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Comments on Four Papers, ACSA Annual Meetings, 1991

Karsten Harries

Editor's note:  The 79th annual meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture was held in Washington, D.C., 6-9 April, 1991. One session at the conference was devoted entirely to "Phenomeno­logy, Architecture and the Lifeworld."  Moderator of the session was Kay Bea Jones, Architecture, Ohio State University; and commen­tator, Karsten Harries, Philosophy, Yale University.  The four presenters were Cynthia Jara, Robert Mugerauer, Nicholas Salmon, and David Seamon. What follows is Harries' spoken commentary, slightly revised for publication here.
For readers who would like access to the four presentations that Harries critiques, they are published in:  John Hancock & William Miller, eds.
  Architecture:  Back...to...Life (Washing­ton, D. C.:  ACSA Press, 1991). 


   In his paper, David Seamon tells us that "from the vantage point of existential phenomenology, the lifeworld is the taken-for- granted context and tenor of everyday life."  Seamon describes the "architectur­al lifeworld," in turn, as "the physical and spatial context of rooms, buildings, and open spaces among buildings, in which human experience occurs."

   I have to confess that such appeals to the life­world make me a bit uneasy, especially when they are supported with references to my own work, for example, to my appeal to what I have called natural symbols.  As Heidegger insisted, and as I think we have to insist, the everyday lifeworld is inevitably shaped, and perhaps misshaped by history.  In an obvious sense, our lifeworld is not that of the Greeks, or of the Middle Ages; nor is it that of a South American peasant.  And, as so many have insisted, especially phenomenologists, the shape of our lifeworld cannot and should not be accepted as something that simply has to be.  Is life in that world life as it should be?  Does it not invite, even demand, critique?

   This, of course, raises the question of where such critique is to find its criteria.  Surely not in a simple appeal to that world in which we find ourselves first of all and most of the time, for isn't it precisely this world that has invited critique by those who charge that the shape of our modern world has covered up what is essential?  Should we then appeal to some "essen­tial existential qualities" rooted in what one is tempted to call the essential lifeworld, buried beneath the world we live in first of all and most of the time?  Norberg-Schulz thus invites us to return from the technological world to a more original dwelling, to a more primordial, more essential understanding of the world, where Heidegger provides suggestive pointers.  But at this point, we have to ask to what extent this supposedly essential lifeworld is a construct, support­ed by dissatisfaction with our lifeworld, supported in turn by a particular and questionable ideological stance.

   I think we have to admit that the phenomenolo­gist's lifeworld, just like Laugier's description of the state of nature, is inevitably a precarious con­struction, colored by cultural and personal preju­dice.  We cannot appeal to the lifeworld as to a firm ground.  This, however, is not to say that constructions of the lifeworld are therefore altogeth­er arbitrary.  They would be so if there were not some tension in our lives between the world we actually find ourselves in and the world in which we would like to find our­selves, between our everyday reality and more immediately experienced claims that will not be silenced.  To sum up:  I take history too seriously to be able to appeal to the lifeworld as to a readily available ground.

   And what I have just said about the lifeworld must be repeated with respect to natural symbols, which are inevitably mediated by particular histories and landscapes.  To be sure, I also want to insist that we are not so immersed in our historical situation that we cannot criticize aspects of it by appealing to aspects of human nature, including deep-rooted needs and desires that have changed little if at all in the course of recorded history.  This gives a limited validity to appeals to human nature, or to natural symbols, or to architectural archetypes.

   But again, one should not expect too much from such appeals.  To speak, for example, of the natural language of vertical and horizontal is not yet to say anything about how these symbols should be weigh­ted.  Should we, for example, strive for a balance between the two or let one speak more strongly than the other?  And granted that narrow stairs carry different connotations than wide stairs, or that steep stairs often suggest struggle, as Seamon points out in regard to his discussion of Thiis-Evensen's work.  Even so, the appeal to natural symbols by itself, while perhaps illuminating, will never prove suffi­cient to argue for the look of a particular set of stairs.  Inevitably such determinations presuppose particular contexts and different and changing ideals of communal dwelling.  Such ideals find no ade­quate ground in appeals to the lifeworld.  We must take care not to elevate the lifeworld into something like a timeless essence not subject to challenge.


   In his paper, Robert Mugerauer asks what "a phenomenological approach would say about the midwestern porch as a distinctive element of an American architectural vocabulary and about archi­tecture as opening for world?"  The very formula­tion of this question recognizes the need to relate what we can call the language of porches, not just to such broad distinctions as that of inner and outer, but to a very specific history and geography, to a quite specific ideal of human dwelling.  His analysis of the porch as a semi-private space recognizes the way these porches connote particular ways of relating the house to nature and, especially, to society.  Muger­auer thus emphasizes the porch's fundamentally democrative mode of dwelling.


   That phenomenology should not embalm past conventions by elevating them into universal condi­tion or "essences" is one claim made by Nicolas P. Salmon in his paper.  Salmon is right to be suspi­cious of appeals to essences.  In this connection, he also makes reference to my own appeal to natural symbols.  To clarify that appeal let me restate once more my basic point:  I do, indeed, want to argue that the language of architecture has its ground in our being in the world, where we have to recognize that the world in which we find ourselves is inevita­bly historical.

   But it is not equally historical in all its aspects.  We have to recognize the many different strands or themes that make up our being in the world, some of quite recent origin, others as old as humanity as we know it.  To give just one example, when we read the Odyssey, we find passages that present themselves to us as belonging to a world that is long past and irrecoverably lost to us, while others seem quite contemporary.

   The same is true of our experience of architec­ture.  There is a sense in which a Greek temple or a Gothic cathedral belong to a world that has perished.  But this is not to say that their archi­tecture‑-for example, the temple's fluted columns or the cathedral's diapha­nous walls‑-speak to us only of what has perished.  There is a sense in which this architecture continues to speak to us with an immediacy that justifies talk of natural symbols.

   Not that I think that the appeal to natural sym­bols can ever tell us how we should build.  It can, howev­er, help to make our building more thought­ful, somewhat in the same way as in Salmon's suggestion that the poetry of Heidegger's descrip­tion of a Black Forest House should not mislead us.  As I have pointed out in a number of places, the world presup­posed by such building not only lies behind us, but we cannot responsibly wish for its return.  One does, indeed, meet in Heidegger's work with a conserva­tive, romantic critique of modernity that invites the celebration of such images.  But authenticity today demands a yes to the still uncertain promise of our future, and that includes a more wholehearted yes to technology than allowed by Heidegger's own broken "yes" and "no."


   In her paper, Cynthia Jara returns to the Greek temple, although unlike Heidegger, who does not identify the temple that figures so prominently in his essay, "The Origin of the Work of Art."  Jara proposes to speak of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, where Vincent Scully proves a helpful guide.  The pilgrim's passage at Delphi is then compared to a modern Pilgrim's progress to and into the Villa Savoie and again to an imaginary pilgrimage and the differing goals.  Such comparison leads to the ques­tion as to "whether both Loos and Le Corbu­sier, as modern designers, did not intuitively experi­ence presencing simply as a modern imperative in their work."

   I would suggest that what is here called pre­sencing is a long recognized, constitutive character of all works of art, although usually it has not been dis­cussed in terms of presencing.  For what does Jara mean by presencing?  She suggests that it can be described as "a heightened awareness of the human condition that goes beyond merely existing."  In this connection, she appeals to the idea of re-presentation, which she relates to the bounding of the site.  As I suggested in the presentation I gave earlier this morning, the idea of re-presentation is, indeed, closely related to that of framing.  The framed is re-presented.  Re-presentation renders visible: it lets the framed presence, if you wish.  Or, to use a different language, frames establish psychical distance, which has long been discussed as a defining characteristic of our experience of the art work.  There is, then, a sense in which the appeal to presencing is just another way of under­scoring the art character of genuine architecture.

    Are we here "Thinking Like the Greeks"?  I suspect that Heidegger is right when he insists that, more completely than the Black Forest House, the Greek temple lies behind us.  For us the temple no longer lets the gods be present; for us it has lost its world-establishing power.  Today architecture no longer holds the significance that Heidegger claims it held for the Greeks or for those who built Char­tres Cathedral.  This undeniable loss must be acknowl­edged and considered in all its ambiguity.

   To be sure, as suggested before, to point out that the Greek world has perished is not to say that the temple no longer speaks to us at all.  It still bounds its site and, bounding its site, re-presents earth and sky, and in its ruined state, also the passage of time, gesturing towards a world that has passed.  Thus the temple still speaks to us and that it does is testimony to the power of re-presentation and to what I have called natural symbols. 


   To conclude: let me confess to a certain uneasi­ness with the very idea of a phenomenology of architec­ture, an uneasiness grounded in questions concerning the phenomenological project.  Classical phenomeno­logy aimed at the establishment of a firm ground.  But, as I said earlier, we should be suspi­cious of appeals to essences or nature, especially in discus­sions of dwelling and building.  They are never simply read off the things themselves, but as Hei­degger recognized, receive their direction from a particular ethical stance.  Appeals to the lifeworld are inevitably colored by particular ideals of dwell­ing.  In this sense they are never altogether free from prejudice.  Phenomenology will never be pure enough.

          From this I do not conclude that appeals to nature or essences are therefore pointless.  They are un­avoidable given attempts to justify a particular practice such as a particular way of building.  But by admitting that concepts like nature or essence never provide more than regulative ideals, that they fail to provide an unshakable ground, we open phenomeno­logy to continuous challenge and critique and do justice to Heidegger's insight that authentic thinking and dwelling never finds itself on firm ground, is always underway, a journeying entangled in history and based on inevitably precarious and creative interpretations of what matters.  To deny all appeals to nature in the name of convention is to leap over human reality as it has evolved.  To appeal to nature as a ground that assigns us our place is to sacrifice the future to the past, freedom to necessity.