In 2005 Finnish architectural theorist Juhani Pallasmaa argued in The Eyes of the Skin that visual representations, computer-generated images, and photographs of buildings have largely supplanted the bodily experience afforded by touching, inhabiting, and otherwise sensually engaging buildings in a material and haptic register. Voicing parallel concerns, architectural educator Katie Lloyd Thomas observed in the introduction to her 2007 anthology Material Matters that the orthographic methods of contemporary architecture have intensified in problematic ways the longstanding privilege assigned by the European architectural tradition to form over matter, since those methods tacitly relegate architectural materials to what she evocatively calls, after Derrida, the “empty spaces between the lines.” These concerns, considered alongside convictions of practitioners and thinkers as diverse as Martin Heidegger and Frank Lloyd Wright that the material, earthly and organic elements of building play a fundamental role in determining the human condition, suggest that any method-driven suppression of a critical significance belonging to the correlated haptic and material registers of architectural experience may have consequences far beyond the concerns of aesthetics and architectural theory. In particular, such a suppression may shape and direct, for better or worse, the social and political forces to which building both responds and contributes. The architecture of National Socialism is a sobering case in point.
The German Philosopher Martin Heidegger along with other phenomenologically-oriented theorists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Juhani Pallasmaa have provided us with the philosophical means to begin correcting a vision-dominated, touch-insensitive approach to architectural theory and practice. However, that corrective requires not only a discovery of the meaning proper to architectural materiality itself and an acknowledgement of its sensible effects, but a radical reorientation of thinking toward the material and haptic dimensions of architecture and the corporeal experience of dwelling.
Heidegger’s analyses of earth and world open upon new ways of thinking the meaning and role of the material element in art and architecture. According to Heidegger, art in general does more than manifest the truth of worldly connections, significations, and functions: it discloses the meaning and beauty of earth and our natural environment. One way to make sense of Heidegger’s artistic conception of world and earth, and his insistence on using those particular terms to talk about works of art and architecture, is to recognize that his duality strategically reconceives the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter. On Heidegger’s account, Aristotle’s hylomorphic approach may indeed provide an effective way to think about material objects when what concerns us are solely the generic categories and concepts under which such objects can be ontologically identified. But according to Heidegger, that dialectic of matter and form occludes rather than clarifies the nature of non-generic, socially-embedded beings—especially, works of art and architecture. Moreover, matter conceived as earth is more amenable to disclosing the meaning of “Nature” than is the hylomorphic conception. For Heidegger, both the Cartesian concept of material nature and the derivative idea of natural things conceived as empirical entities, conceal rather than reveal Nature as such. While Heidegger’s investigations in “the Origin of the Work of Art” do not fully correct these generic and use-oriented understandings of Nature per se, his descriptions of earth are consistent with the few references to Nature he makes in Being and Time, and they point us toward a fundamentally different, artistically-oriented experience of the natural world. And in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” Heidegger’s dedicated text on architecture and building, he persuasively argues that in both nature-oriented and art-oriented comportments, matter appears more authentically than it does either to science or to utility. And this is of considerable consequence to architecture. Why? Because architecture shapes our capacity to dwell, and dwelling requires an authentic relation to Nature and constitutes the very essence of Dasein, the essentially social way every human being exist in the world. Consequently, architecture plays a singularly determinative part in the production of the social relations and power dynamics that constitute our world and disclose our essential belonging to earth and Nature.
This paper will accordingly argue for a phenomenological understanding of architecture, an understanding especially attuned to the haptic, material, social and environmental components of building—and thereby, to the role architecture plays in defining social relations and our comportment toward Nature.