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Phenomenology and Rootedness in the Modern World

Last week at the seminar on Urban Design – TCP8052 we studied the work of one Norwegian architect, historian and theoretician of architecture Christian Norberg-Schulz. For many years he studied the meaning of phenomena in our world and I find his works on phenomenology extremely relevant today.

                                                                  Christian Norberg-Schulz                                 http://httpsarquitecturaviva.comarticleschristian-norberg-schulz-4                                                                                           

Continental European thinking is largely influenced by phenomenology, by this idea of meaningfulness. You can find it in other places and traditions as well, but more in Europe . In addition,  Norberg-Schultz was drawn by Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Gaston Bachelard, which also were Europeans. I find that way of thinking distinctively implemented. 

   1. 2.3.
Martin Heidegger     http://httpsnews.stanford.edunews2015julyparadigm-heidegger-sheehan-070815.html
2. Edmund Husserl       http://httpsen.wikipedia.orgwikiEdmund_Husserl
3. Gaston Bachelard     http://httpsi.pinimg.comoriginalsf52edbf52edb29c2d59ce216ce75e14fa2c0ea.jpg
The idea of phenomenology concentrates on what is in our minds, what are our impressions about the world, rather than worrying about “How it is generated or measured?”. Everything is in the perception of the world and that’s where it overlaps with the “world of people” of Kevin Lynch. That is why Norberg-Schultz relates to him. Kevin Lynch talks about the meaning of the environment for people whom he asked to draw mental maps in his experiment and how they capture that meaning. Of course, it varies with people’s age, culture, and social status, but not exists as one permanent, abstract meaning, which works everywhere. What Christian Norberg-Schulz tries to do is to relate that understanding of meaning to places like how a space can have a character and what that character means for people. 




Even today in urban design practices one of the main tasks of professionals is to identify the character of a particular area. This identification is only partly measurable, but in general, it is about how people create that meaning. A lot of problems that placemaking claims come from the fact that the meaning of a place is not what a designer thinks, but what people who live there think. A designer can interfere with a particular area, make there any changes, but what really matters is living in this place, the experience that people got here and their memories of this place. That makes a place. Eventually, a designer is unable to create a “place” for people,as his living experience, his thoughts are different from residents’ experience and a lot of elements will not have the same meaning for everyone.  However, what he or she should do is help people to enhance the character of the place in their eyes. All these ideas are against the standardisation and mass production that modernism promotes, as it reduces the possibility to make a place unique. Nevertheless, within a mass standardised world each of us will create his own meanings by living. In massive apartment buildings, where flats are the same, people are different, their life stories are different, their routines and habits are different. Even living in such standards, they are not going to turn into a society similar to bees or ants. By this, I mean that the environment is determined by how we live and what we are, but not vice versa. There is a big role that individuals, households and communities play in establishing the meaning of the environment.
The tradition that Norberg-Schulz locates himself in is the tradition of existentialism that is based on phenomenology, which in its turn is about the living experience. When a person lives, he is simultaneously placed in space and exposed to a certain environmental character.  The two psychological functions associated with this can be called “orientation” and “identification”.  To achieve existential rootedness, a person must be able to navigate, he must know where he is.  But he must also identify himself with the environment and he must know how he is present in a certain place. Without belittling the importance of orientation, we want to emphasize that habitation, first of all, implies identification with the environment. In modern society, meanwhile, attention is almost exclusively focused on the “practical” function of orientation, while identification is left to chance.  As a result, true dwelling, in the psychological sense, is replaced by alienation. Incidentally, Heidegger, whose works, among other things, inspired Christian Norberg-Schulz, wrote a very entertaining paper about dwelling, where he also applies the term “rootedness” to a place.

In general, rootedness is good as how we know now it helps us to identify ourselves with the environment. However, there are some nuances. Too strong rootedness or we can call it a too strong feeling of identity of place, creates in us hostility towards the others as a sense of ownership is inherent for humans. Definitely, if we don’t share spaces with others it will immediately bring undesirable consequences. At the same time, if a space is too open and almost without any meaning, people will get lost in this soilles and meaningless environment, which is actually a sign of modern living. This modern living reduces attachments, human obligations and social connections.

Reading Norberg-Schulz’s prophecy evokes a complex feeling of both satisfaction and sadness.  Satisfaction – from the feeling of the ability of the human intellect to foresee this turn of events more than thirty years ago (although the author’s insight was clearly strengthened by examples contemporary to him).  Sadness comes from the fact that the power of the intellect turns out to be an insufficient alternative to the forces of inertia of professional design consciousness, bureaucracy, money and ignorance, which all too clearly dominate the formation of a modern city.  But isn’t it possible to develop at least the design consciousness, including the resources of architectural phenomenology?

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