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  • Sharanja De Zoysa

Phenomenology and Landmark Buildings

Phenomenology (n): the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

Phenomenology focuses more on individual experience than the greater collective experience and the inconsistencies of that. The same architectural object has the ability to evoke a range of different feeling/reactions that vary from person to person. However certain buildings elicit the same reaction of awe among the multitudes, these buildings are landmarks. Which gives rise to the question; does phenomenology affect what buildings become landmarks? Experience creates personal landmarks through memory. Certain buildings were not built to be landmarks, yet today they have become landmarks because of their histories and the feelings/ reactions they elicit in us as a result of those histories. “Can a specific set of spaces or forms be universally memorable or is memory something that every individual brings to a place, making it memorable regardless of its physical feature?” (Bastéa, 2004).

In the book “Chambers for a memory palace” the authors suggest that by “creating certain

archetypal spaces – axial spaces, columnar spaces, spaces that climb the hills or sit under

great roofs – architects can make a more memorable environment” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994) (Bastéa, 2004). “Architect’s design physical space as they would a memory palace, conceiving of the built environment as a mnemonic, or memory aid” (Bastéa, 2004). A memory palace is a visual mnemonic device, where in an imaginary building and its elements are used to remember factual information; for example a staircase would represent a timeline/ chronological order of dates. Every space and object in the memory palace would therefore need to be memorable and distinct. If this theory were applied to an existing landmark, and we were to dissect its features it would be easy to see that its status is determined by the memorable elements that differentiate it from its surroundings.

“Ornament clarifies the voice of the structure, indicates its position in the society and rewards our attention” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994). Most landmark buildings have a historical significance but are also heavily ornamented to help define it and make it distinct. Taking for example the Palace of Versailles or the Arc de Triomphe; while they have fascinating histories, it is the detailing in the architecture that truly strikes a chord with any onlooker, regardless of if they are aware of the building’s past or not. The shadows and depths created by the ornament appeals to phenomenological and emotional depths of any human. Ornament is also used to convey the histories of buildings, of its inhabitants and those who designed it. “There is a danger of being inflationary, when too many competing markers trivialise and obscure the ones that matter” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994); yet this does not affect if the building becomes a landmark or not. As buildings can become landmarks because they are breath-takingly beautiful or repulsive (it is simply a matter of opinion), either way they make a statement and are therefore memorable.

“We shape our buildings and they shape us” (Churchill, 1943). The concept of phenomenology when applied to architecture suggests that the house we grew up in is “our corner of the world… it is our first universe” (Bachelard, 2014) and therefore it in turn affects our future interactions with space and architecture as we often “comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection” (Bachelard, 2014). According to Juhani Pallasmaa our identity and our memory is intricately bound within the rooms/spaces in which our lives take place. Our childhood homes and any space we inhabited will thus become a personal landmark. What discerns it from its surroundings may not necessarily be in the architectural detail of the building but instead how we experienced those spaces/details and their specific significance in our lives. According to Clare Cooper Marcus, “such place making activities are almost universal in childhood, regardless of culture, social context or gender… for some people that place of initial separation and autonomy, that secret home away from home, lingers in adult life as a powerful and nostalgic memory” (Bastéa, 2004). In this case phenomenology may not determine the textbook definition of a landmark, however the basis of phenomenology is focusing on individual experience as opposed to collective experience.

Landmark/s (n): an object or feature of a landscape or town that is easily seen and recognised from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location. The boundary of an area of land, or an object marking this. A building or monument of historical importance.

Perception is subjective therefore what one person may consider a landmark may not

necessarily be one to someone else. A tourist’s experience of a city and its landmarks would differ greatly from that of a local. This ideal can be further explained through the concept of “Paris Syndrome”, when setting out to experience the branded city, one cannot hide from the reality of the streets. The city one would experience if you were to take a touristic tour of landmarks may not include some of the real “hidden gems” of the city. The buildings forgotten with time that truly distinguish themselves from those found in its immediate surroundings or further/beyond. A tourist visiting Manchester for the first time may not be able to navigate the city based on the landmarks locals would know; such as the building on Newton street adorned with the graffiti of a bluebird. Similarly, a local may not have the same sense of appreciation for the branded landmarks that a tourist would. “The number of local elements that became landmarks appears to depend upon how familiar the observer is with his surroundings as upon the elements themselves” (Lynch, 1960). This sense of relativity does make the term ‘landmark’ fall in a grey area. What really defines a landmark? Or does the definition vary from person to person due to our phenomenology? In “Landscapes of San Francisco Bay: Plates from Bay Lexicon”, Jane Wolff attempts to capture landmarks/views and break it down to its elements to help us better understand what exactly we are meant to see when we look at those particular landscapes. To the unknowing eye they may seem like snapshots of the city but because of her knowledge and research into each of those landscapes she is able to see past the wider picture at the details that define it. With any landmark it is as simple as breaking it down into its defining features. The reason one building is a landmark may vary from that of another.

What makes a building a landmark?

1. “They have a clear form, contrast with their background… there is some prominence of

spatial location” (Lynch, 1960). This criterion fits in with most buildings that are universally

acknowledged as landmarks. In the United Kingdom alone, Big Ben, Buckingham palace,

Shakespeare’s globe theatre, the London Eye are universally known and accepted

Landmarks. However, there are so many other buildings within each of its many cities

that are equally, if not more striking than the buildings listed. Yet not every landmark

building receives landmark status and is listed as one on paper. The new built city is

imposed on the old city in layers, with many cities using the old infrastructure as the

bones to build the new ones on. London being a historically vibrant city, “old buildings”

are scattered around the city and therefore new buildings such as the Shard display a clear

contrast against the background of the city and boasts a rather distinct form. Yet the old

will still remain iconic as it is not simply a landmark for its form but also its history.

2. “Once a history, a sign, or a meaning attaches to an object, its value as a landmark

rises” (Lynch, 1960). The Globe theatre is not as well known for its structure as it is for its historical significance. It is most commonly referred to as Shakespeare’s Globe to emphasise its history. Similarly, while London Bridge may not be as eye-catching as Tower Bridge, its historical significance makes it a landmark nonetheless.

3. “Landmarks may be singled out for their cleanliness in a dirty city” (Lynch, 1960). According to Lynch one such example would be the Christian Science building in Boston. The contrast need not only be the immediate surroundings of the building but it instead could be the city as a whole.

The Cargills building in Sri Lanka is an underrated landmark. Known to many a local due to its history, it is not a listed

tourist landmark. Despite its stark contrast to its surroundings given its bright red brick structure detailed in white and

despite its history as one of the first trading markets in the country to sell imported products. It was built in 1906 and has

remained unchanged to this day. Even amongst locals, as the generations have progressed, the knowledge of this building’s presence has not been passed on. The fact that it is not known by many also means it is not valued by many. Those that know its history do hold a sense of appreciation for it. Many a building from that has stood the test of time following the three colonisations, have not received the landmark status they deserve despite adhering to the criterion of what makes a building a landmark. Therefore, it can be deduced that the value of landmarks is also a relative concept. To the older generations of Sri Lankans that have seen the city grow and this building remain in a static state, it is a personal landmark regardless of its official status.

The Italian Island of Poveglia is the far from the touristic Italy we all know and love. Yet it is

a fixed landmark of the uglier side to history. Known as the “Island of Death”, for centuries it

has been a dumping ground for the diseased, dying and the dead. During the Black Plague in 1314, Poveglia became a quarantine colony.

Over the centuries it is said that over 100,000 people lost their lives on this island. In the late 1800s it was converted into an asylum, which in 1922 became a designated mental hospital. Where is said one of the doctor’s performed lobotomies and other experiments on his patients, he later jumped from the tower of the hospital claiming to have been

driven mad by the ghosts of his patients. Since then it has been largely abandoned and is now known to be haunted. Visible from the coasts of Venice it has become a distant landmark of the gruesome history of Italy. It definitely contrasts with the rest of Venice, mainly as it is uninhabited but also because due to the over grown trees and vines that engulf its buildings. The general state of decay and destruction of the buildings also bears a stark contrast to the vibrancy of its neighbouring city of Venice. For those who know its history it is a landmark, whereas to those who do not, it is merely a far-off abandoned island.

“The Eiffel tower provides a mix of the iconic shape and through one of its capacious legs” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994). The Eiffel tower is a well known

landmark in Paris, not just for its history and structure but also for the experience. According to Lyndon and Moore, “the amusement of a complex personal experience are linked to a form that can be seen from anywhere in the city… from the top you can see all of central Paris, identifying from a new vantage

point places that are familiar in everyday experience; conversely, from anywhere in the city that you can see the tower you may be reminded of being at its top” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994). Applying the concept of phenomenology, you can understand that what makes the Eiffel tower the truly iconic landmark that it is, is the experience, memory and feelings you are left with. It is so much more than another “pretty building”. Whether it’s the feeling of anxiousness as you climb to the top or the surreality of the complete exposure of its structure and the feeling of being caught in the steel web (depicted in the image above), it is a piece of Architecture you

experience with your whole body, mind and soul. This 3-dimensional perspective/relationship between body, mind and soul is what differentiates a phenomenological

interaction with architecture from a mere bodily one.

When comparing the 3 examples of landmarks, the fact that they vary so greatly is no secret.

The Cargills building in Sri Lanka, while being a beautiful architectural object, does not elicit

the same emotional experience that the Eiffel tower does. For the older generations of Sri

Lanka, the Cargills building may bring back memories of their past and thereby elicit a more

emotional experience and interaction with the building, however with the Eiffel tower,

anyone that visits are capable of having a phenomenological connection with it. Similarly,with the island of Poveglia, onlookers all may experience a sense of eeriness/ uneasiness just

by glancing at the island without knowing its history. Regardless of the way in which people

experience these architectural objects, all three are landmarks in different ways. And as

Bastéa suggests, “we should not forget the imaginative ability of ordinary people to make the

most unremarkable space memorable over time” (Bastéa, 2004). All 3 examples have a historical significance that qualifies them as landmarks, structurally they all bear a stark contrast to their surroundings/ stand out and all 3 have architectural elements that make them unique. Yet they are vastly different in the ranges of emotions they can overwhelm onlookers with (again heavily dependent on the individual). The experiences one can have are also dependent on the ways in which one interacts with these landmarks. The Eiffel tower can be experienced from a distance, from up close and from within. Whereas the Cargills building can be experienced from a distance and from up close. The experience within the building differs from that of the Eiffel tower. Poveglia can only be experienced from a distance as it is illegal to visit the island. If one where to set foot on the island and experience it up close, the experience would and the way in which it overwhelms you would be greater. “Art and Architecture seek visibility. They are attempts to give sensible form to the moods, feelings and rhythms of functional life” (Tuan, 1997).

“Monuments, towers, obelisks, pyramids, and the like command attention and mark a centre.

They lay claim to space and give us something to be next to” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994). Most universally acknowledged landmarks are often large and all-consuming in form. They give a place “character that connects mind to matter” (Lyndon and Moore, 1994). As a tourist in a city it is easy to identify certain landmarks because their presence alone commands attention, be it through their size, ornamentation or the crowds of people flocking towards it. Therefore, regardless of how it makes you feel and your interaction with it, it helps you gain a sense of location and navigate your way through foreign land. Often, they are structurally distinct enough to describe them in order to confirm your location despite not knowing what it may be called or its history.These landmarks act as flags to guide you through the city and often mark the boundaries or centres of the city. While they may not always depict the culture of the city in the best possible way or may not be the city’s best architectural object, they are vital in order to allow locals and foreigners alike to experience the city. The ways in which they experience it will no doubt differ yet neither experience can be said to be any less important.

Personal landmarks are similar to relationships we have with people, in that it is a

relationship we form with the building and the spaces within it. The memories allow us to

remember the finer details of the building better, in much the same way the Roman Treatise

on Rhetoric – Ad Herennium, suggests using a memory palace to recall facts. The deeper

connection we form with the spaces and the way in which we interact with them will

determine their importance in our lives and memories and thereby their influence on how we

interact with the built environment in the future. As stressed in multiple of the texts, our

initial interaction with the built environment defines us. “Life begins well, it begins enclosed,

protected, all warm in the bosom of the house” (Bachelard, 2014). This sense of protection and comfort and cultural influence is something Architects carry forward from their own pasts into their future designs and their pasts showcase themselves in the spaces they create, allowing others to experience the same feelings. Gaston Bachelard suggest, “Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are”. When looking at most landmarks that were built centuries ago, you often can see the emotions of the Architect/designer through the life they put into the building. Our experiences/ interaction with the landmarks are often the latent phenomenological interactions of those that inhabited the space before us and carefully crafted each space accordingly.

Phenomenology is based on individual experiences, as stressed numerous times before. Each individual’s experience will vary and therefore creating a space that can accommodate those varying experiences is challenging. Out of all the listed examples, the Eiffel tower remains the one that seems to manage to take into consideration collective experiences while also managing not to generalise it to the point that it becomes ordinary. There are certain universally acknowledged landmarks that are merely “pretty buildings” they are not an experience. Each person’s experience/ interaction with a landmark is also largely influenced by what they appreciate in architecture/art. The Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente in Milan is a breath taking architectural landmark, however to someone that prefers the clean cut architecture of the modernist world, it will not elicit the same reaction as it would from someone that appreciates the detail of the ornament and the significance of the building. The main difference between a personal landmark and one that is listed is the history of it. While anyone can appreciate the history of Big Ben, no one will feel the same way about it as they do their childhood home. There is a level of intimacy in the interaction with spaces within a home that define its significance and influence in our lives. Most personal landmarks are not buildings that are architectural marvels. Similarly, not all architectural landmarks are boastful in form. They can be simple yet have rich histories

which make them signifucant. According to John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “A sense of space/place is something that we ourselves create in the course of time. It is the result of habit or custom… and not an unusual composition of spaces and forms”. This sums up the main differentiating factor between a building that is a personal landmark and one that is a listed landmark.


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