As part of our study abroad experience, our study abroad coordinator, Associate Dean Peter MacKeith has set up monthly discussion evenings with Juhani Pallasmaa -- an exceptional thinker and well known architect and author.
Some of his titles include, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema, and The Thinking Hand: An Architectural Design Primer. He has also written texts on Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea and contributed to edited volumes.
The Eyes of the Skin was the first "architectural" book I ever read, the summer before starting my MArch -- having come from a non-design background I chose the book without knowing anything about the author, or much about the field, because the human, tactile, and experiential nature of the title described my interest in the field. I am still thankful for that initial introduction.
We are incredibly lucky to be able to hear what Pallasmaa has to say about architecture, art, design, and the world in general and to be able to engage in conversation with him at his office. I'm writing this several weeks after our first discussion but in the future I will post about our conversation right after it occurs.
For our fist conversation with Pallasmaa, we were asked to read a collection of short essays collected under the title, "An Architectural Confession". While it is impossible to address everything that was discussed that evening, several issues stood out.
"The purpose of evolution is beauty"
Pallasmaa argues that aesthetics come before ethics and therefore evolution is driven by beauty. I asked whether beauty is therefore universal and he answered that the importance of beauty is universal while the understanding of what is beautiful is formed by culture -- but that even culture has a biological basis. In this line of thought he is not dissimilar from Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen, who argues that "beauty" has its underpinnings in evolutionary fitness.
Beauty, emotion, and rationality
Pallasmaa's understanding of the connection between beauty and evolution goes beyond evolutionary fitness. His argument is more about the depth with which beauty is felt and its essentialness to humankind. When a person looks at something -- for example, a building, they first see and understand the entity, the thing as a whole -- they feel-see-know it, and have an opinion about it without rationally knowing how/why. As humans we first understand the entity and then the details. Even when something is cloaked with the rational, it is the felt beauty that dominates the understanding of the thing.
Pallasmaa is resistent to the trend of rationality as the dominant mode of understanding in modern times. Rationality meaning that which can be easily identified and that which is observable which excludes the intuitively known, the felt -- in general those realms of knowledge informed by the emotions. There are many explanations for why "rationality" is given privilege in modern systems and the arguments that have been made that I have read about include: patriarchal systems that privilege the male "rational" over the female "emotional", market-based economics that require guarantees and "data" to minimize risk, globalization and information retention that overwhelm the human mind with information so that it is no longer possible to be a renaissance generalist (because there is far too much to know) and so everyone must become a specialist, the decline of the religion (faith in the unknown) and the rise of science (fact...actually really hypothesis, but based on observable data), reliance on technology with predictable outcomes and subsumption of the less predictable world of the hand...
I am sure that each of these theories has validity, and that there are multiple answers to the question. The important point is that balance between the known and the unknown is a healthy thing, that the felt can be as true as the observed. Pallasmaa quoted (who, I don't remember) "two things do not stop threatening humankind, order and disorder."
Birch Veneer Panels displayed at the Pilke Forest Center in Rovaniemi
Whole numbers make more sense to human rationality than the golden section. Therefore we should design with whole numbers and not the golden section. This argument makes some sense to me but I also disagree with it. It makes sense because working with the ridiculous measurement system in the USA (Imperial Units -- derived from the English Unit system) is just silly. Converting measurements from the 1/8 scale, for example, to decimal units and back again is time consuming and often leads to errors. A metric system makes much more sense and conversion is much simpler.
I also disagree with the statement because intuitively as humans we can do incredibly complex calculations that we would struggle to do on paper. Imagine being given the task of calculating on paper exactly where to stand and exactly where to hold your hand when being thrown a ball. This task would be impossible for many people. Intuitively, however, we know exactly where to place our bodies and our hand in order to catch that ball -- our minds make a quick set of calculations -- heigh, angle, speed -- based on our physical experiences and understanding of our experienced physical realm, and our body moves to catch the ball. Why then is it more difficult or impossible for us to understand the golden section than whole numbers? Perhaps it makes complete intuitive sense to us.
ARRAK Architect's Maison Pauliina and its beautiful geometries
Technology and responsibility
Lastly, Pallasmaa warned us to consider our use of and enthusiasm for technology. While he admitted the value of computers and technology in the office and its value in limited applications he also feels like the human race's relentless inventing and examining will be our destruction. He mentioned the atomic bomb and genetic engineering and said that he wished the human race would slow down its investigations and consider the possible consequences more thoroughly. This was by far the most controversial topic of the night, as some members of our group thought that this approach was not progressive enough and that he denied the value gained from technological pursuits.
I found most interesting the discussion embedded in this discussion of technology -- the idea of time as not a linear progression of improvement upon improvement, but rather that time can be circular, looped, twisted -- I think perhaps what Pallasmaa wants to inspire is an understanding of time that is not purely future oriented, but that understands moments in time to be linked, a time understanding that also strongly considers our present and our past and sees all three as interconnected. A measured approach that doesn't see technology as the end, but as the means to an end that we determine with cautious consideration.
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We are two MArch students from Washington University St Louis who are traveling for a semester abroad to Helsinki, the arctic circle, and Baltic region. Helsinki is currently the 2012 design capital and we are getting to participate in extensive design related seminars and events that we wish to blog about. We are interested in using this blog to share/explore ideas and experiences about design, art, architecture and culture as we experience it.