Book Review: Attunement—Architectural Meaning After the Crisis of Modern Science

By Alberto Pérez-Gómez. MIT Press, 2016.

Architecture is demanding. Buildings must be practically efficient, economically viable, ecologically sustainable, politically sensitive, technologically savvy, formally novel and visually eye-catching. But all this is meaningless if not also cultivating a profound sense of harmony. Impossibly highfalutin? To the contrary, this is architecture’s most fundamental aim.

As Alberto Pérez-Gómez shows, for architectural settings to become fully relevant, they must manifest atmospheres that enable a harmonious, synesthetic experience of human action and place. Harmony here entails a socially active, quasi-erotic experience of “discordant concordance.” Pérez-Gómez compellingly argues that architecture can—and should—allow for bittersweet encounters with worldly order, engendering “nothing less than a possible unveiling of truths” and a powerful “disclosure of human purpose in the face of mortality.”

Key to attaining harmony is overcoming false Cartesian divides between autonomous selves and external realities. This opens the way for “attuning” individuals with their broader lifeworlds, and architecture with its cultural and natural contexts.

Bolstered by neurobiology and arguments from his prior books (notably Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, 1983; and Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics, 2006), Pérez-Gómez elucidates architecture’s perennial pursuit of social well-being by creating well-tempered environments. He shows how physical settings sustain embodied consciousness and psychosomatic health.

With examples from Pythagoras to Piranesi, and Hejduk to Zumthor, Attunement chimes with the author’s inspiring knowledge and love of architectural history, philosophy and poetics. Readers demanding more of architecture than gratuitous novelty and market-driven techno-bureaucracy will be not only pleased, but also moved and empowered toward ethical creativity and understanding. Through engaging discourse, Attunement cultivates our “desire for desire.”

Lisa Landrum, MRAIC, is an associate professor in architecture at the University of Manitoba.