James Dodd: Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World: Exercises in Philosophical Anthropology

Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World: Exercises in Philosophical Anthropology Book Cover Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World: Exercises in Philosophical Anthropology
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, 16
James Dodd
Brill
2017
Hardback €110,00
viii, 298

Reviewed by: Kevin Berry (University of Pennsylvania)

James Dodd’s Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World: Exercises in Philosophical Anthropology examines the built environment, as the artifactual composition of human involvement, from the perspective of phenomenological intentionality. From this perspective, “meaning,” as Dodd succinctly states, “is originally the accomplishment of the intentionality of lived experience” (57). Dodd’s formulation of the matter is most clearly expressed in chapter seven which directly explores, among other things, the topic of architectural meaning. The built environment is not a set of meanings inscribed upon buildings as if a “text to be deciphered,” but rather a series of existential paths open to inhabitants (199). As the material arrangement of human intentional involvements, the built environment is meaningful as “a sense of directedness” in “hodological form.” This seems to be the thesis of the text: an argument that phenomenology allows us to read the built environment’s meaning hodologically, rather than textually (215-216). In fact, that and how the world is given in meaningfulness is a large part of the “problematicity of knowledge,” the key issue in the text.

Though Dodd writes for philosophers, the text opens an equally important perspective for architectural historians. It points to the need to investigate architecture phenomenologically, a project which has suffered a legitimation crisis in the field of architecture since the late 80’s and early 90’s saw a rush of publications on the topic, the most notable being Questions of Perception. So many architectural theorists and historians in this tradition have used Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Hannah Arendt (the four main characters of Dodd’s text) without full awareness of the ontological critique of Cartesian conception of worldhood at the base of phenomenology. Architects, evoking these phenomenologists’ names, still read architectural meaning as being first of all a visual, or textual, matter. Architecture is not something we look at, or read, though. It is something we live in and, more precisely, are involved in. This insight, which Dodd’s text points out, would help bolster future attempts in architecture to apply phenomenology to the concept of architecture, the city, or the built environment.

The text has eight chapters set between an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1, “Knowledge and Building” examines “the kind of knowledge operative in the activity of building,” tracing a philosophical argument in the historical debate between the architect and engineer as two distinct kinds of builders. Subsequently, chapter 2, “Building and Phenomenon” examines “the built as something encountered in experience” (8-9). The elegance with which the chapter titles interlock is impressive. Each has two key terms, displaying to the reader the flow of the argument; this can be seen in the word “Building” in first and second chapter titles. The flow continues: chapter 3, “Phenomenon and World” leads from Phenomenon to world. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 interlock concepts of “World” and “Thing,” chapter 6 flows from “Thing and Built Space,” into chapter 7, “Built Space and Expression,” and finally, chapter 8, “Expression and Presence.”

The chapter titles and section headings, while they reveal the flow of the argument, dissolve into one another, literally and figuratively. To this reader, one downside to this otherwise elegant structure is that it caused the text to read too fluidly, making it difficult to discern the main conclusions and objects of study, which are both architectural objects and philosophical texts. It is well written and the prose holds an impressive stride. The argument flows from one point to the next, with the reader often being led through illustrations of foundational ideas in phenomenological methodology. It is certainly not an introductory text, as Dodd states, but it holds a desire to continually return to the base of each problem. In short, it reads as an extensive phenomenological meditation, returning to questions of method as often as it turns to its objects of study. Dodd’s text rewards a patient reader.

For instance, it is hard to know what to subsume, exactly, under the concept (or, more accurately, figure) of the ‘labyrinth’ introduced in chapter 3, especially when the figure of the labyrinth plays such a pivotal role throughout the next two chapters, and not just in the subsections which have the word in their title. Edward Casey, Bernard Tschumi, and Indra Kagis McEwen are all employed in discussions of the labyrinth. The dense fabric this organization weaves is as impressive as it is demanding. Its conceptual complexity is not a point to be criticized, of course. My criticism here is much more limited. I can only say that the book is truly dense; at points, it seems overpopulated with insights. Signposts are needed to help distinguish major and just minor conclusions, as there are so many woven into each chapter. Internal to the argument, there are just four points I find disagreement with.

First, distinctions need to be sustained more thoroughly between the built environment, artifact, and architecture. Is the built environment to be understood as a composition of artifacts in this text? Or is it something over and above this, a whole greater than its parts? What is the difference between artifact and tool, or the difference between Heidegger’s equipmental totality and the idea of an artifactual totality (or composition) as it appears in the text? There seem to be many different ways of conceptualizing these key terms given the many theorists referenced.

Second, the attempt to rehabilitate phenomenology by creating what Dodd calls “classical phenomenology” by synthesizing Husserl, Heidegger, and Arendt, especially for a text which already copes with the workload involved in straddling multiple fields. The unresolved and irresolvable tension between Husserl, Heidegger, and Arendt is most apparent in chapter five, which asks the reader to jump from Husserl’s world of Abschattungen (adumbrations) – a topic already discussed in a previous chapter – to Heidegger’s world of Sorge (care)., by way of Steven Holl’s notion of parallax and Duchamp’s nude. This ten page section is certainly an impressive composition, and the illustrations are engaging, but the technical nuances in which Dodd engages often reveal the distance between these thinkers at those points in which they seem most closely related. I am sure Dodd recognizes that classical phenomenology is no monolith, and never could be, but the methodology of the text betrays a desire for it to be, especially chapter five.

Third, there is a set of competing ends operating in the argument. For instance, the reader is informed that the investigation is ultimately seeking “the development of a descriptive vocabulary for the analysis of built space” (50), but also that it is focused on “the problematicity of knowledge.” In the end, the latter concern appears to win, but the reader is still left wondering if the problem is ethical, concerned with developing a philosophical understanding of the built environment’s contribution to the meaningfulness of human existence, or epistemological, as the text more explicitly claims.

Again, it seems the latter wins. That this text on the built world begins with a chapter on “knowledge” is no accident. Dodd, it seems, asks philosophers to turn to the built environment, but only so they may turn back to questions of epistemology. This becomes clearer as the reader moves into the middle chapters, which grow increasingly epistemological, concerned with rethinking key concepts of intentionality, constitution, the epoché, and perception in light of the built environment. The text reads as an epistemological investigation with a special concern for the perceptual structures of meaning in the built environment. This is especially true in his example of an experience in Café Hawelka in Vienna (87). Descriptive analyses of European cafés are a staple of architectural phenomenology, and so the reader expects to be pulled into the built world, into living experience, but this does not happen. Rather, Dodd asks of perceptual experience in the café, “What does this entail?” and turns to a thorough excursus on Husserl’s notion of Abschattungen (90). Dodd concludes chapter 3 by drawing the conclusion from this that “in living through an experience, I fully inhabit the whole of experience at once” (93). In a way, this is just the epistemological issue at stake, and shows why phenomenology so often seems to spill over from epistemology into ontology. The café will return in the conclusion, this time as Sartre’s missing Pierre in Being and Nothingness (263-265).

My final point of criticism is that this is not a book on architecture, which it claims to be. The examples are never fully architectural. The phenomenological analysis of the way in which a pebble, in its material shape, holds cognitive indications concerning its uses and intentional possibilities, for example, is insightful, but this moment of analysis – one of the more important in the text – does not concern the architectural. Figures such as Eisenman, Tschumi and Le Corbusier do make appearances, as do some famous monuments and ruins, but they are always there for the elucidation of a concept and are not objects of study themselves. This leads me to ask, does Dodd actually discuss architecture at all? Regardless of how one answers this, as I indicated at the outset, this is a text architectural writers interested in philosophy must understand.

Perhaps Dodd’s intended philosophical audience explains why architecture remains conspicuously absent from the book. The ideas of phenomenology remain strongly in the fore, and artifacts often illustrate these, but architecture nowhere fully appears. Dodd’s decision to explain his argument through more typical environmental situations — sitting at a library, reading in a café, enjoying the view of a valley on a park bench, etc. — makes sense, because Dodd’s aim is to study the built environment not by applying concepts of Husserl and Heidegger to architectural objects, but by determining where, in the unique ontological picture of phenomenology, the built world fits. After all, most works of architecture populating the “canon” of architecture are built as perceptual experiences for the trained eye of the designer, and composed more for the attitude of disinterested aesthetic contemplation than the average inhabitant of day-to-day involvement. Architecture seems to be at odds with the idea of the built environment as a cultural setting, in this sense, or at least seems to bear an ecstatic, to use Heidegger’s term, relationship to it.

The title of Dodd’s text thus points out an issue. There seem to be two conceptions of architecture which need to be distinguished more carefully by those operating within the philosophy of architecture today: architecture as defined by the profession, its objects, and the discrete acts of professional architects designing individual buildings; and, second, architecture as understood anthropologically, as the act of arranging “the material-cultural world in which we are enmeshed,” as Dodd says so well, into a purposive whole (29). This second, anthropological conception of architecture, as an ontological condition of human communal existence in the material world, is the “architecture” of Dodd’s investigation.

Examining architecture’s significance, the way in which architecture means something to inhabitants in everyday, circumspective activity is an important and remarkably overlooked issue. Too much of architecture theory has acted as if architectural meaning only existed when architecture was looked at as a signifier or as an aesthetic object of disinterested contemplation. Dodd’s attempt to think architectural meaning in the foreground of human life, in the immediacy of the practically and socially absorbed activity of the occupant, that mode of experience in which the building is usually experienced and, somehow, understood, is a welcome addition. It seems phenomenology might have something left to contribute to this project, showing how the built environment needs to be thought through not as a cultural “objectification,” as recent sociological investigations of architecture have thought it, but as a material conception of Husserlian operative intentionality or transcendental subjectivity. (For an instance of such a sociology of architecture, see Silke Steets, Der sinnhafte aufbau der Gebauten Welt: Eine Architektursoziologie. Suhrkamp, 2015.)

It is surprisingly how little attention has been given to the connection between this broad conception of architecture and phenomenology, a tradition which so often thought in spatial, if not explicitly architectural terms – think of Heidegger’s illustration of the equipmental totality constituting worldhood in section 16 of Being and Time, or of the issue of “ego orientation” (152), both of which Dodd himself points to. Dodd’s work shows how phenomenology might offer a framework for studying the built world as a “cultural expression” in more complex terms than has been done so far. Phenomenology, Dodd shows, offers a way of thinking subjects’ interaction with artifacts’ meaningful structures in terms of operative intentionality.

 

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