Understanding Extraordinary Architectural Experiences through Content Analysis of Written Narratives

Main Article Content

Brandon Richard Ro
Julio Bermudez


This study a) identifies how people describe, characterize, and communicate in written form Extraordinary Architectural Experiences (EAE), and b) expands the traditional qualitative approach to architectural phenomenology by demonstrating a quantitative method to analyze written narratives. Specifically, this study reports on the content analysis of 718 personal accounts of EAEs. Using a deductive, ‘theory-driven’ approach, these narratives were read, coded, and statistically analyzed to identify storyline structure, convincing power, and the relationship between subjective and objective experiential qualities used in the story-telling process. Statistical intercoder agreement tests were conducted to verify the reliability of the interpretations to approach the hard problem of “extraordinary aesthetics” in architecture empirically. The results of this study confirm the aesthetic nature of EAE narratives (and of told experiences) by showing their higher dependence on external objective content (e.g., a building’s features and location) rather than its internal subjective counterpart (e.g., emotions and sensations), which makes them more outwardly focused. The strong interrelationships and intercoder agreement between the thematic realms provide a unique aesthetic construct revealing EAE narratives as memorable, embodied, emotional events mapped by the externally focused content of place, social setting, time, and building features. A majority of EAE narratives were found to possess plot-structure along with significant relationships to objective-subjective content that further grounded their storylines. This study concludes that content analysis provides not only a valid method to understand written narratives about extraordinary architectural experiences quantitatively, but also a view as to how to map the unique nature of aesthetic phenomenology empirically.

Article Details

How to Cite
Ro, B., and J. Bermudez. “Understanding Extraordinary Architectural Experiences through Content Analysis of Written Narratives”. Enquiry The ARCC Journal for Architectural Research, Vol. 12, no. 1, Dec. 2015, doi:10.17831/enq:arcc.v12i1.390.
Peer Reviewed Papers
Author Biographies

Brandon Richard Ro, VCBO Architecture Salt Lake City, UT

Brandon Ro is an award-winning design professional with over 8 years of A/E/C industry experience. He is a results-driven leader who promotes enthusiasm and collaborative synergy on team projects. Whether built or unbuilt, his designs have been published, presented, and exhibited nationally and abroad. He has a proven record of projects have been recognized with numerous awards and honors (70+) from organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, Walt Disney Imagineering, American Institute of Architects, Alliance to Save Energy, American Planning Association, California Higher Education Energy Efficiency Partnership Program, and Designer’s Lighting Forum among others. Over the years his design philosophy has been influenced by observing the built environment through a phenomenological lens on multiple continents and studying under internationally recognized architects, such as Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Campo Baeza. 

As a believer of Winston Churchill's saying, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us," Mr. Ro is a strong advocate of design and research that improves the interconnectivity between architecture, culture, spirituality, ecology, and human experience. At the Catholic University of America, for instance, he was awarded the Magi Endowment for the Liturgical Arts to advance his research on the phenomenological experience of sacred architecture through evidence-based design. Mr. Ro currently serves as the research leader at VCBO Architecture where he helps bridge the gap between theory and practice. His theoretical works and research have been published in Arquitecturas del Sur, Carbon-Neutral Architectural Design, Architectural Research Centers Consortium, Márgenes Arquitectura, Ambiances in Action, Environmental Design Research Association, and most recently in the Journal of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School.

Julio Bermudez, School of Architecture and Planning The Catholic University of America

Associate Professor Julio Bermudez directs the Cultural Studies and Sacred Space graduate concentration program. He holds a Master of Architecture and a Ph.D. in Education degrees from the University of Minnesota. He has been teaching architectural design, theory and representation for nearly 30 years.

Dr. Bermudez’s teaching and research are focused in architectural phenomenology, the development of voluntary architectural simplicity (VAS), and the relationship between architecture, culture and spirituality. He has lectured, led symposia, and published articles in these areas nationally and internationally. Current projects include a fMRI study of architecturally induced contemplative states at the Utah Brain Institute, the analysis of results from a large survey on profound phenomenologies of place, and work on a book manuscript on the architectural extraordinary. His edited volume "Transcending Architecture. Contemporary Views on Sacred Space” was published by CUA Press in February 2015. A second book, co-edited with Thomas Barrie and Phillip Tabb and entitled "Architecture, Culture and Spirituality" (Ashgate Publshinng, UK) is expected to be in the market in late 2015.

Prior to this work, professor Bermudez efforts unfolded around two areas: (1) the pedagogic investigation of design process and digital media, and (2) the application of architectural concepts and methods to the interdisciplinary design of data environments. The result of this work included the analog-digital design method and theory (influencing many teachers and researchers worldwide), a successful information visualization research across multiple domains (attracting nearly $5M in funding), and a very extensive number of lectures, workshops, and publications both in the U.S. and abroad.

Bermudez has received several national and international recognitions including the 1998 AIA Education Honors Award, the 2004-05 ACSA Creative Achievement Award, the 2005 Arturo Montagu Creative Career Prize bestowed by SiGraDi (Latin American organization), the 2006 ACADIA Award for Teaching Excellence, and the 2010 Sasada Award for his sustained and significant international record of scholarship and service (conferred by CAADRIA, Asia). Dr. Bermudez co-founded the Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality in 2007.


Abbot, H.P. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 2008) http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511816932

Abel, C. 2015. The Extended Self. Architecture, Memes and Minds. Manhester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Amoroso, R.L. 2010. Complementarity of Mind & Body: Realizing the Dream of Descartes, Einstein & Eccles. New York: Nova Science.

Arhheim, R. 1966. Towards a Psychology of Art, Collected Essays. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

Arhheim, R. 1977. The Dynamics of Architectural Form. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

Agresti, A., & Finlay, B. 1997. Statistical Methods for the Social Sciences (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Amedeo, D., Golledge, R. G., & Stimson, R. J. 2009. Person-environment-behavior research: investigating activities and experiences in spaces and environments. New York: Guilford Press.

Bachelard, G. 1964. The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Barragán, L. 1980. "1980 Laureate Acceptance Speech." Pritzker Architecture Prize, accessed Sept 20, 2015. http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1980/ceremony_speech1.

Benedikt, M. 2008. God, Creativity, and Evolution: The Argument from Design(ers). Austin, TX: Centerline Books.
Berg, B. L. 2001. Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bermudez, J. 2008. "Mapping the Phenomenological Territory of Profound Architectural Atmospheres. Results of a Large Survey." Paper presented at the International Symposium “Creating an atmosphere”, Ecole Nationale Supériure d’Architecture de Grenoble, France. http://www.cresson.archi.fr/PUBLI/pubCOLLOQUE/AMB8-1Bermudez.pdf

Bermudez, J. 2009a. "Amazing Grace. New Research into ‘Extraordinary Architectural Experiences’ Reveals the Central Role of Sacred Places." Faith & Form, 42(2): 8-13.

Bermudez, J. 2009b. "The Extraordinary in Architecture. Studying and Acknowledging the Reality of the Spiritual." 2A – Architecture and Art Magazine, Autumn(12): 46-49.

Bermudez, J. 2011a. "Empirical Aesthetics: The Body and Emotion in Extraordinary Architectural Experiences." Paper presented at the 2011 Architectural Research Centers Consortium: “Considering Research”, Lawrence Tech University, Detroit, MI

Bermudez, J. 2011b. "Outcomes of the Architectural Extraordinary: An Empirical Study." Paper presented at the Third Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Symposium, Serenbe, GA. http://www.acsforum.org/symposium2011/papers/bermudez.pdf

Bermudez, J. 2011c. "Profound Experiences of Architecture - the Role of ‘Distancing’ in the Ineffable." 2A Architecture and Art, Spring(17): 20-25.

Bermudez, J. 2014. "Considering the Relationship Between Phenomenology and Science." Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, 25(3):51-54.

Bermudez, J. 2015. "Le Corbusier at the Parthenon." In Bermudez, J. ed. Transcending Architecture: Contemporary Views of Sacred Space, 88-110. Washington, DC: CUA Press.

Bermudez, J. Forthcoming. "Phenomenology of the Architectural Extraordinary and Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy." In T. Barrie, J. Bermudez and P. Tabb, eds. Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality. London: Ashgate.

Bermudez, J., and B.R. Ro. 2013a. "The Effect of Gender, Age, and Education in Extraordinary Aesthetic Experiences." Paper presented at the Healthy + Healing Places: Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association, Providence, RI. http://faculty.cua.edu/bermudez/papers/edra_2013.pdf

Bermudez, J., and B.R. Ro. 2013b. "Memory, Social Interaction and Communicability in Extraordinary Experiences of Architecture." Paper presented at the 2013 Architectural Research Centers Consortium, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. http://arccweb.org/conferences/proceedings/ARCC2013_UNCC%20Conference%20Proceedings.pdf

Bernard, H. R., ed. 1994. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bernard, H. R., & Ryan, G. 1998. "Text Analysis: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods." In H. R. Bernard, ed. Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, 595-645. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Bloomer, K.C. and C.W. Moore. 1977. Body, Memory, and Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Burgess, P.W., I. Dumontheil and S.J. Gilbert. 2007. "The gateway hypothesis of rostral prefrontal cortex (area 10) function." TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 11(7): 290-298. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2007.05.004

Carey, J. W., Morgan, M., & Oxtoby, M. J. 1996. "Intercoder Agreement in Analysis of Responses to Open-Ended Interview Questions: Examples from Tuberculosis Research." Cultural Anthropology Methods, 8(3): 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1525822x960080030101

Chatman, S. 1980. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Corbetta, M. and G. L. Shulman. 2002. "Control of goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention in the brain." Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3: 201-215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn755

Crosbie, M. Forthcoming. "The Sacred Becomes Profane." In T. Barrie, J. Bermudez and P. Tabb, eds. Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality. London: Ashgate.

Cullen, G. 1961. Townscape. New York: Reinhold.

D'Aquili, E. G., & Newberg, A. B. 2000. "The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual, and Mystical states." Zygon, 35(1): 39-51. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/0591-2385.00258

Damasio, A. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Damasio, A. 2012. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Vintage Books.

Davies, M., & Fleiss, J. L. 1982. "Measuring Agreement for Multinomial Data." Biometrics, 38(4): 1047-1051. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2529886

Denzin, N.K. and Y.S. Lincoln. 2000. “Introduction. The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research.” In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln, eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1-28. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Dewey, J. 1934. Art As Experience. New York: Wideview/Perigee Book.

Eberhard, J. 2007. Architecture and the Brain: A Knowledge Base from Neuroscience. Atlanta: Greenway Communications.

Elkins, J. 2001. Pictures and Tears. New York: Routledge.

Gallese, V. 2005. “Embodied simulation: from neurons to phenomenal experience.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4:23-48.

Geertzen, J. 2012. "Inter-Rater Agreement with multiple raters and variables." Accessed March 16, 2014. https://mlnl.net/jg/software/ira/

Gifford, R. 2007. Environmental Psychology. Colviller, WA: Optimal Books.

Golland, Y., et. al. 2007. "Extrinsic and Intrinsic Systems in the Posterior Cortex of the Human Brain Revealed during Natural Sensory Stimulation." Cerebral Cortex 17(4): 766-777. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhk030

Grbich, C. 2007. Qualitative data analysis: an introduction. London: Sage Publications.
Guest, G., & MacQueen, K. M. 2008. Handbook for team-based qualitative research. Lanham: Altamira.

Harries, K. 2007. "The Ethical Significance of Environmental Beauty." In Architecture, Ethics, and the Personhood of Place, ed. G. Caicco. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Hejduk, R. and J. Williamson. 2011. “Introduction: The Apocryphal Project of Modern and Contemporary Architecture.” In The Religious Imagination in Modern and Contemporary Architecture. A Reader, ed. R. Hejduk and J. Williamson, 1-9. New York: Routledge.

Hillier, B. 1990. The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hiss, T. 1990. The Experience of Place. New York: Knopf.

Ivy, R. 2006. “The Essence of Education.” Architectural Record 07(17).
Johnson, M. 2007. The Meaning of the Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226026992.001.0001

Jones, L. 2000. The hermeneutics of sacred architecture: experience, interpretation, comparison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Josipovic, Z. 2013. "Freedom of the mind." Front Psychol. 4: 538 http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00538
Jung, C. 1971. Psychological Types. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kaplan, S. 1995. "The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework." Journal of Environmental Psychology 15(3):169-82. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

Knobe, J. and S. Nichols, eds. 2008. Experimental Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krampen, M. 1979. Meaning in the Urban Environment. London: Pion Limited.

Krippendorff, K. 2013. Content analysis: an introduction to its methodology (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Lacy, S., & Riffe, D. 1996. "Sampling error and selecting intercoder reliability samples for nominal content categories: Sins of omission and commission in mass communication quantitative research." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 73: 969-973. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/107769909607300414

Landis, J. R., & Koch, G. G. 1977. "The Measurement of Observer Agreement for Categorical Data." Biometrics, 33(1): 159-174. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2529310
Lawlor, A. 1994. The Temple in the House. New York: Penguin Putman.

Le Corbusier. 1948. New world of space. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock.

Lombard, M., Snyder-Duch, J., & Bracken, C. C. 2002. "Content analysis in mass communication: Assessment and reporting of intercoder reliability." Human Communication Research, 28: 587-604. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2002.tb00826.x

Manzo, L.C. and P. Devine-Wright. 2014. Place Attachment: Advances In Theory, Methods And Applications. New York: Routledge.

Marans, R. W. 1973. "A Perspectus on Survey Research for Environmental Planning." Paper presented at the Environmental Design Research: Fourth International EDRA Conference, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, College of Architecture.

McHugh, M. 2009. "The odds ratio: calculation, usage, and interpretation." Biochemia Medica 19(2):120-126. http://dx.doi.org/10.11613/BM.2009.011

Namey, E., et al. 2008. "Data Reduction Techniques for Large Qualitative Data Sets." In G. Guest & K.M. MacQueen, eds. Handbook for Team-Based Qualitative Research, 137-161. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Nehamas, A. 2007. Only a promise of happiness: the place of beauty in a world of art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Neuendorf, K. A. 2002. The Content Analysis Guidebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Nobre, A.C., et. al. 2004. "Orienting Attention to Locations in Perceptual Versus Mental Representations." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 16(3): 363–373. http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/089892904322926700

Norberg-Schulz, C. 1985. The Concept of Dwelling. New York: Rizzoli International.

Otto, R. 1950. The idea of the holy: an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational (2d ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Pallasmaa, J. 2005. The Eyes of the Skin. Chchester, Enland: John Wiley.

Pallasmaa, J., ed. 2015a. Architecture in Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pallasmaa, J. 2015b. "Light, Silence and Spirituality in Architecture and Art." In Transcending Architecture. Contemporary Views on Sacred Space, ed. J. Bermudez. Washington, DC: CUA Press.

Pérez-Gómez, A. 1985. Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pérez-Gómez, A. 2006. Built Upon Love. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Piaget, J. 1977. The Essential Piaget. Edited by H. Gruber and J.J. Vonèche J.J. New York: Basic Books.

Petitot, J., et al. 1999. Naturalizing Phenomenology: issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rapoport, A. 1982. The Meaning of the Built Environment. Beverly Hills: Sage Publication.

Rasmussen, S. E. 1959. Experiencing Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Recchia, H. E., Brehl, B. A., & Wainryb, C. 2012. "Children's and Adolescents' Reasons for Socially Excluding Others." Cognitive Development, 27(2): 195-203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2012.02.005
Riley, R.B, et al. 1993. "Most Influential Landscapes." Landscape Journal 12(2):169-189.

Rudas, T. 1998. Odds Ratios in the Analysis of Contingency Tables. Sage University Papers Series on Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences, 07(119). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ryan, G.W. and H.R. Bernard. 2000. "Data Management and Analysis Methods." In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln, eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 769-802. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Singh, K. 2007. Quantitative Social Research Methods. New Delhi: Sage.

Seamon, D. 1993. Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Seamon, D. 2000. "Phenomenology, Place, Environment, and Architecture: A Review." Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter.

Stemberg, E.M. 2009. Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1997. Space and Place, the Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1990. Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press.

Twombly, R., ed. 2003. Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Varela, F. 1996. "Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem." Journal of Consciousness Studies 3(4): 330-349.

von Eckartsberg, R. 1998. "Existential-Phenomenological Research." In R. Valle, ed. Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and Transpersonal Dimensions, 21-61. New York: Plenum. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-0125-5_2

Wells, J. and E. Pavlides, eds. 2013. Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association. Providece, RI: Environmental Design Research Association.

Wright, E. 2008. The Case for Qualia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9780262232661.001.0001