Profound Experiences of Architecture – the Role of ‘Distancing’ in the Ineffable

Julio Bermudez
The Catholic University of America

Julio Bermudez is an Associate Professor at Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning, where he directs the sacred space and cultural studies graduate concentration. His research interests include phenomenology and the relationship between architecture, culture and spirituality. Bermudez’s work has received many recognitions and been widely published and performed. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Minnesota (USA).

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #17 – Spring 2011

One of our loftiest hopes as architects or people is to be profoundly moved by a building. Extraordinary experiences of architecture have the ability to produce significant, lasting, and insightful changes in our view of life, not to mention their pleasurable and spiritual uplifting nature.(1) We only need to read the heart wrenching epiphany of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) at the Parthenon in September 1911 to realize the deep impact that these events may have in one’s life.(2) And Le Corbusier is far from being alone. Bruno Taut had his moment at Katsura in Kyoto,(3) Frank Gehry at the Chartres Cathedral,(4) Bernard Tschumi while visiting the city of Chicago, (5) Antoine Predock at the Alhambra, (6) and Tadao Ando at Ronchamp,(7) just to name a few notable architects. But it is not only architects that report these remarkable events. Philosophers as far back as Plato have pointed at the central role that beauty plays in human life.

Therefore, it comes at no surprise that architectural delight —or venustas as Vitruvius called it 2,000 year ago, still commands our attention, desire, and work. Yet, carrying such agenda is not easy in today’s rational and utilitarian civilization where little or no value is assigned to phenomena that can’t be measured, explained, or materially consumed. The problem is compounded by the widespread belief that aesthetics is something subjective that cannot be productively discussed beyond anecdotal evidence or personal opinion. In order to return beauty to its legitimate and powerful role in architectural practice and experience we must find methods able to test philosophical or phenomenological claims so that if valid, they become concrete, generalizable, and thus usable insights.

The subject of this paper is a case in point: the aesthetic reception of architecture, in particular, profound experiences of buildings. This is an area where we could use some help from philosophy because, while of central concern in aesthetics, our field usually pays little attention to it. Yet, after plunging into what philosophers have to say, we come out confused and empty-handed in terms of usable information. For example, Classical philosophers (Kant, Schopenhauer, Stolnitz, etc.) argue that psychological ‘distancing’ is essential in making aesthetic experiences possible —events that are essentially perceptual, non-rational, and associated to beauty. For them, ‘distancing’ means to take a mental positioning of ‘disinterestedness’ in which …

“… the aesthetic spectator does not relate the object to any purposes that outrun the act of perception itself … the aesthetic interest is in the perception alone and … indifferent to the causal and other relationships which the object has to things beyond itself.” (8)

In contrast, Modern and Postmodern philosophers (Wittgenstein, Danto, Nehamas, etc.) consider aesthetic appreciation as grounded in the meaning or performance of a work in terms of its functional, ethical, ideological or cultural dimensions. They still see ‘distancing’ as necessary but directed to remove the feelings, sensations and cultural biases that impede the clear (i.e., rational, symbolic) interpretation or judgment of a work.

The fact that Classical, Modern and Postmodern approaches all agree that some type of ‘mental distance’ is necessary for aesthetic phenomenologies to occur is important and reassuring. However, we are left wondering which aesthetic paradigm is correct and, more practically, which is the most productive mode of ‘distancing’. Should we suspend belief, expectations and mental rumination so perception rises up to the forefront of consciousness or, instead, cleanse our minds from sensual and emotional noise in order to allow intellectual reading and evaluation? How are we to decide besides using our own individual experience? Are these arguments even correct? Has anybody rigorously tested these claims? Barring breakthrough rhetoric, it is unlikely that one party will convince the other. In fact, unless concrete data enters the conversation, this type of philosophical dialectics will never get us anywhere.

This brings us precisely to the goal of the research work presented in this article: to break down the stalemate by using a scientific study of a large number of actual cases. More concretely, we will use the results of two surveys of extraordinary experiences of architecture to cast light on this matter.(9)

Large Surveys of Extraordinary Architectural Experiences
I conducted the polls (one in English and the other in Spanish) over the internet in the course of one year (April 2007-April 2008) and sought to uncover the psychological and embodied phenomenology of Extraordinary Architectural Experiences (or EAEs) defined as:

“encounters with a building or place that fundamentally alter one’s normal state of being. By ‘fundamental alteration’ it is meant a powerful and lasting shift in one’s physical, perceptual, emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual appreciation of architecture. In contrast, an ordinary experience of architecture, however interesting or engaging, does not cause a significant impact in one’s life.”

The questionnaires were designed to be completed in about 10 minutes and guarantee participants’ confidentiality.

The surveys received 2,872 responses (1,890 in English and 982 in Spanish) —the largest of its kind ever. Since participation was totally voluntary, open, and unsupervised, the result does not constitute a scientific sample of any particular population. In fact, the survey participants are skewed versions of their general populations. Respondents predominately have an undergraduate or graduate college education (90%, 90%) and report architecture as their field of study (55%, 69%). Although skewed representations may be problematic for certain studies, it serves the purposes of this investigation quite well. Having a well-educated population whose majority understands architecture is positive because we are dealing with issues very hard to grasp, measure, and describe. In any rate, the very large number of responses obtained by the surveys supports studies with statistical significance within the responding populations.

Note: Percentages related to the English Survey will be formatted in bold whereas the Spanish statistics will be in italics. Percentages followed by an asterisk (*) represent the compounded results of both populations.

The Phenomenology of EAEs
EAEs were reported to start suddenly (51.5%, 58.5%) and surprisingly (74.7%, 83%) and involve high levels of spontaneity (78.5%, 91%) and awareness (92.7%, 77.7%). They were also described as introspective/silent (87.1%, 87.1%), non-talkative (61.9%, 56.8%), and provoking “strong body reactions” (e.g., goose bumps, heart pounding, shivers) (56.3%, 43.4%) and occasional weeping (17.9%, 28.7%). The top four qualities reported to define EAEs were the same for the Spanish and English populations: “emotion” (72.3%*), “sensuality/perception/physicality” (64.4%*), “timelessness” (45.9%*), and “pleasure” (40.3%*). The quality “analytical/intellectual” was ranked in a low 6th, 5th place (35.5%, 34.5%).

These statistics show that the intellect plays a secondary role when experiencing the architectural extraordinary. This is particularly evident when we consider the reported high emotional arousal along with “strong body reactions” and weeping. We find out our body reactions and feelings as they happen and, only after becoming aware, we are able to deal with them intellectually.(10) In other words, thinking operates as a derivative of coming to term to what is going on. And while the setting of a silent and introspective state may encourage reflection, the surprising, spontaneous, and sudden unfolding of EAEs in combination with their very high level of awareness suggest instead a mind focused on what is happening moment by moment (i.e., perceptions) rather than thinking.

When we add that these experiences did not serve any purpose except their own occurrence nor dispense goods suitable for concrete gain but instead delivered ‘insight’ (55%, 54.5%), ‘beauty’ (49%, 54.5%), ‘joy’ (43.5%) or ‘satisfaction’ (44.5%), and ‘peace’ (40%, 33%) to the individual, we must conclude that the Classical tenets of ‘disinterested distancing’, perception-centered experience, and beauty match the phenomenology of EAEs much better than those of the Modern-Postmodern model.

‘Distancing’ in terms of Knowledge, Space and Culture
The surveys requested participants to (a) name the building or place that elicited their EAE and (b) how far they lived from the location at the time.

Compiling the responses to request (a) generated a list of buildings well known to architects and the public that was relatively consistent for the Spanish and English populations.(11) When we consider this list in relation to the survey participants’ recognition that the EAE had permanently changed their understanding and appreciation of architecture (81.4%, 80.2%), we face a puzzling situation. How could respondents be totally surprised and changed by buildings that they most likely knew (at least intellectually) beforehand (e.g., history courses, travel books, word of mouth)? As provocative, how could just one experience have caused a transformation of their whole view of architecture —something well established in the majority of the participants?(12)

Before answering, let us look at the survey entries regarding survey request (b) above. The average distance reported for the top 10 cited buildings was 3,428 miles, 3,912 miles. This finding proposes that considerable spatial distance is a determining factor in attaining EAEs. Reasons underlying this phenomenon are not hard to find. Negotiating such distances is not trivial in terms of the physical, temporal, and economic efforts placed on the traveler. As, if not more, important is the cultural distance implied: a thousands-of-miles journey means that subjects most likely had their EAEs in another country with a different society, culture, and language (if not ethnicity and religion as well). Immersing ourselves in an alien environment is the ultimate type of ‘distancing’ that can be externally produced and, in the short term, very hard to bridge using rational, semiotic and performative interpretations or evaluations. In such conditions, many of our assimilating structures of cognitive operation are rendered ineffective, de-facto causing a phenomenological reduction.(13) Only direct perception, emotion, and intuition remain fully functional in consciousness, at least initially —a mental positioning consistent with Classical aesthetics.

At the same time, considering the architecture provoking the EAEs makes evident that people made the long trip at least partially motivated by their interest towards these places. This challenges the ‘disinterestedness’ principle advanced by the Classical view: strong interest would discourage the aesthetic experience. Establishing a ‘mental distance’ would be hard because it would demand to bracket the world of knowledge gained prior and brought to the situation. This brings us back to the questions earlier posed and tabled until now.

Something we know is within our realm of cognitive-emotional operation and therefore, upon encountering it, demands little or no attention from our part. In order to surprise and change us, the known must be somehow apprehended anew, which means that it has to be repositioned at a significant distance from our original familiar frame of reference. But what we are talking about here goes much beyond a ‘surprising’ situation involving some minimal mental change. Rather, the reported transformation involves the very framework of reference itself! The only way to account for such fundamental change is that the experience has to be powerful enough to break through existing preconceptions, ideas, and constructs. We are talking of a phenomenology alike to paradigm shifting (14) or spiritual conversion (15) — an extraordinary situation rarely encountered. And if any good skeptic should rightly doubt the possibility of such events at all, he or she would have to concede that the combined effects of a long-sought experience, a taxing and committed ‘pilgrimage’, a strongly encroaching and alien socio-physical-cultural milieu, and the sheer presence of masterful architecture may indeed create the ripe conditions for an exceptionally transformative phenomenology. In fact, this is what is found in the written testimonies freely offered by survey participants. Here are three examples:(16)

Thermal Baths, Vals, Switzerland. “No building has ever revealed such a ‘conscious architectural experience’ as did Peter Zumthor’s baths in Vals. I felt this building more deeply than I have ever felt any piece of architecture. As soon as I entered the baths, I felt that I had been reduced to nothing but senses and emotions. I touched the expertly crafted stone to my fingers and toes. I dipped my body into each individual pool, marveling at the sensations each change in temperature caused. I breathed in the sweltering black heat of the sauna. I smelled the mineral water and swished its metallic coolness in my mouth. I watched the green mountains from the outdoor pool. I was overcome. Such overwhelming simplicity in design and material was closer to divinity than I had felt in any other man-made design. As I surrounded myself with the purity of living rock, water, mountain, and light, I couldn’t help but crying for the beauty and deep spirituality of it all. I felt the spirit of the place. I cried and cried at the realization of the deeper meaning of it all. Zumthor had captured the immaterial and the immortal. I had no idea that someone could do this in architecture.”

Petra, Jordan: “Visiting Petra alone … after walking through and around dozens of ancient buildings carved from the rose-, orange- and ochre-colored live rock. In and out of Roman triclinia, which looked as if they had been dined in yesterday by reclining Nabateans hosting a feast from their caravan trade. Facades that looked like Baroque churches but hewn a thousand years earlier. The profound experience was at the end of the day, perched on

a cliff, watching the setting sun light the whole petrified settlement afire, the golden rays catching the rosy rock with the waves of summer heat rising. It manifested itself by a powerful urge to throw myself over the cliff in sacrifice to its beauty. I restrained myself but never forgot the image.”

Taj Mahal, Agra, India: “Stunning, mesmerizing, ethereal, soulful, such immense beauty. I had no religious associations with it so the experience was completely architectural. The sheer delicacy and perfection of the well balanced, huge structure in front of me was unbelievable. It was very inspiring to actually feel the existence of such beauty in architecture. It might have at an instinctive level crystallized my desire to be an architect. The experience keeps reinforcing my belief that to achieve such level of beauty the designer needs to be emotionally immersed in the project and have a soulful relationship with it. Personalization is imperative.”

These stories are totally consistent with respondents’ descriptions of their experiences as very “intense” (80%, 88.3%), “profound” (89.2%, 91.7%), and “vivid” (85.3%, 84.5%). We are witnessing a type of involved experience far from the analytical, performative, or critical detachment demanded by Modern and Postmodern approaches. Instead, the survey results on spatial, cultural and mental distancing support Classical aesthetics in a very clear even if initially non-obvious way.

scrutinize and judge buildings aesthetically. Doing so demands us to become either a detached observer with an ‘objective’ method (Modernity) or a consciously situated participant with a relativistic eye (Postmodernity). This is indeed how we teach our future professionals to engage the built environment even though the approach is hardly unique to architecture. Actually, we could safely argue that people employ this technique to appraise all types of situations, including buildings. The difference between lay and expert evaluations resides in the level of understanding, skill, and depth/breath of aesthetic judgment that professionals can muster, which in turn allows them to have a lot more to say/value than lay people do. In this sense, both Modern and Postmodern aesthetics reassure and empower the expert. In contrast, Classical aesthetics offers the connoisseur no particular advantage. To the contrary, expertise could be in the way to access aesthetic depth,(17) something we have confirmed in the type of ‘distancing’ (i.e., removing biases and intellectualization) reported in the survey of EAEs. Perhaps this is why philosopher Kant gives total autonomy to aesthetics in relation to both practical and pure reason and proposes beauty as an immediate (i.e., experiential, non-intellectual) gate to freedom.

In short, Classical and Modern/Postmodern aesthetics look at the experience of architecture differently, employ dissimilar methods and consequently attain distinct results. Whereas one understands ‘distancing’ as a dualist separation between subject and object to guarantee objectivity (or intersubjective perspective), the other conceives ‘distancing’ as the dissociation of prejudice and thinking so that a non-dual communion between object and subject is facilitated. Now, it would be misleading to say that one is better than the other without qualifying the context of operation. Instead, depending on need and intention, one of the aesthetics may be best suited. This is not trying to politically resolve a seemingly contradictory situation but responds to what is actually found in real life. Very much like we cannot speak of one unique model to describe all phenomena in Physics (Quantum, Newtonian and Relativistic paradigms work perfectly fine at different space-time scales), one type of aesthetics cannot address the inexhaustible realm of experiencing architecture. An integral approach coordinating these aesthetic models would permit us to carry out a much wider range of inquiries than is possible today.

In the end, however, what is most important about the research findings here published is that they give strong currency to Classical aesthetics whose teachings have unfortunately been denied, censored or forgotten by Modernity and Postmodernity for way too long. This work also validates the careful use of scientific research to tackle seemingly intractable philosophical arguments and subjective claims in architecture and beyond. Lastly, this investigation reaffirms that while the power of a building by ‘itself’ may provoke the ‘miracle’ of the sublime moment, it is important (generally essential) to consider the state of mind that individuals bring to the experience. Like in tango, it takes two to dance. Hence, not only is ‘distancing’ important in engaging buildings but the type of ‘distancing’ deployed (e.g., Modern/Postmodern vs. Classical) crucially determine the architectural reality we will experience.

1 Julio Bermudez, “Non-Ordinary Architectural Phenomenologies: Non Dualist Experiences and Husserl’s Reduction,” Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Vol.21, No.2 (2010): 11-15. Julio Bermudez, “The Extraordinary in Architecture,” 2A No.12 (Autumn 2009): 46-49
2 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, trans. Ivan Zaknic in collaboration with Nicole Pertuiset (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987).
3 Bruno Taut, Houses and People of Japan (Tokyo: The Sanseido Co., 1937)
4 “Frank O. Gehry,” in Studio Talk: Interview with 15 Architects, ed. Yoshio Futagawa (Tokyo: A.D.A. EDITA, 2002), 6-57.
5 “Bernard Tchumi”, in Studio Talk: Interview with 15 Architects, ed. Yoshio Futagawa (Tokyo: A.D.A. EDITA, 2002); 512-541
6 Antoine Predock, “Antoine Predock on the Alhambra,” in Architects on Architects, ed. Susan Gray (New Cork: Mc Graw-Hill, 2002), 146-153
7 Tadao Ando, “Tadao Ando on Le Corbusier,” in Architects on Architects, ed. Susan Gray (New Cork: Mc Graw-Hill, 2002), 11-17
8 Jerome Stolnitz, “On the Origins of ‘Aesthetic Disinterestedness’,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 20, No. 2 (1961): 131-143 (quote in p.134)
9 Julio Bermudez, “Amazing Grace. New Research into ‘Extraordinary Architectural Experiences’ Reveals the Central Role of Sacred Places,” Faith & Form Vol.42, No.3 (2009): 8-13. Julio Bermudez,“Mapping the Phenomenological Territory of Profound Architectural Atmospheres. Results of a Large Survey”, Electronic Proceedings of the International Symposium “Creating an atmosphere”(2008). URL: <>, accessed 8-20-2010
10 This interpretation is consistent with the growing body of research in neuroscience indicating the existence of a measurable delay between neural activation and conscious experience. This is often referred to as the ‘neural processing time factor’. See Benjamin Libet, “How Does Conscious Experience Arise? The Neural Time Factor,” Brain Research Bulletin, Vol 50, Nos.5-6 (1999): 339-340.
11 For example: the Pantheon (Rome), the Sagrada Familia Basilica (Barcelona), the Chapel of Ronchamp (France), La Alhambra (Granada), Machu Pichu (Peru), the Pavilion Barcelona (Spain), the Parthenon (Athens), the Salk Institute (California), Fallingwater (Pennsylvania), the Giza Pyramids (Egypt), the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao), the Chartres Cathedral (France), etc.
12 In fact, those in architecture reported the highest level of transformation at 85.3%, 82.6%.
13 The phenomenological reduction is proposed by Edmund Husserl in Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (London: G.Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1931)
14 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1970)
15 William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences (New York: Touchstone, 2004, reprint from original 1905)
16 For more see Julio Bermudez, “Amazing Grace. New Research into ‘Extraordinary Architectural Experiences’ Reveals the Central Role of Sacred Places,” Faith & Form XLII:3 (2009): 8-13 —URL <> accessed 8-20-2010
17 James Elkins, Pictures & Tears (New York: Routledge, 2001). Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1973)