Jorge Otero-Pailos in conversation with G and LW. Recorded on April 2, 2014.
G: How are you feeling?
LW: I am actually really angry now.
JOP: You are also making me angry now. Is that why you want to talk to me? Because everyone else is so angry about Phenomenology?
G: It is an anger-inducing conversation.
JOP: Why is it anger-inducing?
LW: It’s actually not that everyone is angry about Phenomenology. The people who are angry are usually architectural theorists.
JOP: Why are the theorists angry?
LW: I think the word Phenomenology carries a negative connotation in architecture now. To a selective group of people it is associated with essentialism and anti-intellectualism.
G: It’s a slur. In my earlier conversation with Mario Carpo he mentioned that there is a side that believes in enchantment and indeterminacy, and that is in opposition to a belief that everything can be rationally defined.
If you are on the “rationally define” side, the phenomenologists are the bad guys, while if you are in the enchantment camp, it’s the opposite. However, he also said nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. There’s no way to prove either.
JOP: Why are you interested in Architectural Phenomenology? Is it really a relevant question today?
G: The first lecture we went to at GSAPP was a conversation between Mark Wigley and Peter Eisenman on Phenomenology. Eisenman claimed that there is a renewal of Phenomenology, in the form of what he calls “digital Phenomenology.” In studio the term Phenomenology comes up often and everyone has his or her own assumption about what it means, without any investigation into the discourse. Wigley has said that after a certain point, a set of discourses becomes digested and gets under the skin. We don’t have to read Le Corbusier because we have already read Le Corbusier. It has been taught to us on a subconscious level.
JOP: Is this a generational problem?
LW: Yes, I think so. We have three generations in this issue: a generation who reads philosophical Phenomenology and borrows heavily from it in practice and writing; a generation who is invested in the notion of theory and criticizes Phenomenology, by drawing out, for example, the fascism and anti-Semitism allegedly embedded in Heidegger’s thinking; and a generation, like yourself, who has enough historical distance to analyze everything in a broader context.
JOP: And you are the fourth generation.
JOP: It is also you then who has to say whether it is relevant and has currency today. I am curious to know the view from your generation. Is it something current, historical or like an anecdote?
LW: For me it is historical. I am more interested in its history and how phenomenological ideas enabled another set of discourses. Also how architecture education changed because Phenomenology was a vehicle for architects to lay claim to knowledge.
G: I think our generation is returning to questions of affect. In studio a lot of people talk about their project by describing what it feels like to be in the design. I think that’s why the word Phenomenology is still pertinent. I think it’s important to know that somewhere along the way it got turned into a bad word and had to go underground. Now it’s reemerging in a different setting.
LW: Do you think it’s relevant today?
JOP: Yes, I think it’s relevant. Once I asked Vittorio Gregotti if he thought Architectural Phenomenology was dead and he said something like, “Well, is Plato dead?” I think ideas continue to be relevant when they remain important insights into issues that we continue to grapple with.
LW: Right, I also have my own preoccupation with Phenomenology because I wrote my undergrad thesis on Husserl. When I first came to architecture school I couldn’t understand why it had such a negative connotation.
JOP: One of the things I have tried to disprove is the idea that philosophy is at the origin of Architectural Phenomenology. It is not that people started reading philosophy and then said, “Oh, now I can do architecture differently.” At first they simply found the words of philosophers useful, like an analogy to explain what they were already doing. In the postwar era, architects found themselves having to defend whether their work was intellectual.
It was a time when education was being completely transformed. In the US there was heavy investment in education, and the kind of visual production that architects had assumed to be an expression of knowledge was called into question by expanding university administrations. They asked, “how do we give tenure to architects? How do we evaluate their intellectual contribution to the university?” Universities had a difficult time evaluating visual discourse and aesthetics as intellectual work. At the heart of it was the question of knowledge—what is architectural intellectuality? The idea that the architect’s aesthetic production can be an expression of an idea that cannot be reduced to verbal descriptions was, and remains, very important. In response to these pressures, architects started writing more to become more precise, let’s say, more academic, about their contributions to certain questions that were important across disciplines, such as the understanding of human experience. They made a case that architects had a specific grasp of how the built environment was shaped by, and shaped, the quality of human experiences. While philosophy was not the origin of Architectural Phenomenology, it did serve to give legitimacy and rigor to how these issues were unpacked as the movement developed.
LW: What then would be your definition of Architectural Phenomenology?
JOP: I would say it was a historical movement that started as a radical critique of modernism from the point of view of experience. It accused modernist architects of making buildings that diminished the quality of human experience because they were more concerned with the efficiency of construction. Some of the key protagonists of this critique were Jean Labatut, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Kenneth Frampton, Ernesto Rogers and others. These architectural phenomenologists recognized that while some aspects of human experience were common to most people (our body, for instance, gives everyone a sense of forward and back), experience was neither entirely personal nor universal. They understood that certain experiences were shared within cultures, and that people from different cultures could experience the same building very differently, which made them question the modernist idea of an international or universal architecture. Their analyses described the experience of architecture as never neutral, or simply given. Apart from being shaped by our cultural upbringing, experience was also colored by the mood someone happened to be in, by their memories, and by all those things that make us human. For instance, we don’t experience light as an abstraction. We experience light differently when we are just waking up than when we have a migraine. It is experienced as something painful or pleasurable, something that angers us or calms us. Architectural Phenomenology’s critique of the universalist assumptions of modernism was also a critique of the idea that architecture can claim autonomy from culture or from history.
In other words, it widened the frame for analyzing buildings beyond the form of the singular object. The questions that architectural phenomenologists raised about culture, place, history and memory in architecture became the central piloting concepts of postmodernism. As such, Architectural Phenomenology can be said to be one of the main sources of postmodernism, and indeed many architectural phenomenologists were protagonists of postmodernism.
Some of these questions are still worth asking today. For instance, among all the urgent issues that we must address as architects, such as climate change, I don’t think we consider culture enough. And yet, the future of culture is just as urgent a question. What’s your culture?
LW: I guess, American Chinese.
G: I am an American born with Greek descent.
JOP: I am an architect.
LW: Huh…that’s a good one.
JOP: There are many ways to define a culture. When you are asked to identify your culture you are asked to inhabit a default position that is there, and that you didn’t create. It’s a construction, but also something that no one person really created or is in control of. Culture is discursive. The positions within it are articulated through communication and debate. This might help explain why upon entering architecture school, you feel like you found and are inhabiting a position—a number of “skins,” to go back to what you were saying earlier—that everyone recognizes but that you didn’t create. No single individual created Architectural Phenomenology, and no one can will it out of existence.
LW: Can you speak more about what aspects of modernism the generation of the 50’s and 60’s were criticizing and how Phenomenology offered tools or rhetorical devices to critique them? Why did Phenomenology appeal to them?
JOP: Well, there are many reasons, and again I think it’s important to think of the political and historical context. In the 1950s it was a combination of factors that made Phenomenology appealing and radical at the same time. It was very much associated with existentialism after World War II, with the figures of Jean-Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Gaston Bachelard. But because of the strong association with Sartre, who was a communist, it was essentially banned in American universities during the McCarthy era.
It was as if somebody told you today to read a book that was written by a leader of the Taliban. Phenomenology was read in Catholic schools because nobody would suspect a Catholic of being a radical communist. There was a Catholic vehicle, let’s say, for this spread of Architectural Phenomenology. Many students at Princeton under Labatut, for instance, came from a number of Catholic feeder schools.
LW: Phenomenology was also tied in with some Catholic ideas…
JOP: It was overlaid with some Catholic theology about the sacredness of the body. It was sublimated to some degree into theological terms because religion was more acceptable in the postwar than Phenomenology. It was acceptable to speak about certain things, like the body, in religious terms but not in political terms. The first generation of Architectural Phenomenologists was interested in subverting and changing the social political reality that they inhabited. They were trying to be politically active through their architectural practice. They believed that the type of architecture that was being done by modern architects was leading to a worse world. It was complicit in an oppressive economic system that tried to standardize life and human experience, so that people could be governed and managed efficiently.
They resisted this aspect of modernization. They argued that if the experience of modernization is standardization, then the role of architects was to resist standardization by pursuing a type of specificity and uniqueness, such as, for instance, traditional building cultures or historic typologies.
G: You’ve already asked us, so we might as well ask you, how did you come into the study of Architectural Phenomenology and also where do you situate yourself in this discourse?
JOP: When I started architecture school at Cornell, the first book I was given to read was Christian Norberg-Schulz’s Genius Loci. When I took my first teaching job in Puerto Rico, Architectural Phenomenology was very prominent there too, but I encountered it by that point as a very dogmatic discourse about regional culture, as something that could not be learned or penetrated by foreigners. It had been taken up by architects who felt disenfranchised from the incipient globalization after the fall of the Soviet Union. These so-called local architects, who had nonetheless been trained elsewhere, claimed to be the only ones that could ever understand how to build in “their” culture, even though they had limited knowledge of historic building traditions. It was a type of monopoly over a region. Anything foreign was by definition worse. I was very dissatisfied with that because my own personal life was one of multiple transplants. I didn’t feel that culture was bound to place in such an over determined way.
So I decided to write a critique of Architectural Phenomenology. As I did my research, I uncovered that early Architectural Phenomenology of the postwar period was much more interesting, open and experimental than what it later became in the 1990s. So I tried to give a balanced account of the historical development of the movement. I don’t think of myself as an architectural phenomenologist, but then, again, I also don’t feel the need to completely reject its of contributions to the intellectual history architecture.
LW: You mentioned the word “meaning” earlier, which is a word that is used by architectural phenomenologists to describe their goal to rediscover the meaning of their building or to generate meaning. What is the meaning they are talking about? How does this notion of meaning differ from that in semiology, that is to say, structuralism or even later post-structuralism…
JOP: Is there post-structuralist architecture?
LW: I would claim no. For me, post-structuralism is a discourse about text, textuality, writing and literary discourse more than an architectural idea that can be directly expressed in buildings. But people have borrowed it in architectural discourse.
JOP: This question of meaning is really important. It’s interesting when you look at it generationally: the late postmodern, we could call them, versus the early postmodern.
LW: Maybe we could distinguish that by decade.
JOP: Yes, the generation that came into prominence in the 80’s and 90’s accused the generation that had come into prominence in the 60’s of being essentialist, that is to say of thinking that there was only one meaning to each building. This accusation was precisely the same accusation that the 60’s generation made against the 30’s generation when they charged modernism of universalism. Butwhen you look at the modernists of the 30’s, they were actually in favor of a heterogeneous modernism. What was called pluralism in the 1960s was called internationalism in 1930s. To accuse those in power of not standing up to their own standards is a very typical formula for younger generations to take power from their elders.
G: You also write that some historians reacted against Phenomenology, claiming that it was anti-intellectual or subjective. Is that a similar device used to reject the generation before you in order to allow you come to prominence. To say, “I am now operating at this higher level. You are anti-intellectual. I am intellectual.”
JOP: Intellectuality has cultural value. In the case of universities, intellectuality is certainly a basis for advancement. What constitutes intellectuality, what is considered legitimate knowledge, is a fundamental struggle within the disciplines represented in any given university. Who controls and who defines what constitutes intellectual work is really at the heart of tenure decisions and teaching assignments.
Architecture schools operate within universities so they have to explain what they do to the university at some point. The university tends to judge architecture according to the standards of other fields, which are mostly not visual fields, except for art. What are other visual fields?
G: There aren’t.
JOP: Even in Art History they read and write texts about images, but they don’t make them. So, does architecture really belong in a university? This has always been a question for architects. The push for architects has been to advance what we do as intellectual. In the 50’s and 60’s, architectural phenomenologists were the first to successfully make the claim that we are a full discipline, which means we must award the highest degree the university can offer: a PhD. The first American PhD program in Architecture was founded at Princeton by an architectural phenomenologist…
JOP: Yes, and the PhD curriculum required students to draw. That would be unthinkable today. PhD students in Architecture would show visual materials as evidence of their intellectual capacity and their arguments. If you proposed this today you’d be accused of being an anti-intellectual. Eventually the model didn’t hold. In the 1970s architectural PhD programs were recast as architectural history programs. The visual component was dropped, and the work became purely about writing, therefore assuming the form of conventional intellectual work. Architectural phenomenologists were very important in this shift.
They argued that architectural history, as they conceived it from the perspective of experience, was methodologically different from art history’s historiography, which was geared towards establishing value in terms of authorship and provenance. Architectural phenomenologists began to take over architectural history and theory teaching positions within schools and displacing the art historians who had been teaching the architectural history survey classes. Architectural phenomenologists created the architectural history positions that the 80’s and 90’s generation of architects would later inhabit, except that when the younger group began teaching they pushed even further the idea that architectural intellectuality should not be based on the norms of art history, and instead argued that it should be based on the standards of a new type of theoretical work. All this leads us to today. What is intellectual work today? Do you think that architects need to be intellectual?
G: I think so. I think it has value. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I also think you could get away without it. But in order to work at a certain level where you are making provocative architecture, you do need to have a certain level of intellectuality. It’s not just about knowing architecture, it’s knowing what other people are thinking in these seemingly related and unrelated disciplines. You have to understand the greater world around you.
LW: Last semester we did an issue called “Why Write?” We asked, why architects write? Why architects theorize? And for whom?
If you just visit a building, you don’t actually need to read about the building in order to pass any judgment on it. One reason that architects write is to structure the discourse around their building.
JOP: Yes, framing and controlling the discourse determines what has relevance and what doesn’t. What Architectural Phenomenology did was to say architectural discourse happens in many ways. It doesn’t just happen through writing and it also doesn’t happen only though building. All these things need to be taken into account. The generation of the 60’s and 70’s came to the conclusion that the most important contribution to discourse was to design a building. That was the central expression of what it meant to be an architect. The next generation flipped that around and said what it takes to make a building is actually to make photographs, publications, exhibitions, lectures, and, in sum, that the building is produced discursively as much as materially. The down side is that they tended to overplay the importance of discourse and looked upon physical buildings as compromised discursive epiphenomena. Now I think we are at a different point. The physicality of buildings is once again taken more seriously as something cultural and political. Whether you build a wall that is this high or that high matters greatly for who can have access, and you can have an impact, however small, on social equity. Any introduction of materials to the construction site is a deeply contested reality.