Monday, February 6, 2012
Phenomenology: E. Allan Poe's example
Fig. 01 Downloaded from Internet
The well known Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an excellent example to illuminate our topic on phenomenology in Architecture. Poe was influenced by John Locke’s Empiricism, in the idea that all knowledge was gained by experiences through the senses. Locke stated that mind was a “tabula rasa” (a paper in white, without ideas) where knowledge was imprinted. Man’s senses allow him to learn from the external world (experience) and inner reflexion also provides ideas as part of the world within us. It is opposite to Rationalism that states man has innate ideas (inborn knowledge).
This theory was sustained by Romantic writers of the 19th Century.
In this story, a man is visiting a former good school companion, after many years since he has not seen him. And this is his first impression at arriving his house (fig 01):
“with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible”……..”with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium-“……. “What was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?” (p. 171)
After this glooming impression, reinforced by the decaying and pestilent landscape which creates a peculiar atmosphere “that had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn” (p. 172), he arrives at the unsatisfactory conclusion “that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us”.(p.171)
Here we see how his five senses, including smell, collaborate in the perception. The black, white and grays are seen outside and inside; the description of the stone textures are accurate in the analogy: “the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of external air” (p.173); the pestilent smell, the inquietude of silence …..
Trying to recover himself, he decides to rationalize the whole situation: “shaking off my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building”. So, a tiny description of fungus, fissures, textures, goes on and he finally arrives at the conclusion that the house is closely related to the decay of the family, as a collateral issue for the only line of blood maintained in the family for centuries. His extreme thought is to personify the house in Mr Roderick Usher –the owner- “upon the vacant eyes windows” and his unhealthy body.
Locke’s idea that the objects themselves also produce in us sensations, that are not in the objects but constitute the qualities – the underlaying substratum- we associate with them, is implied in the impression the man suffers while walking in the dark, intricate passages of the house. The familiar objects he knows since childhood, are not familiar anymore, they look hostile and depressing: “Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me …….were but matters to which….I have been accustomed from my infancy –while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this- I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up……….I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.” (p. 173).
The same construction of feelings and posterior ideas arises from Mr R. Usher, who explains that “He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling” (p.175). For fear, he has not ventured through the house, in many years.
The form and substance of the house had influences over his spirit and the morale of his existence. Like the writer, Mr R. Usher at last looks for a rational explanation : “He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin –to the severe and long continued illness….- of a tenderly beloved sister” (p.175)
Regardless the phylosophical background, the story is a clear example of immateriality in architecture, in the sense we take. And we want to emphasize the importance of the environment and objects in all scales. After finding the clues of imminent death even before entering the house, the writer wonders how his imagination could torture him beyond the sublime?.