HOLL Steven Speaking Through The Silence Of Perceptual Phenomena (2013)

Abstract: Since architecture is part of the everyday world, it has the capacity to lend meaning to life and to change in subtle ways. Architecture immediately and simultaneously impacts human senses. These sensory experiences are combined into a comprehensive experience that corresponds to the tactility of the architecture, with its materiality and details. The architectonic experience is linked to phenomenological experiences and is not comparable to emotional experiences. Architectural design from a single perspective is fundamentally impossible. Architecture encompasses the relationship between the idea driving the design and the phenomena defining the spatial experience.

What is Good Architecture?, OASE, (90), 23–26. Retrieved from

Architecture holds the power to inspire and transform our day-to-day existence. The everyday act of pressing a door handle and opening into a light-washed room can become profound when experienced through sensitised conscious ness. To see and to feel these physicalities is to become the subject of the senses. Space is a quality bound up in perception. Architecture therefore, more fully than other art forms, engages the immediacy of our sensory perceptions. The passage of time; light, shadow and transparency; colour phenomena, texture, material and detail all participate in the complete experience of architecture. While the emotional power of other arts, such as painting, cinema and music, is indisputable, only architecture can simultaneously awaken all the senses, all the complexities of perception. While a cinematic experience of a stone cathedral might draw the observer through and above it, even moving pho- tographically back in time, only the actual building allows the eye to roam freely among inventive details. Only the architec- ture itself offers the tactile sensations of textured stone surfaces and polished wooden pews, the experience of light changing with movement, the smell and resonant sounds of space, the bodily relations of scale and proportion. All these sensations combine within one complex experience, which becomes articulate and specific, though wordless. The most evoking buildings speak through the ‘silence’ of perceptual phenomena.

As in direct perceptual experience, architecture is initially un- derstood as a series of partial experiences, rather than a totality. Our urban experience is made up of partial views: a glance down an alley, a view up a façade, a layer of space beyond an opening. Our perception develops from an aggregate of experiences, animated by use, by light, sounds and smells, and by a series of overlapping perspectives, which unfold according to angle and speed of movement. While we might analyse our movement along a specific path at a given speed, we can never enumerate all possible views. In this way, no single view of a building or urban space can ever be complete, as the perception of a built object is altered by its relationship to juxtaposed voids, the sky and the street.

Therefore, we can’t design with a singular viewpoint in mind. The movement of the body as it crosses through overlapping perspectives formed within spaces is the key elemental connection between ourselves and architecture. If we allow magazine photos or screen images to replace experience, our ability to perceive architecture will diminish so greatly that it will become impos- sible to comprehend. Our faculty of judgment is incomplete without this experience of crossing through spaces. The turn and twist of the body engaging a long and then a short perspective, an up-and-down movement, an open-and-closed or dark-and-light rhythm of geometries—these are at the core of the spatial score of architecture.

Simultaneously integral to our perception is the haptic realm of architecture, defined by the sense of touch. When the material- ity of the details forming an architectural space becomes evident, sensory experience is intensified, and psychological dimensions are engaged. Today, materials in architecture often tend towards the synthetic; wooden casement windows are delivered with weatherproof plastic vinyl coverings, metals are coated with a synthetic outer finish, tiles are glazed with coloured synthetic coatings, stone is simulated as is wood grain. The sense of touch is cancelled with these commercial industrial methods, as the texture and essence of material and detail is displaced. The total perception of architectural space, however, depends as much on the material and detail of the haptic realm as the taste of a meal depends on the flavours of authentic ingredients. Of course, materials may be altered through a variety of means, which do not diminish, and may even enhance their natural properties. Glass can become radiant as its functional role is shifted. Bending glass induced variations to a simple plane with a geometric curvature of reflected light. Cast glass with its mysterious opacity traps light in its mass and projects it in a diffused glow. Sandblasted glass, likewise, has a luminescence, which changes subtly depending on the glass thickness and type. Metals can be significantly transformed by sandblasting, bending and acid oxidation, to create rich materiality of surface and colour. The texture of a silk drape, the sharp corners of cut steel, the mottled shade and shadow of rough sprayed plaster reveal an authentic essence, which stimulates the senses.

These phenomenological experiences of space are not simply emotional encounters, but are pure ‘perceptions’. By taking perception as a model for architectural thought, a student of architecture—which I strive to be—struggles to become a seer. The art of seeing brings a certain joy in engaging the revealing of the world, but it remains in our ‘perspective’ from which we form our own visions. Simultaneously, while sensations and impressions quietly engage us in the physical phenomena of architecture, the generative force lies in the intentions behind it. Goethe’s remark that ‘one should not seek anything behind the phenomena; they are lessons themselves…’ stops short of a more modern philosophical approach, which originated with the philosophers Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, and was later developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Intentionality sets architecture apart from a pure phenomenology. Whatever the perception of a built work—whether it be troubling, intrigu- ing, or banal—the mental energy that produced it is ultimately deficient unless intent is articulated.

Architecture is the bridge between an idea, which drives a design, and the phenomena of the experience of space. The essence of a work of architecture is an organic link between concept and form. Empirically, we might be satisfied with a structure as a purely physical entity, but intellectually and spiritually, we need to un- derstand the motivations behind it. This duality of intention and phenomena is like the interplay between objective and subjective, or more simply, between thought and feeling.

Pieces cannot be subtracted or added without upsetting fun- damental properties. A concept, whether a rationalist explicit statement or a subjective demonstration, establishes an order, a field of inquiry, a limited principle. Each challenge in archi- tecture is unique. An organising idea fuses a site, a programme, and circumstance, yielding a multiplicity of experiential phenomena. The concept establishes an order, a field of inquiry, a limited principle. However, the phenomena of the experiences; the ultimate perception is the most important measure of architecture.

The challenge for architecture is to stimulate both inner and outer perception; to heighten phenomenal experiences while si- multaneously expressing meaning; and to develop this duality in response to the particularities of site and circumstance.