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Philosophy Professor Ends Elected Term as Aesthetics President with Architectural Zing

Jenefer Robinson made connections between music, architecture and emotion in her presidential address to ASA. Back at UC, she presented her findings to DAAP students.

Date: 2/2/2011
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: UC Photographic Services
Jenefer Robinson has built her career studying aesthetics—the philosophical issues surrounding humans’ perceptions of art, nature and beauty—and just recently ended her two-year term as president of the American Society for Aesthetics.

A professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, she addressed ASA members on a new topic dear to her heart: emotion and architecture.

Philosophy Professor Jenefer Robinson.
Philosophy Professor Jenefer Robinson

While she wrote “Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music and Art” in 2005—and won UC’s Rieveschl Award for Creative and/or Scholarly Works in 2006—it wasn’t until recently that she decided she wanted to extend her analysis of emotion in the arts to the art of architecture.

“It was a new topic for me and something a bit special,” Robinson says. “In the lecture I start by quoting from a book recommended to me by UC Architecture Professor John Hancock. It’s by the architect and architectural theorist Juhani Pallasmaa called ‘The Eyes of the Skin.’ He emphasizes that experiencing architecture requires the participation of the whole body—all the senses, not just vision (he inveighs against what he calls ‘retinal architecture’), as well as the bodily movements one has to perform in moving around a building.”

Gleaning observations from psychology, Robinson argues that the experience of imagining walking through a building lights up many of the same neural pathways as actually walking through it. What’s especially interesting, she believes, is that people imagine moving through music in much the same way.

“So just as in experiencing music we imagine moving through clear terrain, wondering where one is, facing obstacles, emerging into clarity or whatever, so in experiencing architecture we literally do these things,” she says. “Music and architecture have often been compared but never in this way, as far as I know: the experience of both is essentially bodily.”

Robinson brought this argument to life in January when she was featured as a guest lecturer in Nnamdi Elleh’s graduate-level architecture course in UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). Not only did she incorporate her love of philosophy and aesthetics into her presentation, she introduced visuals, music and videos to her lecture in order to further drive home her argument that emotion does indeed pervade music and architecture in a similar fashion.

“The bodily involvement I’m talking about arouses feelings which are experienced as emotional. So in emerging from a dark corridor into a large and stately hall, I have a physiological reaction which is a feeling of relief (say) and the same sort of thing happens when I’m listening to a passage of music in which after a period of tonal instability I ‘emerge into the light’ and feel exalted and relieved.”

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