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Twenty-Five Important Works in Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology


Alphabetized by author, this list has been compiled by David Seamon, Editor of Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology. Several of the entries here are not explicitly phenomenological; they are included because they discuss important lived aspects of peoples’ dealings with environments, places, landscapes, buildings, and the natural world. Also note that this list does not include: (1) relevant “first-generation” texts such as  Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space (1958), Mircea Eliade’s Sacred and Profane (1961), Otto Bollnow’s Human Space (1963), or Martin Heidegger’s writings on building and dwelling; (2) edited collections; (3) discussion of the nature of phenomenology; or (4) phenomenological research methods. For introductions to phenomenology, see D. Stewart and A. Mukunis, The Nature of Phenomenology (Ohio Univ. Press 1990); and L. Embree et al., eds., Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (Kluwer 1997). In regard to “empirical” phenomenological research, one of the best examples remains the four volumes of the Duquesne Studies in Phenomenological Psychology (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1971—1983), Originally published in Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, vol. 20, no. 3 (fall 2009), pp. 5-7.

1. Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, 4 vols. (Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure, 2002—05).

This four-volume masterwork explores the nature of a particular kind of order that Alexander calls wholeness, which, whether in nature or human-made, is the “source of coherence in any part of the world.” He argues that, wherever there is wholeness, there is life, which involves such qualities as good health, well being, vitality, handsomeness, and beauty. Though Alexander has never called his work "phenomenological," The Nature of Order is a major contribution to phenomenologies of seeing, understanding, designing, constructing, and making. Most broadly, it points toward a "phenomenology of wholeness-as-evoked-through-qualities-of-the-spatial-and-material-world."

2. Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature (Great Barrington, MA: Lindesfarne Press, 1996).

This physicist explores the possibility of a qualitative science of nature, drawing on the proto-phenomenological work of Goethe. The book is an essential contribution to a “phenomenology of wholeness” and provides insightful discussion as to what a phenomenology and hermeneutics of the natural world might entail.

 3. Gordon G. Brittan, Jr., “The Wind in One’s Sails,” in   M. J. Pasqualetti et al., eds., Wind Power in View (NY: Academic Press, 2002).

This philosopher and inventor details his efforts to develop a place-based wind turbine founded in the Heideggerian-inspired thinking of philosopher Albert Borgmann. A valuable real-world example of how the way we understand founds what we make and how we act.

4. Anne Buttimer, “Grasping the Dynamism of Lifeworld,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 66 (1976):277-92.

This geographer provides one of the earliest efforts to identify environmental aspects of the lifeworld—e.g., social space, sense of place, time-space rhythms, and the lived dialectic between home and horizon. She recognizes that both geographical and phenomenological thinking on the environmental and spatial nature of the lifeworld are incomplete and need integration conceptually and practically.

5. Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993; 2nd expanded edition, 2009; includes new introduction & two additional chapters).

This philosopher argues for place as a central ontological structure founding human experience.  Drawing on Merleau-Ponty, Casey argues that place is important existentially partly because of our presence as bodily beings: We are “bound by body to be in place.” Also see his ontological history of place—Fate of Place (Univ. of California Press, 1997).

6. V. Frank Chaffin, “Dwelling and Rhythm: The Isle Brevelle as a Landscape of Home,” Landscape Journal, 7 (1989):96-106.

This landscape architect provides a sensitive phenomenological study of the Isle Brevelle, a 200-year-old river community on Louisiana’s Cane River. Chaffin moves from outside to inside this landscape by presenting its regional history and geography, by interviewing residents, and, finally, by canoeing the Cane river, which he comes to realize is the “focus of the community-at-home-and-at-large.” A valuable model for phenomenologies of real-world places and landscapes.

7. Kimberly Dovey, “The Quest for Authenticity and the Replication of Environmental Meaning,” in D. Seamon & R. Mugerauer, eds., Dwelling, Place and Environment (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985).

This architect argues that authentic environmental meaning is not a condition of the physical environment but, rather, a situation “of connectedness in the relationship between people and their world.” He asks how buildings and environments today might evoke a stronger authenticity and sense of place.

8. Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969).

This Egyptian architect tells the intriguing story of designing from scratch a village for 7,000 displaced Egyptian peasants known as the Gournis. A provocative effort to understand the Gournis’ lifeworld and to design dwellings, public buildings, and village spaces accordingly.

9. Karsten Harries, “Thoughts on a Non-Arbitrary Architecture,” Perspecta, 20 (1983):9-20; reprinted in D. Seamon, ed., Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993).

To circumvent the dilemma of arbitrariness in environmental design, this philosopher calls for a language of “natural symbols”—essential meanings providing identity and orientation in human life, for example, up/down, inside/outside, vertical/horizontal, light/dark, and so forth. Also see his Ethical Function of Architecture (MIT Press, 1997).

10. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (NY: Vintage, 1961).

This book could be described as an implicit phenomenology of the city and urban lifeworld, which Jacobs interprets in terms of a small-scaled functional and physical diversity generating and fed by the “street ballet”—an exuberance of place and sidewalk life grounded in the everyday goings-on of many people carrying out their own ordinary needs and activities.

11. Daniel Kemmis, The Good City and the Good Life (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1995).

Drawing on the ideas of Martin Heidegger and Christopher Alexander, this political philosopher considers the idea of urban wholeness and healing as it might have meaning for urban politics and citizenship. A central question is how citizens’ sense of responsibility for their place can facilitate a civilized politics. Also see his Community and the Politics of Place (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

12. Paul Krafel, Seeing Nature (Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green, 1998).

This book points toward a phenomenology of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that all activities, left to their own devices, tend toward greater disorder and fewer possibilities.  As a way to counter the second law, Krafel aims to see the natural world in new ways by shifting perspectives and actions whereby people increase, rather than decrease, the possibilities of the world through intentional, caring efforts grounded in firsthand awareness and understanding.

13. Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred (NY: Paulist Press, 1988). [expanded edition, Oxford Univ. Press, 2001].

This theologian examines the relationship between place and spirituality through four axioms that he believes will help one “to understand the character of sacred space”: (1) sacred space is not chosen, it chooses; (2) sacred space is ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary; (3) sacred space can be moved through without being entered; and (4) the impulse of sacred space is both centripetal and centrifugal, both local and universal. Also see his Solace of Fiery Landscapes: Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998).

14. Jeff E. Malpas, Place and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999).

This philosopher provides a difficult but well-argued account of “the nature and significance of place as a complex but unitary structure that encompasses self and other, space and time, subjectivity and objectivity.” Also see his Heidegger’s Topology (MIT Press, 2006).

15. Robert Mugerauer, Interpretations on Behalf of Place (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994).

In providing an accessible overview of phenomenological, hermeneutical, and post-structural approaches to environmental and architectural concerns, this philosopher focuses on the timely question of “how to have plural meaning and yet a basis for saying that not just anything goes?” Mugerauer finds a partial answer in what he calls “fitting placement”—a style of understanding, design, and policy that respects and responds to social and technological needs but also encourages the emergence of local peoples and places. Also see his Heidegger and Homecoming (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2008).

16. Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci (NY: Rizzoli, 1980).

To develop a phenomenology of the spirit of place, this architectural theorist considers two key questions: (1) What are the generalizable lived qualities of genius loci? (2) How are these qualities expressed in particular places? (his examples are Prague, Khartoum, and Rome). An important contribution to understanding how qualities of the physical world contribute to landscape and place ambience and character.  Also see his Concept of Dwelling (Rizzoli, 1985).

17. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin (London: Academy Editions, 1996).

This architect examines how the design aesthetic of Modernist buildings largely emphasize intellect and vision and how a more comprehensive architecture would accommodate an environmental experience of all the senses as well as the feelings. Also see his Encounters (Rakennustieto Oy, 2005).

18. Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion, 1976, 2009).

Still the single most lucid and accessible demonstration of what phenomenology might offer environmental and architectural concerns. Relph’s focus is a phenomenology of place, the lived heart of which he identifies as insideness—i.e., the degree to which an individual or group feels a sense of belonging and attachment to a locale or environment, which thereby existentially is transformed into a place. Long out of print, this seminal work has finally been reprinted by Pion and includes a new introduction discussing Relph's more recent thinking about place.

19. Edward Relph, Rational Landscapes and Humanistic Geography (London: Croom Helm, 1981).

This book is a powerful explication of Heidegger’s notion of appropriation as a potential vehicle for a lived environmental ethic grounded in respect and care for the natural world—what Relph terms an environmental humility.

20. R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World (NY: Knopf, 1977).

This book provides a history of the changing soundscape—the sonic environment. Schafer develops concepts directly applicable to a phenomenology of the soundscape, including keynotes (a landscape’s recurring natural sounds) and soundmarks (unique sounds that help make a place endearing).

21. Theodor Schwenk, Sensitive Chaos (NY: Schocken, 1976).

Using the approach of Goethean phenomenology. this hydrologist examines the character and patterns of water and air in motion, which he depicts in terms of meander, wave, and vortex. “Today,” writes Schwenk, “people no longer look at the being of water but merely its physical value.”

22. Eva M. Simms, The Child in the World (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 2008).

This psychologist offers a penetrating phenomenological account of early childhood experience, much of which “precedes articulation.” Simms provides eye-opening chapters on embodiment, coexistentiality, spatiality, things, temporality, language, and historicity. One provocative claim that is effectively demonstrated: “In the young child’s experience there is no inner world. There is also no outer world.”

23. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, Safeguarding Our Common Future (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000).

In working toward a phenomenology of sustainability, this philosopher explores how place and emplacement might provide a foothold for grounding environmental responsibilities and actions in relation to particular individuals, groups, and localities.

24. Thomas Thiis-Evensen, Archetypes in Architecture (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1987).

This book is a stunning effort to delineate a phenomenology of architectural experience by exploring how floor, wall, and roof, through the lived meanings of motion, weight, and substance, evoke various degrees of inside-outside continuity or separation. Offers an innovative way to see buildings.

25. S Kay Toombs, “The Lived Experience of Disability,” Human Studies, 18 (1995):9-23.

This philosopher, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, draws on her personal experience to construct a phenomenology of illness. She strikingly demonstrates how an understanding of phenomenological notions like the lived body provides “important insights into the profound disruptions of space and time that are an integral element of changed physical capacities such as loss of motility.” Also see her Meaning of Illness (Kluwer, 1992).