Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

At Home: Somaesthetics and Re-Education in Architecture from a Global Perspective

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

At Home: Somaesthetics and Re-Education in Architecture from a Global Perspective

Article excerpt

Just as language has no longer anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connection with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle.

RAINER MARIA RILKE, 1903 [l954]

In his essay "Somaesthetics and Architecture," Richard Shusterman seeks to reclaim the concept of criticality, in the Deweyan sense of re-education, for purposes of philosophy.1 His approach is to focus on architecture and architectural theory in this "post-critical" age. The criticality thus invoked is intended as neither a matrix of evaluation nor of incomplete nihilism, but rather as one that re-educates us toward a reformation of life and art. With an emphasis on "soma," a union of mind and corporeal materiality, Shusterman intervenes in the architectural debates over the notions of "autonomy" and "atmosphere," clarifying the concepts and leading them out of the theoretical impasse within which they have seemed to be locked.

The former approach, autonomy, which encompasses a large cluster of positions and modernist architectural masterpieces, involves a rejection of a history of culturally hegemonic architectural forms and traditions and is broadly motivated by building for democratic social organization. The proponents of autonomy, chief among them Mies Van de Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Helmut Jahn, followed the austere Bauhaus rejection of elite culture, seeking to create architecture out of forms that were generated and configured by considerations of mathematical relations, efficiency, and a commitment to rationalism rather than forms favored by those in power, or forms that were appealing for sentimental reasons. The related notion of autonomy of architectural disciplinarity - as the strict separation of architecture from the social and cultural forces that surround it - sought to provide space to build something new and so posit possibilities of freedom not only for the architect but also for society.

By contrast, the notion of atmosphere in architectural debates connotes a rejection of the abstractions of the modernist architectural project, and the too-often denial of the particularity of the lives of the inhabitants of these buildings, the specific demands of the site, and the cultures within which they live. Proponents of this approach seek to provide a sense of place and meaning - an important, globally democratic motivation - in a world increasingly marked by transience, movement, and alienation. The architects who best exemplify the drive to atmosphere in architecture, albeit for different reasons, are Imre Makowecz, the somewhat controversial Alvar Alto, and the contemporary architects Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor. As a consequence of this architectural development, the notion of architectural disciplinarity has given way to interdisciplinarity in architectural design, appreciation, and education.

Architecture's rejection of criticality in the modernist sense has led the field into what has been called a "post-critical state." Shusterman, however, sees architecture's turn to atmosphere as a form of criticality itself, rather than as a simplistic rejection of an earlier form of criticality. More importantly, through his use of somaesthetics to intervene in these debates, and following Dewey, Shusterman argues that pragmatist philosophy, rather than reducing criticality to "negation" and "rejection," develops "a criticism of criticisms." Pragmatism's ameliorative commitments offer an ongoing re-education, for in this view, criticality itself is an on-going process. Somaesthetics thus provides a third way, one that medthe criticality of autonomy in architecture and the claimed refusal of criticality in atmospheric architecture. This third term has significant epistemological implications for architectural pedagogy.

In this essay, following Shusterman, I will first argue for the importance of somaesthetics in thinking about autonomy in a manner that goes beyond dogmatic acceptance or rejection; I will also suggest that taking somaesthetics seriously leads us to rethink the very distinction between autonomous and atmospheric architecture on which current architectural debates rest. …

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