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
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.


Günter Figal: Freiräume: Phänomenologie und Hermeneutik, Mohr Siebeck, 2017

Freiräume: Phänomenologie und Hermeneutik Book Cover Freiräume: Phänomenologie und Hermeneutik
Philosophische Untersuchungen
Günter Figal
Mohr Siebeck
Cloth 75,00 €

Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (Eds.): Merleau-Ponty. Space, Place, Architecture

Merleau-Ponty: Space, Place, Architecture Book Cover Merleau-Ponty: Space, Place, Architecture
Series in Continental Thought
Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (Eds.)
Philosophy, Architecture
Ohio University Press
Hardcover $64.00

Reviewed by: Paul A. di Georgio (Duquesne University)

With this collection of essays, which is in fact the first of its kind, Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCain have assembled a provocative group of papers which explore one of the most compelling dimensions of contemporary Merleau-Ponty scholarship. The set of papers contained in this volume all take to task the relation, as well as the application, of key concepts in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre to a refocused examination of architecture, spatiality, and, importantly, the political.

For Merleau-Ponty the phenomenological subject is, as Locke puts it, “firmly embedded in the world, even before we represent it to ourselves through geometrical or symbolic means.” (5) It follows that the way in which environment, and architecture in particular, are, as Merleau-Ponty would say, “interwoven” with phenomenal experience holds significant influence over our thinking of being, whether it comes down to our construction of dwelling structures or our interpersonal relations.

So if the idea, here, comes down to the co-constitution of the phenomenal lifeworld, which Locke aptly calls “corporeal companionship,” then it is apparent that we can productively reconsider architectural theory and design from an embodied phenomenological perspective. Furthermore we can reexamine this same perspective not for the way in which it situates space, but rather, for the way in which space situates it. The textual launching point for this insight, in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, is found in “Eye and Mind” in the well-known passage where he indicates that the articulation of “light and space” in fact “speak to us,” and he suggests that it is here that a new conception of being bursts onto the scene. Locke’s introduction aptly opens with an epigraph which reminds us of this.

So what exactly are these new conceptions of being? Locke suggests that there are three main strands of philosophical thinking which operate in this area of inquiry, predicated upon either phenomenological space or, with respect to Merleau-Ponty’s later thought, the philosophy of the “flesh.” The three strands are as follows: i) feminist philosophies and critiques of culture, ii) ecophenomenology or so-called “deep ecology,” and iii) material-object philosophies inspired by Deleuze (6). While the collection of essays in the text are organized into three groups, these groups in fact do not correspond to the philosophical strands which Locke here enumerates. Rather, the editors have grouped the papers together in terms of how they relate to the idea of phenomenological limits. Locke does maintain, however, that each paper in the volume engages the claims of these three strands of thinking. I would argue that this is the case, although some of the papers point back to these divisions more so than others.

In any case, the volume is comprised of three parts: liminal space, temporal space, and shared space. Overall I would argue that the third section is, of the three, the most explicitly occupied with the three strands which Locke identifies in her introduction, and in particular, with the political dimensions thereof. That said, there are certainly papers throughout the volume which are at the very least implicit in their reference to the strands, if not exactly exoteric in their presentation.

The essays in the first part, liminal space, all to some extent concern what Locke calls “border regions or boundaries.” (8) As Locke notes, for Merleau-Ponty these experiences have a definite part to play in the constitution of experience. In the first two papers of this section Glen Mazis and Galen Johnson each offer thoughtful examinations of the way in which depth plays into phenomenological thinking, not to mention phenomenological experience itself. Mazis takes up a study of the depth of darkness and the onset of the night. He concludes that some architects, including Gehry, actually design structures which in their housing of a person embody Merleau-Ponty’s construal of spatial inhabitation by bodies. (40-1) Johnson is mainly concerned with the idea of “unreason” as exemplified in (baroque) painting, and Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in particular, which is, of course, a work of special interest to Merleau-Ponty. I was impressed and intrigued by how, at the end of his paper, Johnson cleverly compared Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze on the movement or “rhythm” at work, while at the same time he called into question the sufficiency of the sort of non-phenomenological rhythm which Deleuze identifies.

It goes without saying that this specific set of essays would be incomplete without a contribution from Edward Casey, who has been involved in this area of phenomenological scholarship for quite some time. Casey’s paper, like Mazis’s, takes up a sustained reflection on a specific work of culture. Here he presents his take on the way in which the very design and phenomenology of the Parthenon is rife with edges and boundaries. His punctilious phenomenological description of the this monumental structure is so in-depth that the edges at play practically disappear before us (just as they arguably do in ordinary experience)―and Casey points out this very fact himself. (85)

The final paper in this first section, that on liminal space, is pretty different, especially compared to the inclusion from Casey, and for this reason the paper really stood out to me. Randall Johnson ambitiously weds a phenomenological analysis of what I’d like to call being-in-water, although not in lip service to English translations of Heidegger, to (what seems to me to be) Lacanian psychoanalytic theorety. Johnson focuses on water as unique in how primitively and directly it is phenomenologically experienced, in contrast, as Locke notes, to the “high-altitude” thinking condemned by Husserl (and echoed by Merleau-Ponty). The sort of boundary at play in liquid immersion is at once drastically different from and markedly similar to the other sorts of experience which are described in the papers of this first section.

The next part of the book is focused on the theme of temporal space, and the way in which, following the thought of Merleau-Ponty, the notion of the flesh is interwoven with a dimension which is oriented in time (not to mention space). This second part of the book almost conceives of time as the sort of “glue” which maintains the myriad boundaries explored in the first part.

Here the first essay, by David Morris, takes a look at how memory transcends what is present on a personal level or basis, and extends outward to—or perhaps extends from—things like “places, buildings, and things.” (109) This essay really resonated with me, and I would imagine with others, right at the beginning when Morris notes how various spatial strategies have been known to masters of memory for a long, long time. In the rest of the paper Morris artfully weaves Merleau-Ponty’s thought with a very reasonable argument for how it is that architecture is “articulating temporality in place.” (121)

Dorothea Olkowski’s paper, which is next in the collection, is particularly useful for how it insightfully situates Merleau-Ponty within a broader phenomenological and philosophico-temporal context. Ultimately her conclusion is that the work of Merleau-Ponty stands superior in a way to that of both Husserl and Bergson (and perhaps Sartre as well) for the manner in which it “brings time to space and articulates how it is that our acts are our abode, our dwelling.” (144)

As was the case with Johnson’s paper at the end of the first part, the next paper in this second part, written by Lisa Guenther, constitutes a shift from the way in which the first two papers are framed. Here Guenther examines the phenomenological position of the person who is profoundly confined, that is, the solitary prisoner, who indubitably is crushed in her or his being by the deliberately diminished version of the lifeworld to which this person is relegated. In spite of my contention that it is the final part of this book which is the most overtly political, here Guenther gives us a lot to think about when it comes to policy, and her paper actually opens with a bevy of statistics reminding us of just how preponderant incarceration is in the present-day USA. Guenther’s conclusions in the paper are most touching and provocative, including her insight that if it is the case that our personal freedom is derived from the “punitive isolation of others” then this is a “sham and shameful kind of freedom.” (164)

Lastly in the second part we find D.R. Koukal’s take on the phenomenological implications of torture, and I have to admit that, like Guenther’s paper, Koukal’s contribution calls for significant political consideration. His paper is focused on the sense in which, following Merleau-Ponty, she or he who is subject to torture is irreparably harmed by the “architect of torture” who institutes a damaged space within which one finds “holes” where previously there was meaning. For Koukal these holes are “distortions of the social fabric” that violate space as we, and others, “terrorists” or not, live it.

The third part of the book concerns space which is shared or communal. There is a lot of interesting material here since one of the fundamental questions comes down to how it is that we phenomenologically experience with others the making or designation of public places. The first paper in this final part is from Rachel McCann, and it offers a very nuanced inspection of Merleau-Ponty’s choice of metaphors in his descriptions of phenomenology. Ultimately McCann’s conclusion is that we as readers should strive to really inhabit the metaphors of which Merleau-Ponty makes use, even if the natural temptation is to engage his thought on the linguistic level alone, since, after all, we know his ideas through his writing. McCann presents an alternative way of reading his writing which is drastically more phenomenological, since what is called for is imaginative thought when it comes to the shared-spatial dimension of the “encounter.”

Next, and in the spirit of some of the more politically-direct work in the second part of the book, there is an essay by Suzanne Cataldi Laba, in which she carries out a phenomenological examination of shelter. Particularly intriguing is her suggestion that some members of our society are subject to fundamental violence to the extent that space, especially in a sheltering sense, is not ensured for all persons, and the absence of such space causes deep phenomenological harm.

Nancy Barta-Smith, in the following paper, presents a phenomenology of being a twin. The upshot of this paper is her suggestion that those of us who are not twins can lean something about Mitsein by considering the ontological and phenomenological position of the twin qua natural double. But the point is to notice how others always already “move us affectively” and Barta-Smith argues that this experience is felt resoundingly by the widow, the reminiscent siblings, and even the lifelong friends.

The final paper of the third part, and of the book, is from Helen Fielding, and it’s on a lot: public art, Irigaray, the body as sexed, and the basic experience of difference. Like the paper by Casey, Fielding’s contribution here is really admirable and worthwhile for how directly it appropriates the phenomenological method in all of its richly descriptive splendor. For Fielding, this is done with art in a Toronto airport, as well as the sculpture Maman by Louise Bourgeois. Fielding’s conclusion is that public spaces and public art operate as confluences out of difference, confluences which arise out of the primordial sameness or proximity which permits us to identify difference in the first place. The implicit suggestion is that it would behoove us to strive to become more cognizant of this fact.

In all, I think that this is an exceptionally impressive collection of provocative essays, all of which apply Merleau-Ponty’s ideas to new fields and frontiers. This book will probably be of most use and interest to those who already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s work, as well as those who are interested in the political implications which are expressed in or entailed by phenomenological concepts and techniques.