The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses
By Juhani Pallasmaa. Wiley, 2012, 128 pages, $45.
The Eyes of the Skin is the "gentle manifesto" that grew out of the Finnish architect, teacher, philosopher, and designer Juhani Pallasmaa's concern about the "dominance of vision and the suppression of other senses in the way architecture was taught, conceived and critiqued." Originally published in 1996, this is the third incarnation of this influential pocket-sized book (it is 5 by 8 inches, Pallasmaa's essay is only 60 pages).
Pallasmaa's call for a non-ocular-centric architecture that responds to existential human questions—rather than one weighted down by discourse for its own sake—is timeless. Nevertheless, despite bemoaning the "current overemphasis on the intellectual and conceptual," Pallasmaa relies on the usual gang of philosophical heavy hitters, such as Derrida, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Heidegger, along with Alberti, Rilke, and Sontag.
Yet the thoughtful and erudite Finn has actually read all these people, thoroughly understands them, and cleverly employs them in his crusade against the superficial and the lack of tectonic logic. (Pallasmaa's appeal for clarity is mocked by his friend Steven Holl's opaque foreword when he says Pallasmaa "practices the unanalysable architecture of the senses whose phenomenal properties concretize his writings toward a philosophy of architecture.")
A better complement to this plea for silence and tranquility in architecture is Peter MacKeith's new essay here on Pallasmaa and his work, "A Door Handle, A Handshake." A professor and associate dean at Washington University who lived in Scandinavia for many years, MacKeith knows Finland's buildings and its designers as well as anyone. He places Pallasmaa's career in context, elucidating formative influences, such as the war years he spent with his grandfather on a rural farm, as well as a life-changing teaching stint in Ethiopia. MacKeith tells us about the philosopher-architect's library and his reading, while revealing his character by relating such details as a high school year spent in Minneapolis—where Pallasmaa won a jitterbug contest, as well as a state championship for cross-country skiing.