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Interview: Juhani Pallasmaa

Apr 8, 2011
  • Article by Angelo Candalepas
  • Photography by Adolfo Vera
  • Designer

Angelo Candalepas: You write simply and elegantly about how to think, or how to experience when experiencing architecture. Essentially, you want observation to have more to do with the haptic, and this relates to what you call the ‘hegemony of vision’. Where, in the equation of design [and in relation to this idea of observation], do you think talent is placed?
Juhani Pallasmaa: My answer to that question is rather firm, and that is in one’s sense of self. I don’t think we primarily experience architecture or design architecture for the visual sense; we make it and experience it through our existential sense, so any building is part of you and part of me, both in the act of making and experiencing. That is also what I mean by the haptic – it is that deep existential identification, rather than observation.

AC Is this something that can be learnt?
JP Yes. It can be re-learnt, because as children, we all experience the world in that way, but then through false or misguided education, we are distanced from that kind of attitude towards the world.

AC I have a first lesson for my students at university, which is to look at something very closely, and then to make those observations intently, and then go back and see it again to see what they didn’t see, and then go back to see it again to see what they didn’t see, maybe five or six times. I wonder, what would be a method you would use to teach your idea about observing essential qualities in buildings?
JP Of course, one would be looking at the buildings, or perhaps more generally experiencing them – particularly let the building speak to your body and your sense of self.

AC Do you ever ask the students to walk into a building with their eyes shut?
JP Yes. Yes, I do. Actually, I have become friends with a young Portuguese architect who lost his eyesight. He wrote to me because after he had lost his eyesight, he still practises architecture. I read _The Eyes of the Skin_ to him, and he said that this book gave him hope, and then we started to correspond. And always when he goes to a new city, he writes me a letter and asks me which buildings do I recommend to him, or parks or street corners. We see through our skin. That’s where the name of the book comes from. I received a letter from an architecture professor in Concepcio?n, Chile, who was doing his doctorate study on comparing two design classes or studios – one class was students working by themselves, students with vision, and then a comparable studio that worked on the same assignments with blind people as their conversation partners. And then the results were compared. Convincingly, the projects by the students who had worked with those with impaired vision or non-existent vision, were always better, simply because they had a more internalised relationship with space and material. As I say in my book, vision distances us from things.

AC You do say it, and I agree with that. I think it can complement all the other senses, but we’re deceived constantly, aren’t we?
JP And then also vision primarily creates the polarity of subject and object; hearing blurs that boundary much more, and not to speak of touch, where you don’t even know when you touch somebody else’s skin whether it’s your skin.

AC But I want to talk to you about Helsinki, because I have come back here after four years and I have this amazing memory of this place, and it hasn’t got to do with what I see, actually, as much as what I smell. What, in your mind, is a characteristic smell of Australia?
JP I must say, for my wife and me it was purity – purity of air, and cleanness of water. But smell is a completely neglected sense in Western culture because it’s totally privatised, whereas in other cultures, like the Arab culture, it’s an essential medium of communication. But even in our culture, recent studies show that one of the criteria in choosing your husband or wife is through smell.

AC I notice that you have an enormous amount of books that include images of the pictures that you like.
JP The significant thing from my point of view is that they are images of worlds; they are not just painted pictures, aesthetisised entities.
Just to know that the geographic location of a single book – that’s why this library of mine is so important for me, is that I know where each one of the books is, and when I remember it, I remember also its place.
The human memory is just a fantastic thing. I have travelled the world 50 years now, and I have slept in 10,000 hotel rooms, but I can remember each one of the hotel rooms if I just sit down, close my eyes, put myself in that city, walk to the hotel, up the stairs, or take the elevator, open the door, and I can remember the room, the colours, how the light falls or doesn’t fall. But I’m sure you occupy and possess also inexistent rooms, painted rooms – like Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles. I often enter that room in my imagination, and there are hundreds of painted rooms that are just as concrete to me as the hotel rooms that I have stayed in.

AC They’re probably more concrete, because they have to do with more than just the image; they have to do with your imagination, which is better than the image.
JP I don’t think there is any perception without imagination, because at the moment of perceiving something, you also invest certain meanings into it, which is an imaginative act, so there’s constant exchange between perception and imagination. Experience is exchange.

AC And you need knowledge. It’s a bit like my students say, “Why do you have the right to have an opinion as to whether or not my work is good?” And I say, “In Greek, there are two words gnosis and gnome. Now, gnosis is knowledge, and gnome is opinion, and they don’t separate, it’s like time/ space, you can’t separate those two. So there’s no point in having an opinion with no knowledge.
JP And then there’s a third level, which is wisdom. Wisdom integrates knowledge into some lived and existential entity.

AC Students are quite often deceived by their own self-importance, and we have to bring to the equation a level of humility so that there is an absence of opinion at a time where there needs to be thought.
JP I think humility comes through experience, and understanding your experience, which means wisdom. You are humble.

AC That’s a paradox.
JP You are increasingly humbled the more you grasp the complexity of the world.

AC And its beauty.
JP Its beauty, and yes, I would say paradox. The very paradox of the self and the world, which are the same thing; they can’t be two different things.

AC Is there any fear in all of that?
JP I think there is some fear that must have started a few hundred years ago, that has caused this separation of self and the world, just for the sake of keeping categorical order.

AC I think even in the buildings that were designed as a result of that thinking at that time, you see a corridor and rooms; you don’t see in fact, space. You see a plan that’s two dimensional, and for me, that’s a bit of a pity.
JP Yes, but one aspect is also the terror of words, the misguided western ideal that prevails today that the first thing was the word – no, never. Even the Bible doesn’t say that. The first thing was image; it was an embodied experience that was then articulated into words.

AC Actually, I read the Bible in Greek, and the first word was darkness.
JP Yes, which is the complete lack of categorisation.

AC It’s the complete lack of knowledge.
JP Yes, the observer and observed knowledge and its object are all the same. It’s also called, in psychoanalytic terms, oceanic feeling, experience.

AC In your book you mentioned Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I’m designing a mosque at the moment, and I think immediately of how important it is to have darkness in a place of worship, that sense that you get with the lack of sight. Do you have a building in your mind that gives…
JP That speaks of darkness? Yes, absolutely. Sigurd Lewerentz’ Klippan Church. It’s just fantastic. It’s the same darkness that exists in Mark Rothko’s paintings in Rothko Chapel in Houston, which take you to the boundary; you are standing at the boundary, and that is between life and non-life – I’m not saying life and death. For me, darkness in Rothko’s paintings and Sigurd Lewerentz’ Klippan Church, darkness is not lack of light, it is dark light; it’s another dimension to light, which I find rather interesting, both perceptually and philosophically. What is dark light? But true artists understand dark light. Also Rembrandt understood. Caravaggio, certainly.

AC It’s a shocking concept for an Australian, but I think it’s a beautiful concept, and I really adore it; I love the concept – and I love the spaces that are dark, and in fact, I notice that even in European countries, the interiors of the rooms are consciously darkened; it’s not a mistake that the windows are a certain size.
JP I fully agree with Barragan, and I have often quoted his Pritzker Prize talk where he says that most modern buildings would be better if they only had half of the window surface. I think that’s exactly right. It’s part of the obsessions of western man nowadays, is that the more light, the better; the bigger the windows, the better.

AC It’s this obsession with the visual.
JP An obsession with quantitative things, rather than qualitative things. The pleasurable aspect of light is not its brightness, but its soft tactility. Whenever I experience light as a really sensual pleasurable thing, it has obtained a sense of tactility, a kind of coloured, liquid quality.

AC A lot of people forget that the only way to understand architecture is to experience it – this is the virtue of travelling, if you’re an architect. What hopes can you give us? There’s a negative story in what you’re saying, to a certain degree, because you’re saying maybe we are losing some of these qualities. But there is also hope, isn’t there?
JP Of course. I always comfort my students by saying that although I might be negative in my cultural critique, I’m very optimistic about the task and possibility of art and architecture, and the more crazy the world becomes, the more noble and important is our task.

Angelo Candalepas is the founder of Candalepas Associates and a director of the upcoming 2011 AIA National Conference, Natural Artifice, which takes place in Melbourne from 14-16 April.

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