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Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture

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Architecture and Urbanism journal entitled Questions of Perception, is a combination of three separate essays by the architectural scholars, Steven Holl, Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Pérez Gómez. The three essays are thematically linked and each one tries to explain the role of man’s perception plays in architecture and also explores phenomenal accounts. Their combined articles and precedents in the content, work to help the reader to remember the significance of a generative imagination, an ethical world‐view and encourage a phenomenological approach to architecture that celebrates experience.

In the first article entitled, ‘The space of architecture: Meaning as presence and representation’ Pérez‐Gómez sets the phase for the phenomenological approach by giving an historical record of architecture arrivals at an empty formalism, searching for meaning and finding it in a poetic resistance. He discusses about architectural practice and aesthetics of architecture of several architects in the period from the seventh century to the twentieth century.

First he discusses that Vitruvius identified the origin of architecture with the origin of language. For Vitruvius, essential knowledge for architects to direct their practice was the ‘ratio’, epitomized by mathematical proportion. And that the presence of numerical proportions in architecture underlined the custom of theoretical writings until the 18th century.

Next he discusses the practice of Plato and how Plato marks the origin of our scientific tradition. According to Plato there must be three components of reality: Being -The unchanging form, uncreated and indestructible, Becoming-that which bears the same name as the form and resembles it, but is sensible and Chora – which is eternal and indestructible. Chora which signifies “space” is a Greek word which offers a discussion for considering different possibilities, more than just functionalist building practices of modernity. The work of the architect or a work of imagination, cannot be simply a dominating gaze. It should be something that can be explored. Possibility of such an architecture is offered by Chora , a space to meditate on, equipped of both respecting cultural differences and recognizing the globalization of technological culture. Chora can also be explained as a combination of both cosmic place and abstract space and substance of human crafts.

Pérez then discusses the architecture and practices of Renaissance and Baroque architects. During the Renaissance, changes in religious philosophy and architectural theory reflected an alternate understanding of the Greco-Roman chora. While Barbaro and Pacioli perceived that for architects, the constructive operation was more important than perspective, that is the area through the cone of vision, plainly the Renaissance architects believed that the theatre had a specific revelatory power. Furthermore, Renaissance never considers space as a geometric element. Baroque architects set out to change the world and achieved a synthesis of the qualities of natural space and geometrical reality of chora.

In conclusion, this article clarifies literary proof across an expansive historical period, focusing on the connection among drawing and architectural space in the period from the seventh century to the twentieth century.

The second article is by Juhani Pallasmaa and is entitled as ‘An Architecture of the Seven Senses’.

Through this article Pallasmaa attempts to highlight the significance of sensory experience in architecture. It can be identified as a response to what the he terms as ‘ocularcentrism’ of Modern Architecture. Ocularcentrism is the act of demonstration of visual stimuli to all other sensory stimuli accesible to a human perception. And he cites the German poet, Goethe, “the hands want to see, the eyes want to caress”.

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Firstly, Pallasma discusses about the sensory deprivation and distance brought about by ocularcentrism; and how this shields architecture from being as wholesome as it is able of. He argues that architecture today does not contends and consider peripheral vision, shifting of focus, memory, and imagination. Secondly, he brings up how ocularcentrism has formed into a social standard; in this way the eye would itself be biased, ‘ nihilistic or narcissistic ‘. Therefore, can be separated and disconnected from other senses, for example, touch, thus allowing no emotional dialogue. Thirdly, he looks at the image of a modern city to that of what he terms a ‘haptic city’, a city which can be contacted; as opposed to the inaccessible, exterior oriented present day city. Besides, he examines how since antiquity, man has been the measure of not just his architecture, but all of his activities too. To support this argument, Pallasmaa cites occurrences of the caryatid court and the experience in ancient times, where man turns into the central point of everything.

He emphasizes on the presence of an enveloping satisfaction through multi stimuli in nature; giving a case of a trek through a woods, and the sentiment of being inside the space of a clearing inside the forest invoked by peripheral vision, complete with the crunching of leaves under the feet and the smells that surrounds. Also he talks about the significance of the shadow in creating light. He argues that it is the variation of shadows and the faintly lit feeling is the factor which really stimulate the senses, and that Modern Architecture appears to lack this appreciation of the shadow.

Throughout the article, Pallasmaa systematically takes the reader through all the senses in question; hearing, smell, touch and taste. For each sense he cites a model from nature, hence depicting how it is an acknowledgement of all senses that completes a space. He discusses how speed of wind can be registered through hearing and identify the temperature of the wind through touch. Moreover, he connects smell with memory and includes that smell is by far one of the strongest mediums that add to the memory of an experience. He then argues the presence of man by discussing time and the sense of proportion. He implies that man is designed to perceive in comparison to his self, and activity where man measures through moving inside a space.

In conclusion, Pallasmaa discusses the significance of these seven senses in the design process. He discusses the separation made between the architecture and the design due to mechanization of the process. The reasoning behind this is well explained and discussed in the previous parts of the article through precedents and citations from nature. One can grasp in relevance to each detect, the significance of ‘feeling’ it during the design process. Throughout this part of the article Pallasmaa argues and highlights the disadvantages of ocularcentrism in comparison with each sense and how that made the Modern architecture cold and distant from man.

Third article of the book is entitled “’Archetypal experiences of architecture” by Steven Holl. Steven Holl begins his article investigating his own medium for the discussion, in particular that text can perhaps not do justice to questions of perception. He claims to an increased “sensitized consciousness” to ordinary experience and he sees wordless architecture as the ideal medium to awaken all the senses by enabling the occupant to mix all the senses presented by the space. Where architecture moves simple perception of phenomena, for example, in nature, is in its intentionality or the inspiration to understand the psychological phenomena behind its creation.

Holl presents a series of projects that deal with a variety of phenomena that that investigate components of perception and design. The aim of presenting these projects is not to display a totality or summation on perception, but to discuss the discrete sections that each add to the process of design and improve the sensory experience of that place. In this final article, Holl tries to confirm the segmented nature of experience and discusses Holl’s visits to several key architectural spaces. These include the Pantheon in Rome, Rochamp, Ryoanji Temple in Japan and the Johnson Wax building by Frank Lloyd Wright. Each experience, which are sometimes isolated by twenty years introduced a new series of sensation to Holl, some because of the weather or the seasons, some due to the time of day, and some because of the changes that had occurred in Holl himself.

The overlapping of the fragments creates a changing new perception of the space, and lead Holl to persuade that architecture is always perceived as partial views, in turn creating a way of looking at the world, in a way, connecting back to the first article by Pérez‐Gómez, and alluring the reader to read it again.

As a conclusion the authors state: ‘The endless cultural limitations and contradictions inherent in artistic work, revealed with impeccable clarity and logic by the critics’ deconstructive theory, are ultimately of limited use for the generation of architecture. It can be The architect must take a position, one that necessarily has ethical consequences, and for which words, a theoretical discourse is nevertheless indispensable. The architect’s work exists silently, in the public realm, and is therefore, unavoidable, an affirmation. This is perhaps a dilemma, one that makes architectural practice in the late twentieth century difficult, yet fascinating. Unlike the critic and the philosopher, the architect must embrace the contradictions between perception and logic, the slippage between architectural intention and realization, and the unpredictability of the future’s judgement upon the acting present, and ‘resolve’ or confuse these aporias through his/her personal imagination. “

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Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
“Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2022].
Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 18 [cited 2022 Nov 29]. Available from:
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