The Eyes of the Skin: Pallasmaa

 

The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses was written by Juhani Pallasmaa with regard to ‘Polemics’, on issues that were part of the architecture discourse of the time, i.e. 1995. It is also an extending of ideas expressed in an essay entitled “Architecture of the seven senses” published in 1994.As suggested by the title, this piece of literature attempts to highlight the importance of sensory experience in architecture. It is indeed a response to what the author terms as ‘ocularcentrism’ of Modern Architecture. Ocularcentrism is the act of prioritizing visual stimuli to all other sensory stimuli available to a human perception. He quotes famous German poet, Goethe, in his defense, “the hands want to see, the eyes want to caress”

Firstly, Pallasma discusses at length the sensory deprivation and distance caused by ocularcentrism; and how this keeps architecture from being as wholesome as it is capable of. This is so, as architecture today does not Pallasmaa argues, take into account, peripheral vision, shifting of focus, memory, and imagination. It “has housed the intellect and the eye, but left the body and other senses, as well as our memories, imagination, dreams homeless”.

Secondly, he points out how ocularcentrism has developed into a cultural norm; thus the eye can itself be biased, “nihilistic or narcisstic”. Therefore can be distanced and detached from the other senses, for instance, touch, thus allowing no emotional dialogue. To support his theory, he quotes examples of the dynamics of the sense of touch in heightened emotional states wherein, indeed “the hands want to see”.

Thirdly, the author compares the image of a modern city to that of what he terms a “haptic city” – a city which can be touched; contrary to the distant, exterior oriented modern city. Furthermore, he discusses how since antiquity, man has been the measure of not only his architecture, all his activities as well. To support this argument Pallasmaa quotes instances of the caryatid court and the experience of hunting in prehistory, where man becomes the central point of origin of everything. He emphasises on the presence of and an enveloping satisfaction through multi stimuli in nature; giving an example of a trek through a forest, and the feeling of being within the space of a clearing invoked by peripheral vision, complete with the crunching of leaves under the feet and sap smell that surrounds us through the trek.

Building on this starting point Pallasmaa speaks of the importance of the shadow in creating light. He suggests that it is the nuances of shadows and the dimly lit which actually tickle the senses, and that Modern Architecture seems to lack this appreciation of the shadow. Arguing systematically he takes the reader through all the senses in question; namely, hearing, smell, touch and taste. For each sense he quotes an example from nature, thus describing how it is an acknowledgement of all senses that completes a space. He talks of registering the speed of wind through hearing and detecting the temperature of the same through touch. Furthermore, he links smell with memory and adds that smell is by far one of the strongest mediums that add to the memory of an experience. He then brings into his argument the presence of man by discussing, time and the sense of proportion – as man is designed to perceive in comparison to his self -and action where man measures through moving within a space. In conclusion, Pallasmaa discusses the importance of these senses in the design process. He talks of the distance created between the architecture and the design due to mechanization of the process. This part of the argument need not be dwelt on for long as the previous text makes clear all the reasoning behind this, one can comprehend in pertinence to each sense, the importance of ‘feeling’ it during the design process. The text though very interesting, is a bit cumbersome, and requires frequent reference to the dictionary. The argument flows very clearly and systematically and highlights the disadvantages of ocularcentrism in comparison with each sense and how that made the Modern – cold and distant from man. The entire argument is very well illustrated with both quotations, graphics and experiential reference -which add to and are very pertinent to the argument. The author saturates the text with examples. This makes the argument very convincing and becomes intimate with reader. The author also makes psychological and physiological references making this argument scientifically sound and not just something rooted in poetry. One of the major textual references that are made, are to Halls book – TheHidden Dimension

The author laments that architects today have forgotten it- and hence his written response to this ignorance. The most appealing aspect of this text is that it can be understood by a lay person, due to the fact that all examples are such which belong to the life of all and do not use buildings to illustrate hence not limiting them to architects.

 

Image Courtesy: Wiley

 

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