Kenneth Frampton in conversation with S and C. Recorded March 13, 2014.
SL: What does Phenomenology mean to you? How do you see yourself shaping the development of Architectural Phenomenology?
KF: I think it has to be approached with a certain caution in regard to its relevance to the culture of architecture in this particular moment, in which the species being is confronted with a modernization that has a life of its own. The modern project as a humanistic project becomes increasingly problematic, due to its conflict with maximizing modernization. All of which is evident in the environment and the culture of building. The experiencing subject resists western division of the mind from the body, that is to say, from a being responsive to the environment. What is the relationship of the subject to the physical environment in terms of an overall experience? It is not only a question of visual stimuli, the tactile issue is also present, as well as acoustical and olfactory phenomena. There is a great deal of late modern architecture that is more or less indifferent of the experience of the subject. It is entirely preoccupied with the optical and the visual. With the spectacular, the proliferation of images and visual stimuli, one might say, many architects seem to be transfixed before the spectacular. It becomes really hard for architecture schools to acknowledge the more basic limits to the subject in relation to the environment.
C: Of course every person has an experience of a building and the richness and quality of the experience should be emphasized. How do we then compare experiences against one another, even though every building produces an experience?
KF: Well, maybe it’s a matter of reducing stimulation. The problem is that we are over-stimulated. Barragán has this aphorism: an architecture that does not achieve tranquility fails its spiritual mission.
C: Jorge Otero-Pailos writes one of the main rises of Phenomenology in architecture was the reassertion of history: to make a building that produces a sensory experience in the present and also holds a cumulative cultural significance. It seems that all buildings do this in the passage of time...1
KF: The philosopher Eugeni d’Ors says that all that is not tradition is plagiarism. This is an astonishingly provocative aphorism—the question of the past in relation to the present. I like the fact that the word “tradition” is linked to such words “trade,” “betrayal” and “translation,” all of which involve the idea of transgression. There is an expression in Latin: “all translation is a betrayal.” The translation from one language to the other cannot be done. It is a useful way to look at tradition. Nothing comes from nothing. In the end, the self-realization of the human subject depends on collective culture.
The significance of this resides in the fact that culture can be easily destroyed. One can see that at a particular moment and time, a particular society can produce works of exceptional brilliance, and then quite suddenly it is not possible anymore. What we think of as tradition is transformed through this cycle of inheritance and transformation, as Alvaro Siza once put it, architects don’t invent anything, they transform reality.
C: This idea is that buildings receive their being through their environments or locations, not from the spaces necessarily.
KF: This doesn’t totally exclude space, however. The spatial organization of the building is not suppressed by its relationship to its context. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In relation to modernization process, there is a tendency to see buildings as free standing objects having no essential relationship to the environments in which they are situated. We can think of many recent celebrated buildings with which this is patently the case. Koolhaas’s CCTV has nothing to do with its environment, and we could say the same thing with his most recent works.
C: But we could consider that the environment also includes not only the physical but also the cultural and economic environment. The CCTV could probably be argued to not have been built in any other country other than in China.
KF: The section through the CCTV suggests a literal suppression of the subject. Beyond that it is a totally unethical work! It uses an extremely expensive material as if it was nothing more than pieces of balsa wood. Structurally it is completely irrational, requiring an exorbitant use of steel just for the sake of egotistical expression. You could have produced a building for ten thousand people that would not at all look like this and which would perhaps have been more responsible in terms of the environment and the experience of the people within the building.
SL: In Norberg-Schulz’s essay “Phenomenology of Place,” he defines space as a system of places.2 What do you think is the relationship between spaces versus places, and also the non-place?
KF: The modern idea of space is relatively new. It is at the turn of the century that Schmarsow used the German word raum, and spoke of architecture as die Raumgestalterin, the creatress of space. Schmarsow’s perceptual model is anthropomorphic, where the body-being penetrates into space and displaces space with a lateral awareness of what is on the left or the right. You could say his whole idea of space stems from the cathedral. This is the first time space is used in relation to architecture. I don’t believe that Violet-le-Duc even used the concept space. Space in architecture is particularly modern and is connected to geo-physical concepts of space or cosmological models.
Since a good deal of built culture involves volumetric enclosure and articulation, then the idea of space is very much connected to our phenomenological experience of space. As soon as you move from the inside to the outside, the boundary between space and place is not so clear. Heidegger uses the term “space endlessness” and I think he has in mind the lack of boundary in the late modern world in general. He has this aphorism that boundary is not where things end but where things begin. The question of the place in relation to the surface of the earth is a very fundamental concept. However it is not antithetical to space as enclosed volume.
The question of the ground and the cultivation of the ground are now much neglected in architecture schools, as opposed to the cult of the freestanding aesthetic object. I think the culture of the ground, i.e. landscape, is increasingly important today, given that the proliferation of buildings without any relationship to each other. Hence, landscape as a critical discourse has the potential of trying the fragmentary parts together.
C: So, place is the harmony between natural environment and urban environment, where both interact—a man-made imposition on the natural environment. Can you still have a dense urban situation that has a place?
KF: I am reminded of Gregotti’s aphorism: “The origin of architecture is not the primitive hut, but the making of ground, to establish a cosmic order amid the surrounding chaos of nature.” One has to mark the ground in order to distinguish it from the wilderness. The grid marked across North America is a marking of ground, a calibration. I recently became aware through David Leatherbarrow of a Japanese philosopher from the 30’s, who wrote a book under the rubric of climate and the cultural mediation of climate that focuses on the climate of specific countries. Coming back to the idea of place, we can’t delimit our notion of space to size.
C: Another word that’s frequently used could be character—the character of a place. I had a conversation last semester about the characters of New York and Los Angeles, it was suggested that any difference between places was the result of institutional bodies that are operating and directing discourse in each city. However, if we talk about character as climate and incorporate this idea of history, an institution would be considered as something that further adds to define that climate.
KF: To continue with this, one needs to elaborate on the idea of climate in relation to the process of modernization as part of the modern project. The idea of the modern project has to be taken back to the German enlightenment.
At the same time, there is an enormous amount of non-places everywhere, the proliferated by the universal megalopolis. Meanwhile, global climate change continues irrespective of any differentiation we might make between place and non-place. You could argue that the proliferation of non-places directly arises out of the thrust of techno-scientific modernization. I am stuck by the fact that when modern technology operates at a micro-scale, as in medicine or surgery, it is often very precise and effective, but it is the contradictory when it comes to a large scale production and environmental control. In the 19th century, it was possible to believe that this species would be subject to infinite progress. The ideology of late capitalism is still about progresSL: the constant increase in production and consumption. However, anyone with half a brain can see that this doesn’t need to be a particular omen for the future.
C: In some of your own writing you seem to be describing the building as a mediator between a man-made object and man himself. In “The Status of Man and the Status of his Objects” you wrote, “the dependency of political power on its social and physical constitution, that is to say, on its derivation from the living proximity of men and from the physical manifestation of their public being in built form. For architecture at least, the relevance of The Human Condition resides in this… between the status of men and the status of their objects.”3
KF: As you know, I am obsessed this phrase of Hannah Arendt: “the space of human appearance.” She has been criticized for the fact that she grounds her discourse in the Greek city-state, polis, from which the term political originates. The idea of direct democracy is latent in her entire argument. I will never recover from the influence of The Human Condition. That book changed my whole view on architecture. For me the space of human appearance permits the body, in a social, cultural and political sense, to come into being. Just to give you a banal example, I detest the current furnishing of the café downstairs. The long table is a total imposition. The original pattern of circular tables with four chairs proliferated around the space would be a much more democratic and humane arrangement, and open to associational groups of varying size. I was looking at the space today. How can such a barbaric collective environment be cradled in the heart of a school of architecture?
1 Otero-Pailos, Jorge. Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern. University of Minnesota Press. 2010. pg. xxxiii
2 Norberg-Schulz, Christian. “Phenomenology of Place” in Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995. Ed. Nesbitt, Kate. Princeton Architectural Press. 1996. Pg 422
3 Frampton, Kenneth. “The Status of Man and the Status of his Objects” in Labour, Work and Architecture. Phaidon Press. New York. 2002. pg. 42