‘THE EYES OF THE SKIN’ | Book Review

essay front page finished
Self-made collage including Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome, 1508-1512, fresco (Italian Renaissance, 2012)

Introduction

The Eyes of the Skinmight be considered the manifesto of Juhani Pallasmaa. It forms the foundation for which his further books and explorative thought are based upon. It is from this perspective that this review aims to consider his background, the events and influences leading up to the text, the text itself, his later work and the effects of the book on the architectural community. Furthermore, I intend to analyse his language, sources and his point of view regarding issues of phenomological and biological architecture. His current stance is aligned with Edward O. Wilson’s concept of Biophilia that “nature and natural systems as the source and destiny of human culture” (Pallasmaa, 2012).

The study of biophilia is typically reduced to two approaches. Idioms found in everyday language such as ‘blind as a bat’ provide qualitative evidence in support of Wilson’s hypothesis but are ultimately subjective and therefore heavily criticised. A more objective approach studies biophobia where physiological responses towards a natural fear stimulus for instance a snake, provides measurable results. Wilson ultimately states that the decline in biophilic behaviour is the result of increased human dependence on technology, a sentiment which is echoed throughout The Eyes of the Skin(Britannica, 2019).


 

Events and Influences

 Two months following Pallasmaa’s third birthday the Soviet Union invaded his home country of Finland, marking the start of the Winter War. Pallasmaa reflected in conversation with Peter MacKeith in 2011 that “learning became a burning desire and in the post-war, scarcity fed the imagination”. The shortage of stimulation will most likely have attributed to Pallasmaa’s passion for literature of varying subjects, literature which is heavily relied on in The Eyes of the Skin. Finland’s national identity is owed in part to the traumatic experience of a series of defeats by the Soviet Union. A peace treaty was signed between the two nations but that did little to ease the continued pressure on the country (BBC, 2018). There will have been a social effect on Pallasmaa as a young boy, yet it remains difficult to determine how direct and to what extent this wartime upbringing shaped his later philosophy. It is worth noting however, the resilience of children against environmental factors. In Encounters: Architectural Essays, Juhani credits growing up on his grandfather’s farm as when he learnt that “the skills of the farmer were not theoretical knowledge learned through reading but embodied and tactic wisdom” this highlights a paradox between Pallasmaa’s theoretical approach and the tactile subject he analyses in The Eyes of the Skin.

Juhani Pallasmaa experienced his first architectural role models in the form of Aulis Blomstedt (1906-79) and Aarno Ruusuvori (1925-92) who were his mentors at the Helsinki University of Technology. A space which was evidently formative of his career as he returned as a professor later in life. Whilst at university he went on an American exchange programme where he potentially formed the opinion as expressed in Encounters 2that “the competition for a striking architectural image and commercial visibility is most evident (and often most pathetic) in today’s high-rise buildings”. The point of view that Pallasmaa takes in The Eyes of theSkin would suggest his aversion for the skyscraper typology derives from visual dominance in the design process yet his dislike of modern technology, which the skyscraper could be considered the child of could also have clouded his opinion.

In addition to being well-travelled Pallasmaa was an extensive reader of non-architectural literature. In Encounters 2he mentions that he has “found books in many other genres – poetry, literary essays, cinema, philosophy, neurology, etc… more inspiring for my views of architecture than books strictly written on architecture” this shows his interest in multiple disciplines which is later echoed in his sources and references within The Eyes of the Skin. One such source were the writings of Anton Ehrenzweig, in particular his books on the unconscious sources of artistic creativity and experience which Pallasmaa said “gave, perhaps, the most single impulse to my way of thinking” (Pallasmaa, 2012). The influence of his reading ties into his biological foundations, that by appealing to the five senses instead of focusing predominantly on vision, architecture can satisfy a more primal function that can be linked to our origins as a species.

A close friend of Pallasmaa, Colin St John Wilson who wrote The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture, assaults the principle of Cartesian rationalism in Modernist design. The abstract nature of Le Corbusier’s designs was heavily criticised in the book not unlike a client Mme de Mandrot who described her house as “absolutely uninhabitable” due to Corbusier’s lack of consideration for practical living in a space. Wilson and Pallasmaa both critique the modernist movement for the lack of attention to the human experience (Roberts, 1996).


 

The Eyes of the Skin

 Juhani Pallasmaa is an academic which is apparent in the scientific words and scholarly vocabulary used in The Eyes of the Skin. Terminology such as “Cartesian perspectivalist scopic regime” negatively affect the rhythm of the work particularly when used in markedly long sentences. In addition, the flow of his writing is at times impeded as The Eyes of the Skinis highly research heavy. Great reliance is placed on the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gaston Bachelard, yet the sources range from different disciplines reducing bias in the architectural community thereby increasing the reliability of his research.

The five senses Pallasmaa recognises of vison, touch, smell, hearing and taste are considered comprehensively throughout the book yet his highly theoretical and philosophical approach barely mentions the practical implications of his ideas. A J Ayer a renowned yet controversial thinker also of the twentieth century believed that unless a statement can be proven by scientific methods and add value to society then it was nonsense (Warbuton, 2012). A more phenomological architecture if better suited to humans on an experiential level could add value to society, nevertheless the concept of only five senses has been disproven by science. The notion of a hierarchy of senses with some having more weight than others in terms of experiential influence is easily disputable however, there should be an acceptance that in Western culture some senses are more readily suppressed. An example of such suppression is when children are told not to touch public objects in the interests of hygiene.

Pallasmaa regards the senses in The Eyes of the Skin“as extensions of the sense of touch” yet paradoxically he treats them as separate entities. There is brief acknowledgement that the body’s senses are not independent for instance where he refers to certain colours and delicate details evoking oral sensations on page 63. The body uses sense modalities in unison therefore, it is inaccurate to pose as clear of a distinction as Pallasmaa does, furthermore, there are as many as twenty-one senses which have been recognised by neurologists. The notion of five individual senses was perhaps started by Aristotle’s De Anima where each is given a separate chapter, however it has long been considered “a glaring myth of the brain” (BBC, 2014). This oversimplification of multiple complex biological systems in the Eyes of the Skincould result in misinformation.

Sketches of door handles fill Pallasmaa’s sketchbooks as he considers them the handshake of a building. Whilst he encourages tactile architecture and discourages an ocular bias, the lack of tactility is in itself an experience. For instance, the weight of a door is often associated with seriousness. If instead of pushing a door it opens automatically then we may perceive that space as welcoming and less serious than if we had to throw our weight against a heavy door. The weight of the door similar to Pallasmaa’s interest in door handles could influence our initial perceptions when entering a space. There is a discussion to be had for the best tactile approach towards a door and its handle, or lack of, as best reflecting the use of the space beyond, an idea which may not be dependent on touch to convey (Arch Daily, 2011). In the same way he displays a bias towards ocular centrism in our current architectural culture and only touches upon the tactile Baroque movement, in favour of concentrating on modernism as it further substantiates his opinion. Pallasmaa believes that “modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless” however, the phrase ‘Modernist design’ is a purposefully vague term which potentially covers many pivotal modernist structures which have contributed significantly to architectural discourse (Pallasmaa, 2012). Whilst some less well-thought out structures that could be considered as leaving the rest of our senses homeless, have nevertheless contributed by highlighting the contrast between successful and unsuccessful design.

The process of architectural design in the workplace is changing. Whilst pencils and paper remain integral to the conceptual stage the rationalisation of that concept is often completed using computer software instead of a drafting board. Significant weighting should be given to Pallasmaa’s pre-computer experience when considering his dislike of technology. The position of Pallasmaa is potentially one of nostalgia, discussing his early career he says “at that time, I thought that architecture and art was an invention, now I think they are much more of a conversation with the past” (Aalto University, 2018).

Both traditional drafting and computer aided design rely on the architect to manipulate lines or vectors to communicate an idea efficiently to a client. The shift into the technological era has both increased and decreased the efficiency of an architect to complete a brief. The commercially viable option is in contrast to the human value of craft. Economic streamlining is a physical manifestation of technology rationalising itself. Contemporary architecture is often labelled as ‘inhuman’ however it represents the next stage of design that is reflecting the current cultural environment of the human technology integration. The “dominance of the eye and the suppression of other senses tend to push into detachment, isolation and exteriority” which may not be a cause as Pallasmaa believes, but rather one the many effects.

HTA competition entry
HTA Design Competition Entry (Architects’ Journal, 2015)

Le Corbusier’s hand drawn sketch of the suspended garden is praised by Pallasmaa on page 67 in The Eyes of the Skinfor its human quality. In a similar style the above image was a sketch that has been transformed by photoshop aiming to illustrate that whilst Pallasmaa is possibly correct in saying “a meaningful architectural experience is not simply a series of retinal images” there has to be a consideration that a poignant visual image can trigger phantom feelings from other senses, whether that image involves a pencil, computer or both is irrelevant.


 

The Continuation of Pallasmaa’s Philosophy

The Eyes of the Skinset the groundwork for Pallasmaa’s future writings by building on the concept of a more phenomenological architectural experience. The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architectureexplored in more detail the idea that “in a very short time computational technology has completely changed countless aspects of research, production and everyday life” which appears in Part One of The Eyes of the Skin. Another key text written by Pallasmaa is The Architecture of Image: existential space in cinemawhere there is an effort to soften the boundary between touch and vision that was felt in the Eyes of the Skinby exploring the concept of Dostoyevsky’s set designs as “not detached pictorial images” by in fact “experiences of embodied and lived space” (Pallasmaa, 2007). There seems to be a correlation between the later the date of publication of a book and the intensified focus on the biological model for architecture, this illustrates Pallasmaa’s passion for the topic which he first touched upon in his essays Animal Architectureand The Two Languages of Architecture, these essays in turn paved the way for The Eyes of the Skin. The philosophical approach of Pallasmaa was still present in his later books but it was to a lesser degree, instead he talked about the topic in broader detail making use of his extensive reading. Pallasmaa collaborated with his long-term friends Steven Holl and Alberto- Pérez-Goméz onQuestions of Perceptionwho were similarly interested in the phenomological grounding of architectural discourse. Surrounding himself with like-minded people could possibly have contributed to the subject matter of his later books.

Model of Grand Budapest Hotel
Model of the Grand Budapest Hotel designed by Adam Stockhausenfor the Wes Anderson Film (Architects’ Journal, 2014)

A renowned thinker, Pallasmaa’s architectural design of the Kamppi Centre (2003-2006) is located in downtown Helsinki near Sähkötalo by Alvar Aalto. In comparison to his earlier architectural works the Kamppi Centre has won multiple awards including Concrete Structure of the Yearand a Well-Done Certificateby the association of visually impaired people (Galinsky, 2011). In Finland, Juhani Pallasmaa is known as a Constructivist. His work has been inspired by the simplicity of Japanese architecture and the abstraction of modern Deconstructivism (Thought Co, 2017).

Kamppi Centre
Kamppi Centre, Helsinki (Galinsky, 2011)

 

The Effect of the Text on Future Architectural Discourse

 The latest edition of his book The Eyes of the Skinwas re-published in 2012, fourteen years after its initial publication in 1996, which is indicative of its standing as recommended reading material to students of architecture. Pallasmaa continues to influence younger generations whether via interviews, his other books or events he attends. He strikes me as more of an architectural philosopher than a practising architect. The eleven buildings he has worked on over his career have largely been restoration or extensions and not all have been recognised as significant; Pallasmaa is not a renowned designer but a renowned thinker. Juhani Pallasmaa’s passion is for the haptic, the architecture of experience. This focus on the tactile sense is perhaps due to his belief that “greatness is measured by timelessness” and the skin was the original sense (Pallasmaa, 2012).

“We may live in a city and be deeply engaged in the technological and digital realities of today, but our embodied reactions continue to be grounded in our timeless past; there is still a hunter-gatherer, fisherman, and farmer concealed in the genes of each one of us” (Pallasmaa & MacKeith, 2012)


 

Bibliography

Aalto University, 2018. Peter Zumthor and Juhani Pallasmaa – Architecture Speaks. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibwvGn3PkFg
[Accessed 12 Febuary 2019].

Arch Daily, 2011. Tactile Architecture: Does it Matter?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/186499/tactile-architecture-does-it-matter
[Accessed 22 March 2019].

Architects’ Journal, 2014. Wes Anderson: The Architectural Film-Maker. [Online]
Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/culture/wes-anderson-the-architectural-film-maker/8660096.article
[Accessed 29 April 2019].

Architects’ Journal, 2015. HTA Design wins Barratt/AJ Home Future Competition. [Online]
Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/hta-design-wins-barratt/aj-home-of-the-future-competition/8690667.article
[Accessed 27 April 2019].

BBC, 2014. Psychology: How Many Senses Do We Have?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141118-how-many-senses-do-you-have
[Accessed 28 March 2019].

BBC, 2018. Finland Profile – Timeline. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17292092
[Accessed 5 March 2019].

Britannica, 2019. Biophilia Hypothesis. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis
[Accessed 25 April 2019].

Detail, n.d. Finnish Cultural Institute in Paris. [Online]
Available at: https://inspiration.detail.de/finnish-cultural-institute-in-paris-109712.html?lang=en
[Accessed 5 March 2019].

Galinsky, 2011. Kamppi Centre, Helsinki. [Online]
Available at: http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/kamppi/index.html
[Accessed 10 March 2019].

Italian Renaissence, 2012. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. [Online]
Available at: http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelo-creation-of-adam/
[Accessed 12 April 2019].

Pallasmaa, J., 2007. In: The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema. Helsinki: Rakennustieto Publishing, pp. 9-21.

Pallasmaa, J., 2009. The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Pallasmaa, J., 2012. The Eyes of the Skin. 3rd Edition ed. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Pallasmaa, J. & MacKeith, P., 2012. Encounters 2: Architectural Essays. Vancouver: John Wiley & Sons.

Roberts, J., 1996. arq: Vol 1: spring. [Online]
Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/9267131B6E33123FD65479CBD791B679/S1359135500002967a.pdf/other_tradition_of_modern_architecture_the_uncompleted_project_by_wilson_colin_st_john_academy_editions_1995_128_pp_over_150_mo
[Accessed 10 April 2019].

Thought Co, 2017. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Soft-Spoken Finn with Big Ideas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/juhani-pallasmaa-finnish-architect-177421
[Accessed 2 March 2019].

Warbuton, N., 2012. A Little History of Philosophy. 2nd Edition ed. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

 

 

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