Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Architecture's Historical Turn

Architecture's Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern by Jorge Otero-Pailos
University of Minnesota Press 2010
Paperback, 320 pages

When I am confronted with phenomenology in architecture, I think of a handful of architects and thinkers -- Steven Holl, Juhani Pallasmaa, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, David Seamon, Peter Zumthor -- who primarily focus on experience, and secondarily promote a means of design -- a style -- that elevates the experience of architecture and place; think tactile buildings rooted in their place. This general reading of the philosophical movement's use in architecture is expanded and dismantled in Columbia University GSAPP assistant professor Jore Otero-Pailos's history of architectural phenomenology, in which he traces it as a critical movement in postmodernism and as an intellectual approach to history. In other words, the emphasis on experience is present, but phenomenology is shown to be more than just an influence on style.

This history, from the end of World War II to the 1980s, is told through four individuals: Jean Labatut, Charles W. Moore, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Kenneth Frampton. Labatut was a Beaux Arts-trained architect and Princeton professor who embraced theatricality in architecture and developed what Otero-Pailos calls "eucharistic architecture." Also known as poetic architecture, Labatut saw architecture as an art more than a science with the body's experience at the center, influencing students like Charles Moore. Moore's Piazza d'Italia may be more known than his less classically referential architecture, but the latter's primarily residential and interior designs are the focus here, illustrated as an understanding of classical essences over style. Norberg-Schulz's books are the focus of the chapter on the Nordic architect and educator. Their parallel yet contradictory words and images -- the former influenced by Heidegger and the latter inspired by nature -- strove for universal historical truths. Last, historian Kenneth Frampton's chapter takes advantage of the fact the subject is still alive and practicing, culling two years of interviews to explicate Frampton's alternative history device, Critical Regionalism (PDF).

So how did phenomenology play a role in postmodernism? This happened through its emphases of aesthetic experience, history, and theory. Phenomenology gave architects a tool for looking at architecture's past, something regrettably absorbed in postmodernism as the ironic pastiche of architectural elements. As well, the words and images of phenomenology's theory was displaced by poststructuralist logic and autonomy in architecture. Yet Otero-Pailos asserts that to this day phenomenology is the best means for dealing with perception and affect, the body's experience of architecture. He further contends that fully understanding phenomenology in architecture is crucial today, "when the postcritical pursuit of architectural expression outside of history and culture is again on the rise." While the writing is understandably academic and dense, the chapters on Lapatut, Moore, and Frampton are particularly illuminating, respectively for bringing attention to a personality many may not be familiar with, for articulating the non-ironic aspects of a famous architect, and for explaining the overarching ideas of a historian appreciated but often misunderstood.