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Essay: The Phenomenology of Dwelling in Architecture

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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  • Words: 736 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 3 (approx)

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‘Dwelling’ is a word with two meanings, referring to either a place of habitation, or a continuation of a particular state, be it an emotion or an action. In architecture, ideas of dwelling stem from philosophical studies of human experience and consciousness called phenomenology. This concept takes architectural design beyond the aesthetics and technology of building, to a more meaningful level of the human senses, and “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger) through the ‘places’ we construct within ‘space’, therefore achieving the genius loci – or ‘spirit of place’. To grasp the ideas of dwelling within phenomenology, we must first address what the key premise of phenomenology is.

The earliest use of the term dates back to the 18th Century, by the likes of Johann Heinrich Lambert and G.W.F. Hegel. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that the theory of phenomenology was developed by German philosophers Edmund Husserl and then Martin Heidegger, who believed that “human existence is unquestionably spatial, environmental and, thus, inseparable from the genius loci.” (Heidegger in Grange, …, Pg. 189) In his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1971) he emphasises the importance of the act of construction and building of ‘places’ within the natural environment of the world. Expressing the fear of technology, and the ‘machine age’ stripping us of our essence as human beings. Heidegger states that in order for humans to achieve dwelling, we must unify the so called ‘fourfold’. “In saving the earth, in receiving the sky, in awaiting the divinities, in initiating the mortals,” we begin to bring our inhabited landscape closer to us to a more ‘vernacular architecture’, pulling away from the technological ‘machine age’ and thus, start to enjoy the experience of living once again. To Heidegger, this is the meaning of true dwelling.

Phenomenology is a relatively new concept in architectural design, being somewhat difficult to comprehend. Excluding Heidegger, some other well-known architects and theorists such as Christian Norberg-Schulz, Juhanni Pallasmaa and Kenneth Frampton, have tried to further underpin the principles of what it means to dwell and how it can be achieved through meaningful architecture. One architect, who “approached the issue of dwelling and home from a mental and experiential point of view” is Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto. Perhaps an underrated reference when talking about phenomenology as a philosophy, but indeed a key precedent when it comes to dealing with the “technical, psychological, and social problems related to dwelling and housing.” This is especially prominent in his later housing ‘experiments’.

Born on the 3rd of February 1898 in Kuartane, Finland, Aalto was exposed to the nature of the forest from a young age. His grandfather was a chief forester, and father, a district surveyor, whom Aalto would often lend a helping hand as an assistant. Being surrounded and working with the endless, interwoven horizon of trees, land and water of the Finnish landscape, he recall’s having learned from his father, and the ‘white table’ which they worked on, that “man can deal with nature both in a responsible and positive way and in an unseemingly and destructive way” as well as man having to “exercise tact when approaching nature, that life has to be cultivated carefully – but using technology.” (Weston, Pg.110)

This sensitive way of thinking about the relationship between nature, the built environment as well as human existence is the basis of Aalto’s designs. As stated by Robert McCarter, “Aalto’s architecture involves all the senses” (McCarter, Pg. 7), bringing back the experience of life and its precious moments, a quality which had begun to get lost with the emergence of the ‘machine age’. Undeniably, at the start of his career, he was precedented by rationalist and functionalist ideas, before finding the balance and understanding of the modern individuals needs for fulfilled everyday experiences of dwelling.

The success of the Paimio Sanatorium brought Aalto global success, being “considered the youngest of the first Modernists” (McCarter, Pg. 7) who achieved a highly ‘humanized’ style of architecture. As he distanced himself from the ‘machine aesthetic’ and high levels of industrial production that many modern architects were wrapped up in at the time, he began to experiment with material qualities, … and …, transforming traditional “rooted culture though contemporary construction.” (McCarter, Pg. 7) Perhaps least notably, Aalto’s first attempts at this began with the design of his own home and studio located on Riihitie Street in Munkkiniemi, using his knowledge to extend “the functionalist agenda of modernity into the territory of phenomenology.” (Tyrrell, Pg. 96)

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