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Juhani Pallasmaa's Sense and Sensibility

Juhani Pallasmaa’s new book Encounters II asserts ideas of the phenomenological but relies heavily on cryptic terminology

Since its publication in 1996, Juhani Pallasmaa’s slim but passionately argued book The Eyes of the Skin has become one of the most widely recommended student texts. Despite the gap in time, readers familiar with his phenomenologically-inspired ideas will feel very much at home with this second collection of recent essays (the first having covered the years up to 2005). There are new themes and emphases here − a topical interest in biomimicry and ‘atmosphere’, a recurring concern with time and the need for ‘slowness’, and a determination to see ‘sustainability’ as a cultural, not narrowly technical challenge, for example − but the character of his arguments feels broadly familiar.

The book begins with a lively and biographically informative conversation with the editor, Peter MacKeith, in which Pallasmaa laments the ‘catastrophic loss of the understanding of the traditional literary and artistic culture’, worries about the ‘lack of resistance and physicality’ of the digital world, and berates the ‘suicidal ideology of perpetual growth’. Sensing the fine line between the wisdom of age and appearing a grumpy old man, he suggests that the arts are necessarily grounded in ‘metaphysical melancholia’ born out of ‘wonder at the basic enigma of life’.

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Juhani Pallasmaa asserts that Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House reveals ‘the metaphysical and hidden order of reality’

The essays themselves are presented in groups that alternate between theory and critical accounts of architects and artists. Personally, I found the latter much the more congenial. A piece on Aalto is finely nuanced while that on Reima Pietilä, grounded in his long acquaintance with the architect, is an essential reference. And when he turns critic, Pallasmaa can be refreshingly forthright; Koolhaas’s Seattle Library exterior, for example, is discussed as ‘urban terrorism’.

With the more wide-ranging pieces, however, I have problems. Read singly they can inspire, but the collected-essays format is not helpful: the prose style is rather leaden, and you begin to notice that too many beginnings are ‘very’, essences ‘basic’ or ‘original’, intentions ‘deliberate’ and logic ‘rational’, leading you to wonder what else they could be.

There is a good deal of repetition, and the frequent use of favourite quotations only serves to emphasise this. They also reveal the tendency to rely on portentous assertion rather than discursive exposition. The poet Joseph Brodsky is quoted frequently, notably his contention that ‘the purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty’: it sounds wonderful, but as a statement of biological fact it is, of course, nonsense.

It may be that such assertions are not to be understood rationally, but through the ‘silent wisdom of the body’ − and this in turn highlights my difficulty with the genre of phenomenologically-inspired writing that has dominated architectural discourse in recent years. Faced with a particularly florid example of the genre, I recall the late Charles Moore remarking that ‘not every staircase is a Jacob’s Ladder to heaven’. With its repeated appeal to ‘essences’ − like that ubiquitous mystification the genius loci − such writing tends towards the grandiloquent.

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Sketch of Icelandic landscape by Pallasmaa

More worryingly, it can verge on the coercive, privileging the writer’s superior insight over the reader’s less developed sensibility without offering a way to enlightenment. Take, for example, the statement made next to a reproduction of a Van Gogh drawing of trees around a rocky outcrop. For Pallasmaa it ‘stands for all perceived and experienced trees and their innate life force’, whereas to me it is the acute topographical description that seems so striking.

I could elaborate at some length on how that is conveyed, whereas quite how the ‘innate life force’ of ‘treeness’ is articulated through these particular marks on paper I have no idea − and Pallasmaa, needless to say, doesn’t let us into the secret. Too many of the comments on architecture are of a similar kind: the Farnsworth House, for example, somehow reveals ‘the metaphysical and hidden order of reality’. Such assertions have become the common stuff of architectural writing and it is perhaps only when you read a book so richly packed with them that their emptiness becomes so apparent.

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Encounters 2

Juhani Pallasmaa
Architectural Essays, Peter MacKeith (ed)
Rakennustieto Oy, Helsinki
€61

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