as Steven Holl, Peter Zumthor and Juhani Pallasmaa have been identified (and self-identified) as architectural phenomenologists.

However, the adaptation of phenomenology to architecture has not been easy and sometimes even contradictory. Architectural historians such as Norbelg-Schulz used phenomenology as an instrument to criticise the modern movement and urge a return to place-based architecture. By reintroducing the Roman concept of ‘genius loci’, Norbelg-Schulz sought to promote concepts such as identity and place to design disciplines. Nevertheless, many architects have opposed to the term ‘place’ due to its imprecision and broad applications. In addition, the term ‘place’ has been frequently misunderstood by identifying it with territorial (Malpas 2009, 21).

More recently, other architects, such as Pallasmaa, have used the term to introduce the notion of ‘multisensory architecture’, demanding a less prominent role of vision in the experience of the architectural object. He explains: “Experience of architecture is multi-sensory; qualities of matter, space and scale are measured equally by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton and muscle. Architecture strengthens… one’s sense of being in the world, essentially giving rise to a strengthened experience of self.” (Pallasmaa 1996 , 28). However, this search of a multi-sensory experience of the space has occasionally resulted in a superfluous collection of architectural details, trivializing the original intentions.

Nowadays, many architects and urban designers are using again the terms place and place-making to promote a more social-focused architecture. The scenario that the late economic crisis has left in many areas of the globe has provoked a reaction among practitioners calling for a more responsible and individual focused architecture. This, together with the environmental crisis, makes the term place a central term in today’s practices. Actually, the notion of place as a territory of significance, as expression of what is specific and local, can help to effectively cope with the environmental and social challenges of twenty-first century. That is why I believe that phenomenology can still be very productive in architecture and have a leading role on the definition of the architecture of this century.


Malpas, Jeff. "Place and Human Being." Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, 2009: 19-23.

Moran, Dermot. "Editor's Introduction." In The Phenomenology Reader, by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney, 1-26. Oxon: Routledge, 2002.

Moran, Dermot, and Timothy Mooney. The Phenomenology Reader. Oxon: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2002.

Norwood, Bryan E. "Book Review: Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern by Jorge Otero-Pailos." Harvard Design Magazine, Fall/Winter 2010-2011.

Otero-Pailos, Jorge. Architecture's Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

—. Theorizing the Anti-Avant-Garde: Invocations of Phenomenology in Architectural Discourse, 1945-1989. Cambridge: Massachusets Institute of Technology, 2002.

Pallasmaa, J. The Eyes Of The Skin: Architecture and the Senses. London: Academy Editions, 1996 .

Seamon, David. "Phenomenology, Place, Environment, and Architecture: A Review." Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, 2000.