Alberto Pérez-Gómez, “Introduction” to Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, 1983.
The introduction to Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s doctoral dissertation is presented to us as a summary of architectural phenomenology. We’ve encountered bits and criticisms of phenomenology before, but apparently Pérez-Gómez’s is the best articulation of its basic positions. Presumably, this is because the text is a “juxtaposition of architecture theory and Edmund Husserl’s The Crisis of European Science” (1936)—a seminal phenomenological text—and because the dissertation advisor was Dalibor Vesely, head of the noted phenomenological “Essex School.” Other names associated with either the Essex School or Vesely (or the lineage thereof) are Peter Carl, Marco Frascari, and Daniel Libeskind.
For Pérez-Gómez, the 20th century suffers from the historical split between the transcendental qualities of “experience” and the abstract systems of mathematical science. His goal is to trace the history of architecture throughout that split between the formal and transcendental, arriving at the conclusion that only a return to the phenomenon of experience can save architecture from technological determinism.
Whether because the position itself is easy to understand, or because it is so different from the dense theoretical approaches we’ve encountered in other recent essays, Pérez-Gómez’s approach is relatively easy to summarize. First, we are presented with a problem: architecture (and architecture theory) is far removed from actual things, from meaning, from experience, from its nature as an art form, and instead is instrumentalized by the positivist reasoning of modern science. This creates impoverished architecture that cannot figure out why it isn’t awesome; architects cannot “reconcile mathematics’ demand for invariance…with their conception of architecture as an art rather than a science.” (This problem comes from phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “primacy of perception.”) Architecture’s inability to sense this problem represents an extreme “crisis” that must be addressed if architecture is to recover “meaning.” Second, the problem is the culmination of a long history, beginning in the 17th century, of the separation of experiential, “mythical” qualities from the development of rational, abstract, a priori systems of reasoning. (The apparatus for this historical investigation comes from Edmund Husserl.)
The basic history is as follows: around the 7th century b.c.e. geometry and mathematics and theory began to change the worldview, though preserving a bit of myth and mysticism about the higher order of things, of experience, &c. This lasted until about Galileo, when “space” became geometrical and observable, when the “numerology” of architecture’s historical methodologies was replaced with the rational value of numbers. “At this historical juncture, geometry and number were able to become instruments for the technical control of practical operations and, eventually, for an effective technological domination of the world. Through the new science of mechanics, man began to subject matter to his will.” In short, the history of reason is the slow rejection of myth, of qualitative experiential descriptors, or even of the use of those descriptors in the definition of any field, including architecture, and the rise of positivism and a priori reason.
The loss of mysticism infected architecture, which slowly lost numerology (Medieval) and representational methodologies (Renaissance), and eventually the formal associations of the Beaux-Arts typologies. Typologies themselves were part of the systematizing of architecture, but were eventually replaced by technique, production, mechanics, and functionalism. This move was especially touched off in the 19th century after the work of Jacque-Nicolas-Louis Durand and Gottfried Semper, original theoretical formalizers of architecture’s disciplinary preoccupation. (Husserl uses formal as the opposite of transcendental, more an issue of reasoning and abstraction than of architectural “form.”)
Once faith and reason were “truly divorced” (c.1800c.e.) architecture became reduced to either technical processes or decoration. We may consider the rise of new technologies, construction methods and materials, and new, market-induced programs to be part of this transition. (Basically, refer to all the actual architectural and programmatic problems described in Foucault’s history of Space.)
All the terms above are, of course, signifiers of Modernism and the transformation of architecture into a self-referential language. “Once it adopted the ideals of a positivistic science, architecture was forced to reject its traditional role as one of the fine arts.” Architecture became as much about theory (both Modern and, eventually, Postmodern) as material buildings, another split that it never recovered from. Pérez-Gómez believes architecture slowly lost its poetry, and therefore its meaning, and the obsession with these equivalence of these two things is part of his transcendental givens about the ‘true nature of Architecture.’ Postmodern architectural theory, as we’ve come to know and love it, cannot recover this meaning through self-referential systems and autonomy:
“Architecture cannot be a private game of combinations, a ‘formal language’ invented a priori (architecture for architects), or a question of merely decorating technological structures with arbitrary historical quotations; the necessarily transcendental (semantic) dimension of meaning cannot be disregarded.
Only contemporary phenomenology, with its rediscovery of the primacy of perception…has been capable of overcoming the fundamental dilemma that modern philosophy inherited from Descartes.”
Predictably my first, 21st century reaction to this list of transcendental givens is a dramatic gagging sound. However, we cannot deny the familiarity of some of Pérez-Gómez’s accusations about architectural positivism and technical-ism, especially in the age of digital form finding and parametric determinism. Not only that, but given the amount of cold, reasoning theory we’ve been swimming through in this series, we may find phenomenology to be a return to architectural principles that comfort us. In this line, I am brought away from the cold rigor of Eisenman’s houses think of Zumthor and Ando (and a little Kahn), architects decidedly devoted to an architecture of perception and experience.
Hays soothes our suspicions of commonality: “Phenomenological criticism in architecture…is an important therapeutic corrective to the often overly bleak, cerebral, and ‘antihumanist’ machinations of architecture theory, an attempt to restore the sensory plenitude of lived experience.” Though the articulation of the phenomenological point of view reveals its irritating givens and imperatives, it is a relieving rejection of the Foucault, Tafuri, Jameson brand of theory.
And speaking of Eisenman (above), let me point out one quick reference from this essay. With Husserl’s formal-transcendental diametric we encounter, again, the syntactic-semantic diametric of Chomsky first introduced by Eisenman, vis-à-vis Gandelsonas—that is, a brief return to linguistics.