Session 9: Phenology in Architecture: a Phenomenological View on Typology

Guest speaker: Simin Nasiri (MS.c., M.Arch., Georgia Institute of Technology)

NOVEMBER 17th, 2022


Human-place interaction has been an interdisciplinary subject of study and investigation throughout history. Architecture, environmental sciences, psychology, and philosophy are some of the many fields working on this subject. In this paper, the authors are introducing a new methodology to environmental analysis and the human experience of a built environment. This methodology is called phenology, as it already exists in natural sciences for studying periodic events in biological life cycles and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations.[16] In this context, phenology is an integration of phenomenology and typology to give us a more realistic perceptual “qualia” within the context of existing buildings’ typology (in this case, original vernacular Iranian-Isfahani houses). This method, for the first time, combines intentional philosophical phenomenology with the naturalistic view of mental representation of space and applies it to the building type that has been the subject of transformation throughout history. Phenology adds the quality of the existence of its inhabitants and their further real interactions with environmental components or, as Merleau Ponty says,” the feeling of consciousness of something to the morphological systems of a traditional type.”

Suggested reading before the meeting 

Meeting report

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was in part about how we should understand the nature of the relationship between organisms and their environment; Adam Smith’s political economy offered us a new understanding of how economic agents stand in relation to the dynamics of the market; and, the phenomenological tradition has been busy with formulating the human-world relation in epistemic terms. Understanding the nature of the relationship between the subjects and the environment within which they are situated has been an influential field of inquiry in the history of ideas. Architectural studies need a theory of this sort, as well. After all, they need to account for the relationship between human experience and a built environment. Simin gave us a brief overview of the existing methodological approaches to understanding the human-space dynamics in architectural studies. After a brief review of their shortcomings, she put forward her own methodological contribution to the field: phenology. Simin’s phenology is the outcome of a complex integration of two existing approaches, namely, typology and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Simin told us about the explanatory power of her theoretical framework, its underlying naturalistic theme, and its fruitful implications for architectural design by going over a few case studies.

In the Q&A section, Simin was asked to give us further clarification about the distinctive features of phenology compared to phenomenology and typology. Simin illuminated some aspects of her phenology, which implied that although phenology draws on the existing theories of phenomenology and typology, it cannot be reduced to them. The audience also raised a question about the rationale behind the specific choice of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology as a basis of phenology. Simin argued that Merleau-Ponty’s notion of body schema (and its associated account of perceptual experience in habitual terms) gives us a solid ground to understand what it is to experience a built environment. Simin also clarified how the enterprise of architectural design ought to account for the socio-economic status of people and the way it affects their perceptual experience. In answer to a different question, she also told us about how the design process can (and ought to) be sensitive to the particularities of the perceptual experience of marginalized people.

Simin’s work is an outstanding example of an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of human-space relationships. Her theoretical framework draws on conceptual tools coming from various scientific and philosophical positions. It is not an easy task to bring such scattered conceptual tools together and use them in the service of a coherent theoretical framework. This says a lot about the quality of Simin’s work and what it can add to our current understanding of the human-space relationship. We will miss Simin’s calm presence, smiles, and sophisticated and inquisitive mind. We look forward to her future accomplishments and to seeing her back at the Fly-Bottle soon.