Book Review

Architecture's Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern

By Jorge Otero-Pailos. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010; 320 pp., hardcover, $75.00.


In the seminal book, Architecture's Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern, Jorge Otero-Pailos traces the rise of architectural phenomenology as the key influence behind the shift from Modern to Postmodern thinking in western architecture during the 1960s and 1970s. This is the first book to thoroughly describe the effects of phenomenological philosophy on postmodern style. By focusing on the teachers and philosophers of the early postmodern movement, Otero-Pailos is able to give a new perspective to the ideas that shaped contemporary architectural practice. The term Phenomenology is used in the context of philosophy that defines reality as being object and event-based and not independent of it. The author uses as background the writings of Hegelian and post-Hegelian thinkers to create a context for this architectural philosophy and application.

Otero-Pailos examines the works of four architectural historians: Jean Labatut, Charles Moore, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Kenneth Frampton. The book examines how architectural phenomenology fundamentally changed the way architects approached the role of history in the development of postmodern architecture. Their primary motivation was to create a universal language of architecture by understanding the sensory properties associated with the experience of space. On the surface, these four architects seem to have little in common with each other. They would not have defined themselves (with the exception of Labatut and Moore who were mentor and student) as a group. In fact, they often had conflicting ideological perspectives. However, through their interest in phenomenology, this group pioneered a new approach to design that embodied itself in postmodern architecture.

Postmodern architecture was, in many ways, a reaction to the commercialization of modern architecture. This group of architects sought to get back to what they felt to be the true meaning of architecture through "intellect, bodily experience and history" (p. xxxiii). They were attracted to the phenomenological works of philosophers like Gaston Bachelard, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Paul Ricoeur, which they attempted to translate into architectural practice and design.

According to the author, during the mid-20th century architectural history was the most important intellectual subject in the academic lexicon for aspiring building designers. The study of architectural history provided for a more intellectual and meaningful basis in the creation of buildings and also provided a context for reflection on the philosophies behind design. Previously, art historians had maintained control over the discipline of architectural history and approached the history of architecture in the same monographic way that they approached the history of art: through dates, names, and text. This new group of postmodern thinkers felt that architecture should be interpreted in a more aesthetic manner. The result of this conflict with art history was a significant change in the intellectualization of architecture as part of architectural education.

Labatut, followed by Moore, Norberg-Schulz, and Frampton sought to approach history from a new visual perspective by forming a new academic profession: the architect-historian. They circulated their ideas not just through text but also graphic design in magazine and print, photo essays, and building design. They were most influential as teachers of architecture in schools like Yale, Princeton, and Columbia.

Like the authors he describes, Otero-Pailos takes a holistic approach to the history of architectural phenomenology by examining each subject through textual, visual, generational influence, and shared experience. Even the cover of the book plays homage to the "Supergraphics" used by Charles Moore. Otero-Pailos digs deep into the archives using examples from the architects' lives like Norbert-Schulz's MIT lecture notes, Labatut's 1939 World's Fair sketches, and personal interviews about Kenneth Frampton's childhood to provide a comprehensive understanding of their teachings. Through this approach, we are able to understand the way that phenomenology manifested itself in the teachings of each architect-historian.

For Labatut, it is the bodily experience of architecture, which he expressed not just through architecture but also through a fountain and light show at the 1939 New York World's Fair. For Charles Moore, experiencing space was a search for "archetypal psychological experiences which he called "poetic images" that could be interpreted in a new and modern way. "[Moore] developed and perfected the aedicule, a small temple or house within a house, as the archetypal poetic image of inhabitation. The aedicule figured as the elemental architectural frame for human orientation. Wherever it was built, it served to ground human memories in that particular place" (p. xxvii). The use of these archetypal motifs became one of the character defining features of postmodern architecture.

Norbert-Schulz defined experience in architecture through the use of "Genius Loci" or importance of place, which traced the origin of our understanding of place to those experienced in nature. Norbert-Schulz's primary way of expressing these "truths" was through the photographic essays and graphics to portray architecture as "a visual representation of topology" (p. 156). Through his photo essays Norbert-Schulz compared natural features like bohemian landscapes with Czech baroque houses for similarities in form.

Finally, Kenneth Frampton's view of architectural phenomenology was interpreted through critical regionalism. His viewpoint focused on the role of social politics in architecture through its expression using topography, climate, and light on tectonic form. Otero-Pailos is able to trace the origins of Frampton's theories to his study of carpentry under his father as a youth in Surrey; the influence of labor politics at the Architectural Association in London in 1950; and his 1964 reading and interpretation of Hannah Arendt's book The Human Condition (1958) in which she defines the vita activa or active life/life of action and its place in human history (pp. 219-235).

While Architecture's Historical Turn will appeal mostly to academic architectural historians, the understanding of the philosophies and theories behind postmodern architecture is crucial to competent cultural resource management. As these buildings age (e.g., Charles Moore's Sea Ranch will turn 50 in 2013 and will be eligible for inclusion in the National Register) architectural historians and historic preservationists will need to understand the motivations and philosophies behind this architecture in order to interpret its true historical and architectural significance. The interpretation of these buildings requires an educated professional workforce that is able to document and interpret this important 20th-century architectural legacy in its entirety. Without this important dialogue, we will lose important and defining cultural resources as a result of managerial decisions made solely in the realm of vita activa without the measured benefit of the vita contemplativa.

Tara Cubie
National Park Service