What is (Architectural) Phenomenology? To explore this question is to cut across a multi-generational battleground in architecture: a hotbed of conflicting beliefs and ideologies. An investigation of this term has generated contested genealogical and territorial maps of architectural discourse. With more than forty years since the publishing of Christian Norberg-Schulz’s seminal Intentions in Architecture, it is appropriate to revisit this history now in order to track and understand the way in which this idea has continuously been co-opted, poeticized, and diluted in architecture.

While the term Phenomenology can be traced back to Immanuel Kant, its current usage is shaped by the late-19th century German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl defined it as “a science of phenomenon,”1 with the philosophical goal of providing a transcendental ground for modern scientific inquiry. Martin Heidegger’s philosophical work, such as the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” provided theoretical backing for the architect concerned with place, who in turn mined the text for ideas to carry out a critique of modernism. Life-world, lived experience, presence, and essence -- these concepts still retain a certain aura, a charismatic indeterminacy, a magic.

Today studio critics use the word interchangeably with experience and atmosphere, while the history and theory faculty approaches it with extreme caution, at times with ridicule and condemnation.

As Architectural Phenomenology continues to float through the discipline, it has been absorbed into a purely preferential aesthetic disposition. Through this transformation it has shed rigor in defining concepts and critiques. There is also the so-called “digital phenomenology,” sprinkled with Heideggerian rhetoric, that has announced the new “digital being” and a new form of “ontology.” Architectural Phenomenology is far from being “dead.” It has mutated into another beast distinct from its original conception. The convoluted understanding of this term today indicates that a critical stocktaking and an exploration of its influence is necessary. In this issue we chart the historical context of Architectural Phenomenology with Jorge Otero-Pailos. We confront phenomenological questions and a moment of awakening with Steven Holl. We discuss the relationship between Phenomenology and post-structuralism with Mark Wigley. We wander through the intangible with Robert Irwin. We situate the nature of place with Kenneth Frampton. We seek out indeterminacies with Michelle Fornabai. Architectural Phenomenology continues to enrage and enrich. We aim to sort the term’s multiple meanings: to establish a platform and move forward, preferring informed debate over detached hostility.

1 Herzog, Jacques. “Myths and Collaborations over Time.” Columbia University. Avery Hall, New York, NY. 9 September 2013. Lecture.

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