Saturday, 2 July 2011

The eyes of the skin

The book “The eyes of the skin. Architecture and the Senses” was written by the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa (1936) and it was firstly published in 1996. Since then the book has become a success, read all over the world, reprinted several times and obligatory reading in several architecture schools.

The book is structured in 2 main chapters: the 1st one where Pallasmaa analyses how the Western culture got to the present point where architecture is only seen as a “visual” phenomena, starting with the philosophical writings from the Ancient Greece, going through the Renaissance and the invention of perspective, until the 20th century where the first philosophers start criticizing the “Ocularcentrism” of Western culture. References to Descartes, Satre, Merleau-Ponti, Derrida, Hall, etc. try to remind architects that the human body has more the one sense, and that vision might not be the most trustworthy of them as well as bring to the centre of discussion that a space can and should be felt with the other senses. For some of the most influent architects of the last century like Le Corbusier, Gropius or Mies van der Rohe, vision was if not the only way, at least the most important way to look at and feel architecture, even though their writings and their final spaces might be contradictory. This trajectory culminates on the present day, where spaces are built to be shown on magazines and to continue feeding this hunger for the glossy images at the same time that the spaces themselves are unfriendly and uninviting to the senses.

On the 2nd part of the book, Pallasmaa recognizes the importance of sight, but warns us for the danger of total disregard for the other senses. Instead, he proclaims a “sensory architecture” where all senses should be present and interact in between themselves. In this way, the Finnish architect emphasizes the importance of the touch, the sound, the scent and even the taste of buildings and city as fundamental means to encounter our own place in the world, to create our memories / identity, to motivate our imagination, etc, turning architecture in such a metaphysical and poetic world, way beyond the idea of architecture as a simple shelter. Also, Pallasmaa writes in such a passionate and sensual way that makes nearly impossible to resist to start caressing, smelling and licking the buildings around ourselves.

At some point, Pallasmaa writes “The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being. Significant architecture makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings. In fact, this is the great function of all meaningful art.”