Architecture is a resistance to the loss of memory, identity, hope and the self. Today ethical and aesthetic values are often considered secondary, but they are unconsciously mediated by our settings.
“Responsible architecture improves the landscape of its location and gives its lesser architectural neighbours new qualities instead of degrading them. It always enters a dialogue with existent conditions; profound buildings are not self-centred monologues.”
- Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin
Manuel Serrano: In your book, The Eyes of the Skin, you argue that the visual realm dominates today´s technological and consumer culture, and consequently, architectural practise and education. Can you elaborate?
Juhani Pallasmaa: Since ancient times, architecture has been regarded primarily as a visual art. Yet, buildings have historically responded to other sensory realms, too. The invention of printing and all the later media have strengthened the role of vision in western culture. Modernity has especially privileged vision, and supressed tactility. This hegemony of vision has been pointed out by a number of philosophers, such as David Michael Levin and Martin Jay.
Yet, architecture is essentially a multi-sensory and embodied art form. We usually think of our five Aristotelian senses, but our sensory relationship with the world is much more complex. I consider our existential sense as the most important sense in architectural experience, because through that sense we integrate the multitude of sensations and fuse them into our embodied existence. In my view, also the role of peripheral and unconscious vision is essential in spatial perception, but it has hardly been recognized in architectural theory and practice.
The primary task of architecture continues to be to defend and strengthen the wholeness and dignity of human life, and to provide us with an existential foothold in the world.
MS: and what´s the role of architecture today? How should it relate to the cultural and mental reality of our times?
JP: Architecture is the central art form because it concerns us all and it addresses us constantly and mostly sub-consciously. Today the art of architecture is threatened by three developments: total instrumentalisation (or functionalisation), aestheticisation and commercialisation. The first turns architecture into mere rational products of utility, the second into means of aesthetic seduction, and the third, into vehicles of investment, profit and commerce, instead of aspiring to mediate cultural and issues of identity, existential meaning, and human dignity.
Literature and poetry teach us literary imagination, empathy and compassion. It seems to me that our capacities to dream and imagine are withering.
MS: we seem to be moving from an age of words and ideas to an age of icons, symbols, where things assume their most effective shape as a visual package encompassing a great deal of information. How much is lost in this process of translation? Is it an irreversible process? Can literature, especially prose and poetry, still play a role in influencing creators in different domains?
JP: Yes, we are returning back to the age of the image of the pre-literate era, but also the role of the word as a means of persuasion is strong. The important thing, however, is whether the image and the word are used for purposes of emancipation and opening up, or manipulation and closing down. I am afraid that the latter is the direction in which our societies are currently developing. Today images tend to think and even feel on our behalf, and that is why poetry and literature are more important than ever. This is, for instance, the message of Italo Calvino in his Six Memos For the Next Millennium. Literature and poetry teach us literary imagination, empathy and compassion. It seems to me that our capacities to dream and imagine are withering.
The fascination with newness is characteristic to Modernism at large, but this obsession has never been as unquestioned as in our age of mass consumption and surreal materialism.