Thoughts on The Eyes of the Skin

I’ve recently had time to thoroughly read over The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses by Juhani Pallasmaa, and here’s my attempt to distill my understanding of this book into a piece of essay…

The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses by Juhani Pallasmaa is one of the significant literature on architecture, highlighting the importance of the relationship between human experiences and the engagement of multiple senses in a space. Pallasmaa expresses his apprehension about the vision-centric appreciation of architecture that has been prevailing in the society. While Pallasmaa explores the beauty of each sense in the context of the embodied human experience, he articulates the necessity of ‘several realms of sensory experience which interact and fuse into each other’ in order to establish Architecture that ‘strengthens the existential experience’1. Furthermore, Pallasmaa discusses architecture concerning the phenomenological qualities of the world and the human experience, including the effects of light and shadows, the flow of time, memory and imagination. Pallasmaa also weaves in his perspective on the rationalism in modern architecture, pointing out that architecture cannot exist purely for functional reasons.

1 Ocularcentrism

While he does not reject vision, Pallasmaa is concerned about the dominance of eyes in recognition of art and architecture that could ‘push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority’2. He traces the neglect of the body and senses in contemporary architecture back to the ocular bias of the Western belief explored by philosophers such as René Descartes3. However, at the same time, he reminds us that the other senses, such as hearing had been more significant to humans with oral traditions4. The privilege of the vision in history continues to influence the way we value what we see more than other senses. Referencing Martin Heidegger et al., Pallasmaa further examines the link between the pictorial representation and architecture through the discourse of the modern age characterised by the technological advancements, which increased the speed of our everyday life in myriad ways. He recognises sight ‘causing us to live increasingly in a perpetual present, flattened by speed and simultaneity’5, which subsequently transformed images into commodities. Images mass-produced for architectural expressions are not an exception; Pallasmaa warns that ‘superficial architectural imagery today, devoid of tectonic logic and a sense of materiality and empathy’6 does not reflect what architecture is about. Pallasmaa emphasises the role of architecture being ‘to reconstruct the experience of an undifferentiated interior world, in which we are not mere spectators, but to which we inseparably belong’ 7. Since the first publication of the book, the issue of ocularcentrism has exacerbated as sharing images on social media became the means of showcasing ‘architecture’ to the public. Although there has been further development in utilising moving image (videos) that provides a better subjective experience of space, the dominance of vision in a fixed point of view continues to preoccupy us as a means of ‘instant persuasion’8. We the society have not adequately responded to the concerns Pallasmaa raised in this book over 20 years ago.

2 Five Senses?

Though our understanding of senses tends to be a group of individual senses such as sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, Pallasmaa invites us to see how senses function simultaneously in a complex network. The critical review on how we treat the vision mentioned above has its cause in ‘the isolation of the eye outside its natural interaction with other sense modalities’9. Pallasmaa argues that architecture is ‘multi-sensory’10, that one experiences it through immersing oneself in space and time, utilising the entirety of the body; it cannot be ‘a collection of isolated visual pictures, but in its fully embodied material and spiritual presence’11. Pallasmaa quotes James J Gibson and Steinerian philosophy in describing the possibility of senses categorised in different systems, or more than what we assume12. It reflects on how our society focuses on the individual functions of ‘five senses’ that are supposedly working on their own. As an attempt to demystify the complex system of human cognition of space, Pallasmaa introduces each of essential sense’s uniqueness: 

Touch as ‘the only sense which can give a sensation of spatial depth’13, that also can ‘read(s) the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter’14;

Hearing ‘structures and articulates the experience and understanding of space’15 that ‘remains as an unconscious background experience’16;

Smell as ‘the most persistent memory of any space’17;

Tastes, the ‘interior sensation of the mouth’ is where ‘our sensory experience of the world originates’ 18.

Pallasmaa’s perspective on senses goes beyond the stereotypical understanding of them; he sees the connections between senses and our memory, consciousness, spatial cognition, emotion and imagination. All of these phenomenological conditions come to life as one sense triggers the other senses, as Pallasmaa mentions ‘the eye invites and simulates muscular and tactile sensations’ 19. It gives us a new perception on how we experience space, especially in architecture that provides us ‘the ground for perception and the horizon of experiencing and understanding the world’20.

3 Phenomenology

It is impossible to detach the concept of phenomenology on Pallasmaa’s discourse. Phenomenology explores the ways we experience things and find meanings in them, which is inherently associated with architecture. Pallasmaa considers experiencing space as an active engagement rather than a passive one; citing Melanie Klein, Pallasmaa argues that ‘all human interaction implies projection of fragments of the self on to the other person’21. It leads us to imagine how both conscious and subconscious sides of us are engaging with surrounding space all the time. It is a sensation that might have been neglected or unnoticed in the modern age, as we often pay our attention to the overwhelming quantity of imagery around us. 

One of the phenomena we encounter in our everyday life is the shadow. While we tend to identify shadows through vision, Pallasmaa illustrates the beauty of deep shadows and darkness as something that ‘dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance ambiguous, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy’22. Shadows offer different sensory experiences of space that otherwise shows an entirely different character. Pallasmaa discusses the richness in the ambiguity of the perceived space in contrast to the evenly, brightly lit spaces that ‘paralyses the imagination in the same way that homogenisation of space weakens the experience of being, and wipes away the sense of place’23. The darkness of shadows is not there to hinder the sight, but rather to sharpen our senses. Referring to Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Chinese paintings and Caravaggio and Rembrandt’s paintings, Pallasmaa praises that ‘the shadow gives shape and life to the object in light.’24. For him, shadows may be seen as a living creature, as he poetically writes ‘a constant, deep breathing of shadow and light; shadow inhales and illumination exhales light’.25 Pallasmaa suggests how we treat shadows in space can influence our perception of spatial experiences. 

4 Modernism / rationalism

Pallasmaa’s discourse on modernist architecture involves the questioning of the rationalist ideology that heavily focuses on the vision and neglects the sensory experience. Pallasmaa points out that ‘modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.’26. He expresses his concerns over conceptualisation of architecture based on functional, rational and intellectual dimensions that ‘contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence’27. At the same time, Pallasmaa understands modern architects’ attempts that aim to go beyond a mere functional architecture, including ‘the kinaesthetic and textural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the muscular and tactile buildings of Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn’s architecture of geometry and gravitas’28. In particular, Pallasmaa praises Alvar Aalto’s architecture based on ‘sensory realism’, appreciated ‘in their actual physical and spatial encounter, “in the flesh” of the lived world, not as constructions of idealised vision’29. Pallasmaa pursues the reality of the architecture that considers the humans at the centre of its philosophy.

In conclusion, The Eyes of the Skin represents Pallasmaa’s acute understanding of human experiences in the world and how it is crucial for architecture. Pallasmaa’s exploration of individual senses, their influences on our perception and the phenomenological conditions we encounter, reveals his belief that ‘architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses’30. This book is a gateway to see the world not only through our eyes but through our entire body.

  1. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, John Wiley & Sons (Chichester), 2012, p 45.
  2. Ibid, p 22.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, p 28.
  5. Ibid, p 24.
  6. Ibid, p 25.
  7. Ibid, p 28.
  8. Ibid, p 33.
  9. Ibid, p 43.
  10. Ibid, p 45.
  11. Ibid, p 48.
  12. Ibid, p 45.
  13. Ibid, p 46.
  14. Ibid, p 62.
  15. Ibid, p 53.
  16. Ibid, p 54.
  17. Ibid, p 58.
  18. Ibid, p 63.
  19. Ibid, p 29.
  20. Ibid, p 44.
  21. Ibid, p 69
  22. Ibid, p 50.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid, p 51.
  25. Ibid, p 45.
  26. Ibid, p 22.
  27. Ibid, p 35.
  28. Ibid, p 40.
  29. Ibid, p 76.
  30. Ibid, p 77.

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