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New York, USA – Juhani Pallasmaa in praise of shadows at the Cooper Union in New York

Finnish phenomenologist Juhani Pallasmaa talks about the importance of gloom

During winter in Helsinki, daylight is scant and melancholic. In summer, it is intoxicating; the sun begins to rise at two and only sets after midnight. No wonder that Juhani Pallasmaa, the Finnish architect, phenomenologist and writer is preoccupied with light, and its power to transform mood and space.

Pallasmaa was in New York to speak in praise of light at the Cooper Union recently. But also to argue in defence of shade and darkness, banished from most modern buildings, with their sweeping glass facades and uniform, abundance of light.

‘We should encounter architecture with our senses, not on an intellectual level. In much architecture today, the conceptual emphasis is too strong,’ Pallasmaa said.

Most architects, he explained, have neglected the tactile, the haptic. And there were plenty of examples amid Manhattan’s glass towers, he said, but refused to name the city’s worst offenders. ‘I don’t want to be negative about my colleagues and friends.’

He would, however, discuss Thom Mayne’s new Cooper Union building. He had not seen the inside, but observed that the exterior had tried far too hard to dictate how he should feel. ‘Architecture should activate your feelings, not specify them,’ he said. Pallasmaa is moved by subtle choreography, such as the light shining through a window in the peasant hut in the National Museum of Finland. ‘Whenever I see it, I simply cry.’

The night before, Pallasmaa had delivered his lecture in the original 1858 Cooper Union Foundation Building, across the road from Mayne’s academic building. The architect showed examples of his favourite forms of illumination, touching on twilight; the Aurora Borealis; and ‘the scant light of a polar winter night’. When illustrating his lecture with buildings, he referred to those of his fellow countryman Alvar Aalto. For Aalto gives light ‘a particular weight, temperature and feel’. Meanwhile, Peter Zumthor forces light into ‘thin directional sheets that cut through the darkness of space’. And Luis Barragán transforms it into ‘warm-coloured liquid that evokes a humming sound’.

He showed 17th-century paintings by Rembrandt and Caravaggio, in which light provides drama and hierarchy’. With JMW Turner and Claude Monet, ‘atmospheric light is made tangible by the moisture of the air’. Yet James Turrell, ‘perhaps the most important artist working today’, literally turns light into coloured air.

All this beauty relies as much on darkness as on light. Quoting Turrell, Pallasmaa argued that the human eye is naturally attuned to twilight. It sharpens our vision and engages our imagination. Bright light, on the other hand, is used by interrogators to break the will. The excessive light in most contemporary buildings actually restricts our range of vision.

In the early 1970s, Pallasmaa travelled to Ethiopia and found himself in the centre of a revolution. He went out as a rationalist and came home as a relativist: a shift that led him to phenomenology. ‘My experience in Africa changed my views on almost everything,’ he said. Today he looks at things ‘as they open up themselves to me’.

Some 25 years ago, he hated writing. Then he stopped trying to be scientific. Now, instead of setting out to prove an argument, he starts with a series of ideas that coalesce with each edit. ‘If you write spontaneously, you discover meanings in the spaces between your lines,’ he said.

Although his lectures take him around the world, the Cooper Union engagement held special resonance. Pallasmaa was humbled, he said, to be speaking from the lectern where Abraham Lincoln had delivered his famous address in February 1860. ‘Some people consider me a revolutionary,’ he said. ‘Though perhaps in a paradoxical way. I’m just trying to repair strings that have been broken.’

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