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Skin Deep

Pallasmaa, Juhani “The Eyes of The Skin: Architecture and The Senses“, 2nd Edition, Wiley-Academy, 2005

It’s easy to see why this book is essential reading in many schools. It makes architecture sound like a very noble pursuit.

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Its argument is simple. Western culture has, since the Greeks, emphasised our sense of vision to the neglect of our other ones. All Greeks aren’t to blame. Socrates for one, is on record as discouraging the use of reed pens and papyrus to take notes – he thought it stopped people concentrating on what was being said. He also claimed visual representations took on a life of their own independent of their original intentions.

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Soc. belived in a truth more fundamental than the visual representation of it. He had no idea someday people might want to create visual representations of a truth in order to convey a notion detached from that truth. To be fair, it was a long time ago.

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Aesthetics as we know it now is almost totally concerned with the visual aesthetics and, even when it isn’t, poetry gets discussed in term of imagery, music in terms of space, drama in terms of distance – all concepts derived from vision. Pallasmaa’s main concern is architecture and that we’ve come to understand it almost solely via our sense of vision.

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He’s worried that people actually in or actually around a building experience that building as predominantly a visual object. It sounds like the people actually in or around a building are at fault. Pallasmaa is hesitant to point the finger at who might be encouraging people [in or around real buildings, remember] to do so.

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Pallasmaa can’t conceive of architects producing images of buildings intended to be comprehended as visual objects so he’s certainly not going to be able to conceive of architects designing virtual visual objects intended to be comprehended as architecture. Here’s City In The Sky. It’s been around since 2012. Is it fanciful? Is it visionary?

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It doesn’t matter – it’s no less real than this image of 2 World Trade Center which, some time back, we comprehended as architecture.

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Pallasmaa’s objections to visual culture are no more up to date than Socrates’. I suppose we should be grateful Pallasmaa wrote them down in an essay, and then a book, to help us see things differently. He wants two things.

  1. For the importance of our other senses to be recognized, and
  2. For them to be encouraged to function along with our sense of sight for
    • a fuller and richer architectural experience and, as a result of that,
    • a fuller and richer lives more grounded in the world.

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A few things.

I hadn’t gone too far into the book when I had a feeling a reference to our hunter-gatherer past was imminent and indeed, the importance of peripheral vision was mentioned in this very context and then blithely extrapolated to architecture. Here, I’m going to look at the idea of  a walk in the forest from various because it’s being held up as the type of experience architecture should aspire to.

My first objection is that Pallasma’s forest is a benign construct that it is reasonably easy for architecture to represent, as Aalto did. But a walk in the forest is no walk in the park. As a Finn, Pallasmaa must be aware forests have bears. There are things called rainforests that most of us wouldn’t survive a walk through. Their sights, sounds, smells, touch and tastes are not trying to be beautiful. Thinking that they are, and that they are so for our benefit is a big mistake.

We should be wary of isolating the aesthetic experience of anything. 

More precisely, we should be wary of using any sense, not just vision, to reduce anything to an aesthetic experience. A walk in a forest implies walking on the ground but despite the immediate physical contact (especially if we are, for some reason, barefoot and naked) walking in a forest is inherently no more more grounding than driving a car. To say it is, is disingenuous, sleight of hand. Pallasmaa assumes walking in a forest is A Good Thing even though bad things can happen in forests. Driving up a coast road can be fun and no less grounding in terms of directing our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being … etc.

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The former takes place amongst rocks and trees and the latter takes place within metal and glass. If, as Pallasmaa is suggesting, ‘groundabilityness’ is transferable to architecture as a real quality and not as mere representation of it, then two completely different architectures will result. And then what will have been the point of all this?

Even as an example, the sheer babykitten benignness of ‘a walk in the forest’ is irritating. Swimming in the ocean is a multi-sensory experience that’s exhilarating and dangerous and usually has a purpose beyond the aesthetics of the act. So is driving a car. When driving, we hear the sounds of engine and dashboard as well as ambient beeps, whistles, sirens, abuse and music. Through the steering wheel we sense road conditions, our speed and the direction and strength of the wind. We’re alert to smells and changes of temperature. With driving, the coordination between all our senses seems to support Pallasmaa’s thesis, as would the importance of peripheral vision but for the fact that most of the time you really do need to be focussing on what’s in front of you.

Even if we restrict the talk to forests, I’m wary of forests being held up as an aesthetic ideal if important non-aesthetic benefits of forests are going to be ignored.

Our senses, like those of any living creature, are primiarily sensors to make us aware of things we need to respond to.  

If we smell some poisonous or noxious odor we’ll move away but, when walking through a forest, we will have no awareness of breathing in the phytoncides that are increasing our NK cell count for the better.

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This omission pushes one of this blog’s buttons. Pallasmaa’s essential forest is no more than the sum of what’s sensed aesthetically and extrapolated existentially while the really useful things forests do go unsensed.  The prospect of a beauty of non-sensable performance seems more remote than ever. Six years ago this week, misfits posted its first post The tree is not trying to look beautiful.

The forest is not trying to look, sound, smell, taste or feel beautiful.

If walking in a forest leaves one so full of existential goodness then why go back inside? What is it we need buildings to do?

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Pallasmaa is being deliberately obtuse about this in order to rephrase the old architecture vs. buildings divide again: buildings keep you warm, comfy and alive, architecture caters to your existential self. Again, you can see why this book is popular in schools of architecture. Pallasmaa only mentions the thermal response of the skin once, and even then obliquely, on page 16.

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Pallasmaa’s conception of skin is finger-centric even though our skin is our largest sense in terms of area and absolutely vital stopping us dying of chills and fevers. In ignoring this essential role of the skin, Pallasmaa is extending the old building vs. architecture prejudice to our sense of touch. Skin may only keep us alive but touch makes us feel alive. No good can come of the postmodern predeliction for the representation of a thing to be more important than the thing itself.

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The field of visual aesthetics is sticky enough. We don’t have the slightest idea what it is that needs to be countered or balanced by a complementary aesthetics of touch. Surely our senses have evolved to alert us to different dimensions of the same entity? Should we even trust all five senses if they send complementary information? The flower that looks beautiful for a reason may smell vile for a reason. All our senses work in tandem and make their own contributions when occupied doing something actively useful like driving or, if you must, hunting. It’s not necessarily true for decadent pursuits like aesthetic pleasure.

I’m not defending the damage that an aesthetics ostensibly based on vision has done to architecture. I’m just not convinved an aesthetics taking one or more other senses into account will necessarily be any better.

Pallasmaa doesn’t help his case much with his choice of examples. It’s another reason why this book seems older than it is. There are some modernish references

 

but long gone are the days when everything had to be justified with a reference to Mies van der Rohe

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or Frank Lloyd Wright. These examples refuse to die because they be used as examples to say pretty much anything one wants to say about anything. Fallingwater remains America’s favourite piece of architecture only because people have never been allowed to forget it.

The live encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater weaves the surrounding forest, the volumes, surfaces, textures and colours of the house, and even the smells of the forest and the sounds of the river, into a uniquely full experience. [p44]

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This could be said about any house in any forest next to any river and waterfall – and whether inside or outside. I’ve mentioned before and more than once how Mr. Kauffmann showed FLW his favourite rock and view of the falls and expected his house to be built there. Mr. Kaufmann saw the brilliance of siting the house above the falls so people worldwide could see what only he owned, brilliantly exploiting the 1930s and 40s popularity of illustrated magazines made possible by advances in photographic reproduction and the electronic transmission of photographs worldwide. There had been paintings of houses before, butFallingwater was perhaps one of the first houses to be designed and understood as image. For most of us, America’s favourite piece of architecture is nothing more.

Pallasmaa would counter, “it is the proof of the greatness of any artist that they can make you see the world through their eyes and feel the warmth of the sun and the colours of the landscape”, as he says of Cezanne.

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So let’s do a test. Look at the image of Fallingwater above and ask yourself if you hear the sound of the water and the smells of the forest. If you do, then Frank Lloyd Wright was a great artist. If not, then you are a philistine. You can’t win. Some people may well imagine the fall of the water and the rustle of the leaves but never the chill of the air, the biting of insects or the grumbles of other tourists wanting you to take your photo and move on.

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It is just as Socrates feared – images take on a life of their own, but only because we invest in them whatever we want to see.

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So what are we to do?

Don’t look to this book for advice. I came away from it thinking it wants architects to all be more like great twentieth-century architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvaar Aalto (and the good bits of Le Corbusier). And that we should have more forests outside and more timber inside – especially doorhandles, more photographs of fish on kitchen counters …

I can’t help thinking Pallasmaa is making a problem out of something that’s not so complex. He doesn’t seem to notice the world doesn’t live in Aalto or Wright buildings or think there’s probably a reason for that. As a resource, Eyes of the Skin is short on ideas for making a world of limited resources a better place. On the last page but one, Pallasmaa comes close to making a good point.

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I totally agree, but a chair is not a building. We don’t sit or sleep on our floors. In fact, we don’t touch our builings very much at all and there’s probably a reason for that too. I’m all for tactile (and ergonomic!) doorhandles and handrails are fine but any sustained physical connection we have with our buildings is mostly via shoes or via furniture.

We shouldn’t ask more of architecture than what it needs to deliver.

Our skin is continuously reacting to our environments and we’re good with that. Our existential grounding can be sorted with a comfy chair, sofa and bed. Unless we’re going to sit and sleep on our floors and rub up against our walls, our skin has no need to react aesthetically to buildings ever, let alone every waking second.

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One thought on “Skin Deep

  1. Jonathan

    I think you maybe being little hard on the bloke. But having not read the book, not that is now or was ever on my things to read, I am probably not qualified to opine.
    Architecture is more than an elaborate photorealistic image, although current teaching and working practice would seem to be counter to that.
    Although I am not convinced you need a book to explain that. But in this context, elaborate book = elaborate rendering?

    Reply

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