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Relationship Between Architecture and the Human Experience

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3142 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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“Architecture and site should have an experimental connection, a metaphysical link, a poetic link” and “…if we consider the order (the idea) to be the outer perception and phenomena (the experience) to be the inner perception, then in a physical construction, the outer perception and inner perception are intertwined.”[1]

-Steven Holl.


This essay clearly focuses about the connections between Architecture and the Human experience.  Phenomenology in architecture is the philosophical study of architecture as it appears in experience. Architecture phenomenology is a movement in architecture, which had its start in the 1950s, is very aesthetic in character and is increasingly involved about the human experience in a particular space rather than looking at the actual space.

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This movement got much importance after the work of the Architect Christian Norberg-Schulz who in his many books explained how the phenomenological connections in Architecture can be translated into a design with the combination of texts and images. He says that “My Writings therefore reflect a belief in Architecture; I do not accept that architecture, vernacular or monumental, is a luxury or perhaps something which is made to impress the populace. There are not different kinds of Architecture, but only different situations which require different solutions in order to satisfy man’s physical and psychic needs.”[2]

Steven Holl, an American Architect and watercolourist in his book “Questions of Perception; A Phenomenology in Architecture” (2006) explains how Architecture is influenced by the Different forms of senses. Architecture more fully than other art forms, engages the immediacy of our sensory perceptions. The challenge of Architecture is to stimulate both inner and outer perception; to heighten phenomenal experience while simultaneously experiencing meaning; and to develop this duality in response to the particularities of site and circumstance.[3] 

The relationship between the outer and inner perception is the principal connection between the human natural experience and conduct. The inside-outside relationship is defined as the basic-dualism. This Basic dualism is the difference between “Safety and danger, cosmos and chaos, enclosure and exposure, or simply here and there.”[4]

At the present some of the notable Architects who practice phenomenology in their design process include Steven Holl, Peter Zumthor, Juhani Pallasmaa and Daniel Libeskind. In spite of the fact that obviously all people are not liable to encounter equal response to a particular space, there are some spaces that emotionally connects with the users. These spaces create a question that, How Architecture phenomenology works in structuring the spaces? What’s more, How the experience inside the building can be investigated through the design? The following part looks at the experience of phenomenology in two different buildings with the help of emotional response and body-mind relationship.


Swiss Architect, Peter Zumthor, has always been a craftsman in Architecture. He approaches architecture from a different perspective, that is his own personal experience and memory about a particular space. He believes that the first experience that comes into his mind when experiencing a space contains the professional knowledge about architecture.

When I design a building, I frequently find myself sinking into old, half-forgotten memories, and then I try to recollect what the remembered architectural situation was really like, what it had meant to me at the time, and I try to think how it could help me now to revive the vibrant atmosphere pervaded by the simple presence of things in which everything had its own specific place and form.[5]

His structure predominantly focusses on the utilization of materials, the utilization of sensuous materials that gives a special association and experience inside the space. He says that, “The sense I try to install into the materials is beyond all rules of composition, and their tangibility, smell, and acoustic qualities are merely elements of the language that we are obliged to use. Sense emerges when I succeed in bringing out the specific meaning of certain materials in my buildings, meaning that can be only perceived in just this way in this one building.”[6]

Evidence of his design approaches can be seen in the Thermal Bath Vals in Switzerland. It is known as a standout amongst the most famous buildings found in the Swiss contemporary Architecture. The Therme vals is an addition to the existing hotel building which had an integrated thermal baths and therapeutic facilities. This new building had to replace the old thermal baths of the hotel built in 1960s.

The beginning was easy. Going back in time, bathing as one might have a thousand years ago, creating a building, a structure set into the slope with an architectural attitude and aura older than anything already built around it, inventing a building that could always have been there, a building that relates to the topography and geology of the location, that responds to the stone masses of the vals valley.[7] The building is embraced with natural elements like stone, water, light and heat which all together can create an environment comprising of the senses.

Preserving views from the existing hotel, Zumthor’s spa building is placed deep into the hillside, rotated about 30 degree, constructed with 60,000 slabs of local Valser gneiss stone.[8] The main concept in the design of the building is the idea of public bath, like a bath born of the mountains, just like how the hot springs are born from the mountains. Likewise, His different thoughts where to construct the building in a cave configuration with the idea that it resembled as a continuation of the alpine mountains.

In the phase of translating the first ideas into initial sketches into plans and models, the key words were mountains, stone and water. In this context Peter Zumthor writes: “Building in stone, building with stone, building into the mountain, building out of the mountain, being inside the mountain.”

With a confinement from building upwards, zumthor planned the building downwards, so the building is just obvious through the geometric shapes seen along the roof. He likewise pursued Steven Holl’s methodology as what he calls “Anchoring”, such that the building looks anchored to the site so it existed long time before. The only façade of this building overlooking the mountains is built in the local stone with more extensive geometrical openings and windows, with no doorway openings.

The Visitors, had to enter the hotel building, and then follow a subterranean tunnel through the mountains in order to enter the spa. As the guests go through the corridor, it makes a feeling of amazement as they could hear the reverberations of individuals inside the space and furthermore hear the running water over stone. The use of the natural materials like concrete, stone slabs can generally expose the age and history of the place and the gaps provided in the roofs makes all these heavier materials look lighter.

The building consists of two large irregular shaped pools, one at the centre of the building, the other one looking outside. With the use of heightened walls, the visitors get a feeling that the external pool hopes to be cut out from the mountains, make it resemble a characteristic pool, a pool sustained by the hot springs. One can move starting with one place then onto the next, to such an extent that moving from an open space to a more intimate space, with its play of shadow and light.

The design from inside to outside was central to the concept. We dreamed of a kaleidoscope of room sequences, like walking in a forest without a path. A feeling of freedom, the pleasure of discovery. The principle of confined movement in a few places and then expansive freedom of movement in larger areas inside the building is something I discovered while working on the Therme Vals and have subsequently used again and again.[9]

The two distinctive sound spaces inside the building, give a one of a kind sounds like the music of stones hitting against one another and resounding resonations makes an entrancing anteroom of sound space inside the more prominent volume of the spa.

Zumthor has said of vals that “We wanted to create a place of rest and relaxation for the encounter between the human body and the water. It is a joy to see how a building born of these ideas is now experienced and enjoyed in the fashion in which it was conceived. People often say walking into the baths is like being immersed in another world. The baths are an inspiration, a font of images.”[10] The stunning association of both the noticeable and invisible design at therme vals makes it skim in the memory long after one has left the site.








THE JEWISH MUSEUM, by Daniel Libeskind.

“The task of the building a Jewish museum in Berlin demands more than a mere functional response to the program. Such a task in all its ethical depth requires the incorporation of the void of berlin back into itself, in order to disclose how the past continues to affect the present and to reveal how a hopeful horizon can be opened through the aporias of time”[11]

-          Daniel Libeskind

In the wake of winning the Competition for the expansion of the Berlin Museum, Daniel Libeskind’s design created a meeting place for the German-Jewish conventions. His structure depends on three essential ideas: First, the inconceivability of understanding the historical backdrop of berlin and its social contributions; Second to integrate the significance of the Holocaust, with the memory of the city of Berlin; Third to recognize the void made in the life of Jewish and can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human feature.

The buildings zig zag lines are derived from the imaginary lines on the city map. Libeskind himself has entitled the project “Between the line,”. In Architecture as in life, lines define the relationship between material and immaterial reality. Any two lines on the paper of an architectural plan will shape and delimit the empty space between them.[12]

Also, Libeskind endeavoured to imply the working to a mutilated, fragmented star of David, however it isn’t outwardly obvious in the entire structure. He attempted to explain the building in an altogether different dialect through his physical and material clarity of its volume and spatial configurations. Instead of placing the building on an enclosed space, Libeskind tried to open it all sides, which included activities of the city. Through the physical and material clarity of its volume, the building explains a very clear language and the position it takes in regard with the environment.

Both the interior and exterior spaces including the landscape are designed accordingly to reflect the meaning of the museum. For example, the rose Arbor in the E.T.A Hoffmann garden, the thorny rose, a symbol of life, can both injure and reconcile. As roses are the only plants permitted in the ancient city of Jerusalem.[13]

With the integration of interior of the new building with the existing one, the inner divisions were evacuated and the interiors were to a great extent re-established to a state mirroring its origin, where the underground passage way interfaces the old and new structures, much the same as coordinating the city’s history with Jewish history. The two crossroads leading to the main corridor are inclined in such a way so that it decreases in height towards the end, out of which only one leads to the outside, to the Garden of Exile. As this is the only path leading to the outside world, it depicts that the idea of exile as the only way to attain freedom.

The voids or negative spaces, created along the walls, are arranged in a straight line throughout the building. They evoke the gap that evolved in German and European culture and history by the destruction of Jewish lives on every floor of the museum.[14] The first and the last two voids, which are said to be the largest and smallest, are the only ones that can be physically entered, while the other two remains inaccessible and can be seen only from the upper floors through the windows which resembles like gun slits. These absences of elements inspire individual experience, which is said to link the gap that evolved in the history of the Jewish people.

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The visitors are confronted with the presence of the voids, the negative spaces, on all the museum floors, which also includes the top office floor. The manner in which the building edges constantly and change upon themselves, suggest visually to the change of things in the German history up to the present day and beyond. The other straight line which is linked to the German history, but only in fragments, remain actually hidden from the viewers, where the actual experience of the space and the structure outweigh everything else.

Moreover, what makes the museum as a unique character is that, it brings out the passionate feeling from the people of all ages and social backgrounds, promptly with its extraordinary spatial design. The museum is said to be known as the Architectural masterwork of the 20th century.


This thesis essay has helped me to comprehend a new and distinctive approach to architecture. Beginning myself with the question, “How architecture is used to evoke the individual experience and memory inside a particular space?”. This topic has provided me insights about the personal experience of a person inside a particular person, even though they tend to be varied from one individual to the other. Balanced between a practical and superficial world, Architecture phenomenology helped me to understood the inter-relationship between experience and architecture, with the help of the two-building discussed above.

Both these structures express phenomenology, by evoking different sensory experience, the former encountered through the individual’s personal experience inside the building and the later through the interpretation of elements, which reclaims back to the components in the history. With a user related design concerns, both the architects have created a journey through their buildings with helps to evoke the human experience and memory.

Phenomenology is a new and distinctive approach to architecture, where the initial ideas of the process are concerned with the user related experience and emotions, as opposed in considering about the physical qualities of the space. This topic has really changed my way of thinking towards a design process and I find it to be extremely useful for my major thesis project.


  • Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture. Trans. Maureen Oberli-Turner and Catherine Schelbert. Birkhauser Verlag GmbH. Switzerland, 2015.
  • Barbara Erwine, Creating Sensory Spaces: the architecture of the Invisible. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Bernhard Schneider, Daniel Libeskind: Jewish Museum Berlin. Trans. John William Gabriel. Prestel verlag. Munich, 1999.
  • Daniel Libeskind, Jewish Museum Berlin. Studio Libeskind, Helene Binet and G + B Arts International. Berlin, 1999.
  • Peter Zumthor and Sigrid Hauser, Therme Vals. Trans. Catherine Schelbert. Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess. Zurich, 2007.

[1] Steven Holl, Questions of Perception: A Phenomenology in Architecture (Manchester, 2006) p. 1

[2] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci Towards a phenomenology of Architecture (London, 1980) p. 1

[3] Steven Holl, Questions of Perception: A Phenomenology in Architecture (Manchester, 2006) p. 42

[4] E.C Relph, Place and Placelesness (London, 1976) p. 49

[5] Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture: A way of looking at things (California, 1988) p. 8

[6] Ibid p. 10

[7] Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals (Zurich, 2008) p. 23

[8] Barbara Erwine, Creating sensory spaces (New York, 2017) p. 224

[9] Peter Zumthor, Buildings and Projects (1985-2013) (Zurich 2013) p.47

[10] Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals (Zurich, 2008) p. 180

[11] Bernhard Schneider, Daniel Libeskind: Jewish Museum Berlin (Munich, 1999) p. 19

[12] Ibid p. 36

[13] Ibid p. 40

[14] Ibid p. 53


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