Multisensory architecture

The only foreigner to take part in the series of architecture talks entitled ‘Genius loci’ (organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project) was the Finnish theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa. Russian readers know Pallasmaa from his book ‘The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture’, which is now a bibliographical rarity. Here Marina Nikiforova talks to Finland’s principal architect-thinker.

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How did you become an architect?

I don’t know how I became an architect. At school I wanted to study to become a surgeon. During that period I read biographies of and autobiographies by well-known surgeons. But when the time came for me to enter university, I choose architecture school – I don’t know why.

 

And why did you subsequently turn to architecture theory?

I think my interest in theory began with an attempt to re-think what I was doing myself. I always liked analyzing my own actions. Subsequently, this tendency was embodied in literary activity.

I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in wartime, so I was a lonely village lad. In childhood I had no option but to observe nature, human behaviour, and particularly animals. My childhood interests were poured into an entire book about the architecture of animals. I worked as an architect for 60 years, all that time I wrote and taught, but for the last seven years I’ve done nothing but write.

 

It is well known that you are a great lover of art. How have types of art influenced the journey that you have taken in architecture?

I feel that my heart belongs more to art than to architecture itself. I perceive architecture through the prism of art and that’s how I teach it. I don’t teach architecture by itself. In the first year of my studies in university I got to know and made friends with some of the best people in the arts in Finland – artists, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians composers, actors – and it made me love art even more.

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Could you tell us about your favourite figures in the arts?

I like artists from the Protorenaissance. I love the Dutch old masters, especially Vermeer. Among modern artists I like James Turrell.

I not only love art, but also collect it. I now have more than 350 works of art. Mainly, they’re by Finnish artists, but there are also things by Czech and Russian authors – for instance, my friend Andrey Gozak (the Moscow architecture historian, critic, and artist Andrey Gozak; 1936-2012; author of books about Alvar Aalto and Ivan Leonidov; Gozak had a special interest in the architecture and art of Finland and the Baltic states. Editor’s note). Yes, my mind indeed lives in the world of art.

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In ‘The thinking hand’ you write: “There was a time when it seemed to me that the task of architecture is to design structures which are as simple as possible to build.” How and why did your point of view change?

I saw the catastrophic decline of craft in construction. Construction is no longer a craft, but merely installation of components made in a factory. When I realized this, I wanted to bring back the approach to architecture which puts a high value on craft.

Experienced masters want to make complex things. That means that as an architect I too can design complex things rather than the ‘simplest’. I changed my position, specifically, after half a year working in Estonia. My take on a great many things fundamentally changed over that time.

 

You studied under Aulis Blomstedt, the adherent of rational Modernist architecture, so when you were young you were in opposition to the more organic views taken by Alvar Aalto. Could you tell us about this?

Blomstedt was a rational mystic, and these two things do not at all exclude one another – I too am a rational mystic. I did not approve of Aalto himself: he was an egocentric, while his architecture could best be described as mannerist. I never disputed Aalto’s masterpieces, though, and there are many of them.

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To begin with, Blomstedt and Aalto were close friends, but then something happened between them and they stopped talking to each other. When I assisted Blomstedt at the exhibition of Finnish architecture in Stockholm, he appointed me as something like an ambassador to carry out negotiations between him and Aalto since the two of them were unable to talk directly. However strangely, Aalto, who as a young man wrote with such fervour, in the 1950s suddenly began taking a strongly negative attitude to architectural theory. At this time Aulis Blomstedt and his friends began publishing the journal of architectural theory Le Carré Bleu. Aalto ‘attacked’ them. He said, “God created paper in order that architecture should be drawn on it, and any other use of paper is misuse.”

In this too I did not agree with Aalto. But we were still friends. We spent a week together in Mexico in 1963.

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And yet, is architecture art or craft? Is there any point in treating these two concepts as antithetical?

On the one hand, architecture is necessary in a rational world; it is functional and utilitarian. On the other hand, architecture lives in the world of art and emotional experience. I perceive the existence of the two aspects of architecture named above as a fact and try to mediate between them.

I’ve written so much about the internal conflict in architecture… Architecture is rationality, but it is also faith and thinking and emotion and a lot of other things all at the same time.

This inner conflict was noted by Aalto too. Architectural theory can exist only partially. An overall inclusive architectural theory is probably not possible.

 

Please tell us about the ‘craft’ aspect of architecture and design using Finland as an example. As is well known, during the ‘industrial euphoria’ of the 1960s and 1970s, many skills were lost. How can they be re-acquired?

Today they are coming back in one form or another. Specifically, painting on wood, marble, or plaster, especially in connection with restoration work.

I’m not against industrialization; I’m against senseless industrialization. I’m not against using computers; I’m against senseless use of computers. Which is to say, I do not insist on 100% craftwork; my opinion is only that at least some percentage of a piece of architecture could consist of craft. This will bring it closer to us and give it a feeling of ‘human touch’. Incidentally, Aalto managed very skilfully to combine the craft and industrial aspects in his architecture. His buildings always contain unique details which create a feeling of the presence of a human creature and not of a machine.

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Do you see a danger in computerization?

I would be a fool if I thought that we should not use computers. They are necessary in medicine. Necessary in science. And necessary in architecture.

But I think that architectural designs should be conceived by human reason and the human hand – and only subsequently realized by a computer, if need be.

 

How can we teach today’s architecture students, who are used to working on computers, about truth to materials?

In my lectures I always say that I would ban the use of computers during the first two years of studying. And only after students have passed a test in which they prove that they have learnt to use their imagination, should they be given access to a computer. Then computers will do no harm. But if students use a computer as a visualizing tool, something fundamental is lost.

 

What is the multisensory approach to architecture?

Architecture has always been understood as a visual art. Like all our industrial culture, it is a visual culture. But historically this has not always been the case.

Until the beginning of the 17th century the most important thing was smells. Two weeks ago, as it happens, I spent a lot of time thinking about the senses – I wrote an essay about smells in architecture.

I realized that our experience of reality is not visual experience. Our reality is always multisensory. In order to create reality, architecture needs sounds and even taste. The picture, the visual image, is not yet reality. Reality is plastic multisensory involvement. In my opinion, the most important feeling in architecture is our existential feeling. We encounter architecture, first and foremost, not through our eyes, but through our sense of self and being.

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Can we see the multisensory approach in your own works?

As a young man, when designing architectural projects, I oriented myself on sight. Subsequently, I started using touch as well. I realized that we touch things through sight; and if architecture does not contain details which could satisfy our need to touch through sight, this is wasted opportunity.

When I draw a line, I think about it not as a visual, but as a tactile line. I ask myself how it will feel when I touch it.

So gradually I began adding other sensations. I think I design using my imagination in multisensory reality. Unfortunately, this is not something that is taught in architectural schools: we continue perceiving architecture as a visual composition, but this is a dead and distorted way of looking at architecture.

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During your lecture in St Petersburg you said it’s necessary to teach architects how to perceive reality empathetically rather than formally. How do you personally do this during the process of teaching?

I give my students exercises which will activate their emotions rather than their intellect, exercises involving working with material rather than form. The tasks I set require an emotional rather than an intellectual response. I structure the exercises in such a way that students can’t do them using their intellect, but only by activating their emotions.

 

You have experience in teaching in different countries. Do teaching methods differ? Or students?

The problems encountered in architectural education are everywhere more or less the same. The biggest problem is loss of tradition, the general collapse in culture. Students have to read 100 books in order to become civilized human beings.

The emphasis on computerization is ubiquitous. In this sense there is almost no difference. The difference is in how actively students interact with teachers. The most active are Americans.

 

What should the architectural student read first of all?

When I taught at Aalto University, I sent my students a letter with an attached list of 50 books. Now I have put together a list of 100 books. The book which I’m now writing will contain a list of 50 books of poetry, 50 novels, 50 books of science and philosophy, 50 pictures, 50 sculptures, and 50 films that I recommend students get to know.

 

Helsinki used to be a city whose historical skyline was preserved, but now, as in St Petersburg, we see a sudden upwards soaring (Kalasatama, Pasila…). What do you think of this tendency?

I can’t see a single reason why these buildings should stand where they stand. It is sad that Helsinki’s city-planning department does not take the ethical position that the city’s silhouette must remain flat – with a scattering of high-rise accents consisting of churches. This is a sign that architecture has ‘lost’: city planning is in the hands of developers. Something similar, it seems, is happening everywhere in the world.

 

Could you describe the atmosphere in Finland today?

Unfortunately, the social-democratic northern ‘welfare state’ which was, in my opinion, a great success for western democracy has been abandoned. The fundamental values of northern, including Finnish, democracy are today in danger.

However, the worst thing is that the consumerist ideology is making us consumers of our own lives. It’s tragic, but this is happening all over the world.

 

What can we do?

I write about these things. That’s my way of responding.

I once wrote that people cannot learn in groups, but only individually. Possibly, the time has come to begin learning as communities, cities, peoples.

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At a conference, taking place in Tallinn on April 21-22, architecture’s turn to nature and data will be explored from political and historical perspectives. Keynote speakers are Matthew Gandy and Douglas Spencer from the UK. The conference is organised by the
Faculty of Architecture, Estonian Academy of Arts, Estonia in cooperation with the Department of Geography, Cambridge University, UK. The event is open to the public.


The only foreigner to take part in the series of architecture talks entitled ‘Genius loci’ (organized by Project Baltia and the ‘Novaya Gollandiya: cultural urbanization’ project) was the Finnish theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa. Russian readers know Pallasmaa from his book ‘The thinking hand. Existential and embodied wisdom in architecture’, which is now a bibliographical rarity. Here Marina Nikiforova talks to Finland’s principal architect-thinker.



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