Environmental & Architectural
Non-Ordinary Architectural Phenomenologies
Bermudez is an Associate Professor at the University of Utah College School of Architecture + Planning. He has received national and international recognition for his pedagogic work in design process and media as well as for his interdisciplinary research in information visualization. Over the past five years, Bermudez has focused on developing a philosophy and practice of “Voluntary Architectural Simplicity” (VAS) and studying the phenomenology of architectural experience and making. On the latter, see EAP, spring 2008, p. 4; also see his website at: www.arch.utah.edu/julio.htm. email@example.com. © 2010 Julio Bermudez.
Although phenomenological studies address the structures and processes underlying ordinary consciousness of places and architecture, little attention has been given to non-ordinary, more intense experiences. Yet understanding these less common environmental and architectural encounters may prove helpful in a variety of ways ranging from a better understanding of what is “typical” to dealing with environmental and ethical issues associated with uncontrolled growth.
This essay contributes to these possibilities by examining the nature of exceptional aesthetic experiences of the built environment. I begin with five exhibits offering a representative survey of what I call “non-dualist experiences.” Each exhibit includes a statement summarizing the main point of the italicized quotation that follows. I have attempted to include just enough commentary to provide context for the particular citation.
At that moment something happened: all my fear evaporated, but so did bee and sun and grass… and I. For at that instant sunlight and sky, grasses, bee and I merged, fused, became one—yet remained sun and sky and grass and bee and I. It lasted for a heartbeat, an hour, a year… Then, as abruptly, I was I again, but filled with indescribable bliss….
[Once one accepts] the alluring invitation of architecture… [he or she can be] profoundly transformed by it in ways that are beyond one’s control and powers of self-conscious deliberation. [Such experience] lifts one to higher levels of consciousness and spiritual awareness in ways that the ordinary acquisition of knowledge cannot. [The result may be] transformations that entail not simply new ways of thinking but even new ways of being .
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named… This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed .
That story telling took many of us in the audience back to our own moments of recognition—the fortunate, transcendent instant when the universe clicked into adjustment and we understood the power of architecture. For some in the audience, the moment of architectural recognition might have occurred at the Salk Institute; for another, at Ronchamp. Not everyone has experienced an ‘Aha!’: Some find a ripening of appreciation over time. The route is an individual, inevitable one… Beside that intuitive understanding, all learning pales and the lights go dim .
[I] came to realize that an environment’s contemplation-inducing, poetic/spiritual dimension is ultimately its capacity for making a visitor/user’s concern of day-to-day reality recede temporarily into the background in favor of an openness to contemplative beholding. The ensuing processes of contemplation effectively cause one to step outside one’s typical frames of reference of time, space, and self, and can lead to a greater feeling of being in the present and partaking in a greater harmony of all being .
These five exhibits provide strong evidence that exceptional architectural aesthetics involve situations falling outside what is considered ordinary experiences of architecture and place. Their highly attentive state, significant perceptual irregularities, dissolution of the subject-object division, intimate depth, overwhelming sense of well-being, transcendence of culture and language, and transformative potential challenge our understanding regarding architecture, self, and beyond.
Here I argue that two interdependent lived events are responsible for these radical outcomes: first, an extraordinary aesthetic experience itself; and, second, an operation enabling this experience—that is, a sweeping “reduction” of intellectual, emotional and sensorial “noise.”
In his Pictures and Tears, art historian James Elkins offers one possible answer . Elkins considers the perplexing inability of most art academicians and critics to be experientially moved by art, in particular, painting. This is especially puzzling because these professionals are highly educated and supposedly the most likely to fully appreciate the arts. Elkins uses “crying” to empirically gauge the loss of conscious control over one’s reaction to an aesthetic event. In other words, crying demonstrates a lived state of intense aesthetic joy.
Elkins argues that the failure of art professionals to reach an aesthetic rapture is due to their hard-earned intellectual proficiency. For example, when art experts encounter a painting they cannot avoid but to use their knowledge and critical skills. Because this approach is basically logical-analytical, it depends on establishing an “objective” distance between the critic and the artwork. The ensuing intellectual detachment results in a cognitive shield that impedes the development of enough intimacy with the work to trigger the aesthetic arousal. The very way of looking generates the gap!
The experiential cure to this aesthetic impotence is simple but not easy to effect. The need is a shift from dualist to non-dualist experience. Phrased in the language of philosopher Ken Wilber, extraordinary aesthetics requires a fundamental lived turn from “third-person” detachment to “first-person” intimacy . This turn means that “my” experience of a place (“it”) must shift from “me” and “it” as a duality to an experiential oneness where subject and object merge (“I” = “it”).
Traditional phenomenological methods enable us to move from the limiting, instrumentalist view of architecture as inert matter to be approached externally (an “it”) to one of materialized intentionality evoking a direct conversation (a “you”). This shift, however, is still not enough to move us away from a lived dualism. A radical transition to first-person identification (I = you = it) is necessary to reach a deeper aesthetic experience.
Such first-person identification manages to be simultaneously selfless and intimate. This integration of lived opposites explains why a moving aesthetic experience can simultaneously overpower one’s will and yet be so intimately and deeply intuited. Elkins provides many examples in which viewers of paintings find themselves weeping in joy for beauty without quite knowing why or how they got there.
But how is this possible? Let us consider a specific exceptional experience. Although it is evident that a self is present during intense experiences (and therefore aware of what is happening), it is also evident that this awareness is not my “ordinary” self. As soon as my “usual” self observes my aesthetic epiphany, that very feeling begins to recede in direct proportion to my increase in self-monitoring.
As I begin to slip from first-person to second- or even to third-person identification, I realize the shift and work to hold the intensity of the moment. But the more I try, the faster the ineffable moment slips away until I am left with “me” and “it” as separate.
Who hasn’t had this frustrating experience? The shift feels like falling from grace. In the cases described by Elkins, the self-conscious realization of crying is the “kiss of death” for that stirring aesthetic experience as it rapidly descends from first-person to third-person presence.
Let me emphasize that consciousness is never absent during the aesthetic arousal. Rather, what is absent is self-consciousness. There is no disturbing ego-watcher that comments, judges, and ends up sabotaging the more intense experience. In other words, exceptional aesthetic encounters are highly conscious experiences without ego.
This is what is meant by a non-dualist experience: a lack of separation between subject and object and a sense of lived mergence between the two. In this state, all is subjective or objective—or, more precisely, just experience-as-happening.
If so, however, we must ask who or what is thus consciously present but not interfering with the unfolding, deeper moment? As an answer to this question, we can speak of a perceptual awareness uninhibited by normal frameworks of interpretation, including of the self. We may call this awareness being-as-consciousness.
Implicit in this argument and made unmistakably clear in the five exhibits above is that extraordinary architectural experiences circumvent the cognitive filters and noise occupying the usual mind. Such bypass guarantees the necessary transparency to see into the fuller nature of things (world) and being (consciousness).
This possibility implies a mode of phenomenology that transcends cognition! Though grounded in cognition, the exceptional aesthetic experience shifts toward a post-cognitive mode of being. Claiming that an intense aesthetic experience brings forth post-cognitive apprehension is not insignificant, since many twentieth-century efforts in philosophy and the social sciences have sought to demonstrate the impossibility of a phenomenological transcendence.
Husserl built the phenomenological reduction on two key philosophical insights. One insight arose from Kant’s epistemological distinction between phenomenon (the thing as experienced) and noumenon (the thing itself). Kant’s argument that the noumenon is forever beyond direct access established all reality as irremediably “phenomenological.”
A second important source of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction was Descartes’ act of doubting. By pushing doubting to its limits, Husserl was forced to pursue a meticulous re-examination of every tenet of philosophy. In the end, he was left with “just being” as phenomenological consciousness. In attempting to review thoroughly the phenomemenology of being, Husserl faced the challenge of finding a method to remove any veil of prejudice without inhibiting conscious operation .
The phenomenological reduction is an act of suspension rather than an act of transformation. This effort neither changes an idea or belief into its opposite nor converts any idea or belief into a presumption, suggestion, or doubt. Rather, as Husserl explains,
Although there is considerable difference in the role that intention plays in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction versus intention’s role in an exceptional aesthetic experience (the former demands an initial act of willful intention, whereas the later tends to happen spontaneously and, in one sense, unintentionally), there is nonetheless some commonality in actions and results.
One source for demonstrating this commonality is other intentional reductive methods—for example, the meditation practices of Mahayana Buddhism. Meditation is a progressive, deliberate act of letting go of sensory and cognitive awareness so that one might access a state of unconditioned awareness .
This reductive method leads potentially to a state of intense conscious concentration (samadhi) that silences conditioning and moves the meditator toward a state of non-dualist mindfulness with access to reality-as-it-is (tathata). Drawing on the Buddhist literature and on the personal accounts of expert meditators, one can argue that the lived reduction possible through deep meditation has much in common with Husserl’s reduction and extraordinary aesthetics .
Common to both these reductions is their liberation of the individual from ordinary cognitive practices. By suspending knowledge, belief, and normal perception, these reductions aim at seeing what is really there and not what conditioning “wants” to see. This manner of bracketing is so radical that not even the self-as-we-know-it escapes; what remains is a highly alert, unfolding event.
In other words, a fundamental transposition from a dualist to a non-dualist perspective results in non-ordinary “illuminated” experience—i.e., an extremely vivid, direct, and transparent intuition of the contents and forms of consciousness.
As indicated above, much has been written about the fundamental flaw of the phenomenological reduction. Language philosophers, behavioral and cognitive psychologists, reception aestheticians, and other critics have sought to demonstrate the impossibility of overcoming referential frameworks, be they linguistic, cultural, social, or behavioral .
On the other hand, one can find many trustworthy reports of extraordinary aesthetic experiences that are difficult if not impossible to account for using standard Western-philosophical frameworks. Other well documented accounts of intense non-dualist encounters such as peak experiences , deep meditation , and highly creative states  all strongly suggest that the arguments opposing the phenomenological reduction are incorrect.
Another source of resistance and skepticism is the actual difficulty in performing any phenomenological reduction: Bracketing language, culture, and emotional and intellectual “inessentials” is hugely difficult but not insurmountable. Learning how to successfully accomplish a reduction requires substantial training and practice.
Meditators, for example, typically spend many years in practice, and artists invest great amounts of effort, time, and involvement to reach high creative states. The rarity of exceptional aesthetic experiences only adds evidence to the difficulty inherent in reaching intensive non-dualist events. But the fact that they do happen demonstrates the power and reality of such intense experiences.
An Integral Phenomenology
Just as one paradigm cannot comprehensively describe all the phenomena of physics, so one mode of phenomenology cannot address the inexhaustible realm of human consciousness and experience. It would be more realistic and useful to consider different phenomenologies to describe different modes and intensities of experiences. The resulting integral phenomenology would permit us to carry out a much wider range of inquiries than is possible today. This broader phenomenology would also allow us to build a much larger map of human being.
To move in this direction, I propose a systematic, threefold research effort geared to: (1) understanding non-dualist aesthetic experiences; (2) studying the built environment’s role as a potential gateway to transcendental insights; and (3) developing a thorough, well-balanced phenomenological model that coordinates first-, second-, and third-person experiential perspectives.
2. L. Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000), vol. 1, p. 97, p. 102.
3. C. Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), p. ix, xi.
4. R. Ivy, “The Essence of Education,” Architectural Record (2006), p.17.
5. H. Hermann, “On the Transcendent in Landscapes of Contemplation,” in R. Krinke, ed., Contemporary Landscapes of Contemplation (NY: Routledge, 2005) pp. 36-37.
6. J. Elkins, Pictures and Tears (NY: Routledge, 2001).
7. K. Wilber, Integral Psychology (Boston: Shambala, 2000).
8. E. Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (London: Allen & Unwin, 1931).
9. Husserl often described phenomenology as a “philosophy of beginnings”; he argued for the necessity to reconsider all philosophical assumptions.
10. Husserl, Ideas, p.108.
11. A. Brahm, “Degrees of Seeing”, Buddhadharma 5, 1(2006): 42-47; A. Watts, The Way of Zen (NY: Pantheon, 1957).
12. For example, T. Hiss, The Experience of Place (NY: Knopf, 1990); C. Howett, “If the Doors of Perception Were Cleansed,” in D. Seamon, ed., Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993); B. Jacks, “Reimagining Walking. Four Practices,” Journal of Architectural Education 58, 3 (2004): 5-9; R. Krinke, ed., Contemporary Landscapes of Contemplation (NY: Routledge, 2005).
13. For example, T. Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983).
14. M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (NY: Harper & Row, 1990).
15. J. Austin, Zen and the Brain (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998); S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (NY: Weatherhill, 1970).
16. B. Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (NY: Putman, 1989); B. Ghiselin, The Creative Process (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1952); J. Sloboda, Generative Processes in Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).