Perceptual/Spatial Unfolding: Body, Rhythm, Depth
Magazine article, 2011
French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s early work on the nature of perception laid the groundwork for a revision of Cartesian ontology that has tremendous implications for architectural experience. In Merleau-Ponty’s concept of Flesh, there is no longer a human subject dispassionately manipulating a world of objects, but a reciprocal intertwining between perceiver and perceived that takes place through a continual perceptual unfolding of phenomena. Perceptual experience precedes reflection, and we generally live in an open-ended, unselfconscious state focused on motility and orientation to task. Reflection reconfigures perceptual experience, bringing it into the personal realm and overlaying it with conceptual order.
In perceptual unfolding, “the real” continually manifests at each moment, replacing “what has been and portend[ing] what will be.” Thus, things‟ firm being or determinacy is not their original state, but the end toward which their unfolding tends . In this dynamic unfolding, we as perceivers de-center and intertwine with the perceived world, not intellectually possessing the sensible, but rather “dispossess[ing] ourselves” as “the mind goes out to wan-der” among perceived things.
To Merleau-Ponty, space is dynamic and interactive. In any environmental encounter, we are subsumed in the full-body experiences of moving, hearing, smelling, and feeling. Vision itself is trans-formed by the changing perspectives experienced through motion. Architectures spatiality and tactility exist in excess of vision, and we can examine our visual involvement with nature and architecture only when considering them engulfed within kinaesthetic and synaesthetic experience.
The responsive, ever-changing lived body is in rhythmic motion with stairs, interacting with wider horizons of meaning, architectural enframement, and our grounded axial orientation in space. The aware-ness of a “body schema” operating “below self-referential intentionality” as a preconscious, sub-personal process is a cognitive perspective supporting the thoughts of Merleau-Ponty. He claims that we do not perceive a neutral orthogonal space but inhabit spaces of meaning.
Merleau-Ponty’s notion of depth is a charged intertwining of perceiver and perceived, a thickening of space springing from relationship. As the three following essays illustrate, the experience and expression of depth in a phenomenological context is a key concept for the creation of a perceptually responsive architecture that immerses the body in spatial depth.