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Architecture as a force of cultural resistance

Architecture is a resistance to the loss of memory, identity, hope and the self. Today ethical and aesthetic values are often considered secondary, but they are unconsciously mediated by our settings. Interview.

Hamburg. Public Domain.

Responsible architecture improves the landscape of its location and gives its lesser architectural neighbours new qualities instead of degrading them. It always enters a dialogue with existent conditions; profound buildings are not self-centred monologues.

- Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin

Manuel Serrano: In your book, The Eyes of the Skin, you argue that the visual realm dominates today´s technological and consumer culture, and consequently, architectural practise and education. Can you elaborate?

Juhani Pallasmaa: Since ancient times, architecture has been regarded primarily as a visual art. Yet, buildings have historically responded to other sensory realms, too. The invention of printing and all the later media have strengthened the role of vision in western culture. Modernity has especially privileged vision, and supressed tactility. This hegemony of vision has been pointed out by a number of philosophers, such as David Michael Levin and Martin Jay.

Yet, architecture is essentially a multi-sensory and embodied art form. We usually think of our five Aristotelian senses, but our sensory relationship with the world is much more complex. I consider our existential sense as the most important sense in architectural experience, because through that sense we integrate the multitude of sensations and fuse them into our embodied existence. In my view, also the role of peripheral and unconscious vision is essential in spatial perception, but it has hardly been recognized in architectural theory and practice.

The primary task of architecture continues to be to defend and strengthen the wholeness and dignity of human life, and to provide us with an existential foothold in the world.

MS: you have pointed out that there is a very deep fragmentation of knowledge in our contemporary times. How should we seek to bridge these gaps between the many fields of knowledge, based on your experience as an architect?

JP: Our current culture believes in specialization, focusing, elimination and narrowing down. This attitude also applies to education, and the traditional broad scope of culture with its historical, scientific, literary and artistic base is alarmingly disappearing. This lack of width and depth in the post-modern culture has been the concern of many philosophers and writers. The task of university education is not primarily to distribute information, but to integrate knowledge and, eventually, to give rise to wisdom.

Public Domain.

MS: and what´s the role of architecture today? How should it relate to the cultural and mental reality of our times?

JP:  Architecture is the central art form because it concerns us all and it addresses us constantly and mostly sub-consciously. Today the art of architecture is threatened by three developments: total instrumentalisation (or functionalisation), aestheticisation and commercialisation. The first turns architecture into mere rational products of utility, the second into means of aesthetic seduction, and the third, into vehicles of investment, profit and commerce, instead of aspiring to mediate cultural and issues of identity, existential meaning, and human dignity.

Literature and poetry teach us literary imagination, empathy and compassion. It seems to me that our capacities to dream and imagine are withering.

MS: we seem to be moving from an age of words and ideas to an age of icons, symbols, where things assume their most effective shape as a visual package encompassing a great deal of information. How much is lost in this process of translation? Is it an irreversible process? Can literature, especially prose and poetry, still play a role in influencing creators in different domains?

JP: Yes, we are returning back to the age of the image of the pre-literate era, but also the role of the word as a means of persuasion is strong. The important thing, however, is whether the image and the word are used for purposes of emancipation and opening up, or manipulation and closing down. I am afraid that the latter is the direction in which our societies are currently developing. Today images tend to think and even feel on our behalf, and that is why poetry and literature are more important than ever. This is, for instance, the message of Italo Calvino in his Six Memos For the Next Millennium. Literature and poetry teach us literary imagination, empathy and compassion. It seems to me that our capacities to dream and imagine are withering.

The fascination with newness is characteristic to Modernism at large, but this obsession has never been as unquestioned as in our age of mass consumption and surreal materialism. 

MS: is there a way to address identity in places whose very essence is in a state of flux, without affecting existing or future forces which are at play in it? How should we make places more inviting in heterogeneous environments, where the population is undergoing changes, without losing their distinctiveness?

JP: In fact our identity has three essential layers: culture, domicile and self. Culture creates an essential connection between past, present and future. Culture and the domicile (region, place and home) turn into layers of the self. The task of education as well as of architecture is to clarify and strengthen these layers of the self, which are constantly interacting. As the American literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison writes: “In the fusion of place and soul, the soul is as much of a container of place as place is a container of soul: both are susceptible to the same forces of destruction”.

The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon, Portugal. Maria Eklind. All rights reserved.

MS: you said in the past that sincere work of architecture is a force of resistance, a force of cultural resistance. Resistance to what?

JP:  Architecture is a resistance to the loss of memory, identity, hope and the self. Landscapes, cities and buildings project an unconscious narrative about history, human behaviour and values. We are historical and evolutionary beings and the environment that can support the coherence of our sense of self, mediates those essential narratives. Today ethical and aesthetic values are often considered secondary, but they are unconsciously mediated by our settings. “Man is an aesthetic being before becoming an ethical one”, Joseph Brodsky, a true European, writes.

“In the fusion of place and soul, the soul is as much of a container of place as place is a container of soul: both are susceptible to the same forces of destruction”.

MS: how do you see democracy in the twenty-first century? How likely is it to conform to the values of the millennial generation, who would rather share than own things?

JP: In today’s world the entire notion of democracy is being threatened politically, economically, and culturally. There is an increasing amount of manipulation on all fronts, and avoiding a major catastrophe is becoming the main concern. I believe in a culture that is wise enough to share the world, its environment, resources, as well as different modes of human life. But regrettably this utopia seems to go further and further.


The authors thank Leonardo Lopes da Silva for his contribution to this interview. 

About the authors

Juhani Pallasmaa is Finnish architect, educator, and critic. He is a leading international figure in contemporary architecture, design, and art culture. From 1991-1998 he was dean and professor of architecture at the School of Architecture, Helsinki University of Technology. He served on the jury for the Pritzker Prize for Architecture between 2009-2014. Juhani Pallasmaa is the author of numerous books, including the “The Embodied Image”, “The Thinking Hand”, “The Architecture of Image” and “The Eyes of the Skin”.

Manuel Serrano holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a Master´s degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). He is an international affairs analyst, journalist and editor. He worked as Junior Editor at openDemocracy (2015-2017) and currently is freelance correspondent in Lisbon.

Manuel Serrano es licenciado en Derecho por la ESADE Business and Law School y Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por el Instituto Barcelona de Estudios Internacionales (IBEI). Es analista político, periodista e editor. Trabajó como Editor Asistente en openDemocracy (2015-2017) y actualmente es corresponsal freelance en Lisboa.

Manuel Serrano é licenciado em Direito pela ESADE Business and Law School e completou o Mestrado em Relações Internacionais no Instituto Barcelona de Estudos Internacionais (IBEI). É analista político, jornalista e editor. Trabalhou como Editor Júnior na openDemocracy (2015-2017) e actualmente é correspondente freelance em Lisboa.


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