Rachel Hurst talks to Juhani Pallasmaa

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Rachel Hurst in conversation with Juhani Pallasmaa.

Rachel Hurst in conversation with Juhani Pallasmaa. Image: Peter Bennetts

I met with architect and writer Juhani Pallasmaa at the challenging hour of 8.30 am, the Sunday morning after the night before of the closing party of the national conference. Having left him at the Hilton Bar only seven hours before, still in animated conversation with Peter Skinner (one of the creative directors of the 2012 conference), I was impressed at his punctuality, affability and perspicacity (all more acute than my own at that hour). But, then, he is a Finn, a people known for their sisu (quiet resilience) and reserved generosity. Pallasmaa had confirmed his reputation as one of the two distinguished “elders” of the conference (the other being Fumihiko Maki) in the closing presentation of the event. With a dense but accessible journey through his impressive body of theoretical writings, he expounded his views on the sensory and ethical tasks facing contemporary architecture. I was interested to meet the man behind the avuncular, gentle presence.

Rachel Hurst: For people who don’t know your work, the central theme is that put forward in your book The Eyes of the Skin1 – that architecture should be a true collaboration of the five senses and, by engaging fully with the sensory world in that way, architecture can foster a deeply ethical and existential experience of life. You argue in that book, numerous essays and most recently in The Thinking Hand2 that we have increasingly become an ocular-centric society, disembodied from the authentic multi-sensorial perception of architecture, and are dominated by “a rainfall of images” to the detriment of our built world. How has this come about?

Juhani Pallasmaa: It’s a long historical process. On a philosophical level, it began with the ancient Greeks, who believed in a hierarchy of senses, with vision as the highest faculty and smell the lowest. In architecture, the idea was strongly reemphasized through the notions of perspective and the idea of the viewer as the centre of his or her world. Today, so many technical inventions, from the telescope to binoculars to the camera and further on to digital media, have kept emphasizing an ocular understanding of the world. As sight is the least embodied of our ways of perceiving the world – much more so than touch or smell or hearing which put us fully into a space – it means the subject is increasingly isolated with respect to orientation in the world.

RH: You’ve written that “the skin is the boundary line of self,”3 which is both a beautiful summary and kind of obvious. Maybe we are missing the common sense of the common senses? Of touch, sound but, even more so, smell and taste?

JP: Yes, smell for example has been censored, or directed into a narrow channel of perfumes and fragrances …

RH: Part of the modernist obsession with the hygienic?

JP: … Yes, but there are other cultures where smell has a much more central role. For every room, every person, has smell. We recognize, very probably select, our partners by smell. Smell has more to do with pleasure and safety and home than we consciously acknowledge.

RH: So how might we expand our sensory repertoire as architects when there are so many pressures toward the visual?

JP: I think everything is tied to everyone’s self-identity. I am a farm boy today, still, and my world is the multi-sensory world of the farm, so I have never had any real hesitation in sourcing the way I look at the world. Individuals who have grown up in the urban world, where you defensively close yourself to the lived world, I’m sure have a different understanding of themselves and the world. We simply need to become aware of the fact that we are part of the world and the richness of life. Our understanding of life is how we encounter the world and there is a great difference depending on how much we censor from that relationship.

RH: To play devil’s advocate to some of the ideas you’ve been putting across, you say that in questioning the advent of digital technologies and their disembodying effect on architectural practice, you aren’t seeking a return to an Arcadian past. But surely since computers have become much more user friendly, often mimicking the embodied production of architectural thinking – styluses to draw with, physical models produced digitally rather than only virtual ones, for example – is the threat of the digital as serious as you imply in The Eyes of the Skin, which is, after all, fifteen years old now?

JP: I repeatedly say that I’m not speaking against the computer. I’m speaking against the misuse of the computer. In the schools of architecture I visit around the world, often I see the misuse of the computer, where it becomes a replica for individual thought and imagination. It is disastrous. I usually give the same piece of advice: that you should have a test for your students, to show that they have learnt to use their imagination. After they have passed the test they can be given the licence to use a computer, but not before.

RH: So it’s a kind of barrier to imaginative thinking?

JP: The computer has no capacity for empathy, for compassion. The computer cannot imagine the use of space, but we can in our imagination. Even the imagination is really in space.

RH: The actual physicality of hand drawing, or working with materials which have weight as opposed to the seamless, smooth interface of the computer, is that something you believe is critical? In The Thinking Hand you talk about research which suggests we have expanded our brains in response to what the hand can do, rather than the hand being the tool of the mind.

JP: That is absolutely correct. There is a line of thinking that argues the brain is the product of the hand. In many ways our very practical and embodied relationship with the world and the things that are existentially important to us have formulated the ways that we think, not the other way round. That’s why I increasingly seek evolutionary explanations to human behaviour: for instance – the example I gave in my lecture – the surprising ability we all have to judge immediately the atmosphere of a space, its positive, beneficial or frightening character. It really has a biological ground. It is crucial. Individuals who were capable of doing that survived, whereas those who were just starting to figure it out in more detail, didn’t survive.

RH: … And the computer is disembodied from material, from hapticity, from gravity?

JP: Absolutely. By definition. There are programs that increasingly try to stimulate aspects of those, but I wonder if the computer will ever have an ethical sense, for instance, whereas we do. But the most important thing is that the computer cannot hesitate. Working between the mind and the hand we often hesitate, and we reveal our own answers in our hesitations.

RH: You stated in an interview in Encounters4 that in your writing and practice you aren’t really in conscious intellectual operation when you are working, but it’s more a process of self-immersion.

JP: That’s true. The writer J. M. Coetzee says, “Thinking about the reader is a deadly error for the writer,” and I think the same is true about architects’ work.

RH: Aren’t you thinking about the person in the space though?

JP: Of course, of course, it is me. It is always me. It is bound to be me; otherwise it’s too sterilized, too intellectualized. For only I can place myself in that imaginary situation. I can’t do it through the shadow of the other.

RH: In your early career I understand you were initially part of a strongly rational group of Finnish architects, and it appears you had something of an epiphany and put aside that approach to architectural projects. I’m interested to know whether that shift was gradual, traumatic? What brought about that change?

JP: I had a rather dramatic change in my life when I went to work in Mopti, Africa, and became critical of rationality and the idea of universal values. But on one level, I work in the same way as Alvar Aalto, I think. The question is how far you are capable of extending rationality. I am still thinking in a rational way, just pushing the limit further. I have accepted that human fundamental, rationality, and try to keep it somewhere in the equation.

RH: Portuguese architect Manuel Aires Mateus said at the conference that Alvaro Siza was a “difficult neighbour.” It was a lovely way to describe the impact of such a stellar national figure. I’m guessing Aalto was a similar presence for you and most Finnish architects?

JP: Yes, I thought of myself, and Aalto was an equally difficult neighbour! We all need mentors and idols, but if they are too close, they become problematic. I was lucky enough to have several mentors when I was young. In a way I had several fathers. My own father died when I was fairly young, so some of my older colleagues, artists and designers became kind of father/brother figures for me. Aulis Blomstedt,5 in particular, brought the learnings of the musical world to me …

RH: He was very interested in systems of proportion wasn’t he?

JP: Yes, I am Pythagorean myself. I respected Aulis – not only respected him, I realized it is very practical to use a pre-harmonized idea of measurement in your work …

RH: It saves time!

JP: Yes. It’s like playing on a well-tuned piano instead of a bad piano!

RH: One of the challenges for contemporary architects is how to practise in a global world, now any sense of place is challenged by a plethora of modern conditions – speed, travel, information technology, etc. How should one interpret place and location in your version of contemporary practice?

JP: My view is very firm on this issue – culture is such a complex thing that it cannot be intellectualized; it can only be lived. Consequently, design in alien culture is doomed to fail and become only a matter of thematized views of a given culture. Of course, part of the genius of any artist is to cross all kinds of boundaries. So Le Corbusier, for example, and Louis Kahn were able to do fantastic work in different cultural settings. One of the real miracles is Louis Kahn’s National Assembly building in Dacca – an Estonian Jew designs a capital of an Islamic state and that becomes a source of identity and pride for a nation. It’s amazing! So I’m not saying it’s impossible, but as a matter of principle we should follow Glenn Murcutt’s ethics that we design on our home ground because we know that home ground.

RH: On that issue of ethics do you think it’s more important to deal with the ethical or the beautiful, or do they somehow or other connect? The issue of “beauty” is a very thorny one now.

JP: They are the same. I am increasingly thinking that the ethical perspective and the aesthetic perspective, they fuse. I don’t think we can really earn beauty or deal with it directly. Beauty is a consequence of other things, and usually very ordinary things. You organize practical things of life appropriately and you arrive at beauty, but if you begin with beauty, you end with kitsch.

RH: I can see your taxi pulling up, and your good friend Glenn Murcutt waiting for you. But one more thing you have to do …

JP: Yes?

RH: You have to autograph my books for me!

JP: With pleasure. 

Read more articles about the 2011 national architecture conference here.

1. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin (Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
2. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand (Chichester, England: Wiley, 2009).
3. Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, II.
4. Juhani Pallasmaa, Encounters: architectural essays, ed. Peter MacKeith (Helsinki: Rakennustieto Oy, 2005). 7.
5. Aulis Blomstedt was a professor at Helsinki University of Technology where Pallasmaa studied, (and later became professor of architecture himself). 

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