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THE MULTI-SENSORY REALITY - integrating the existential experience / Lecture by Juhani Pallasmaa

*Free admission

Throughout its history, architecture has been regarded as an art of vision. Altogether, since Aristotle, vision has been our most valued sense. Le Corbusier’s credo, ”Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”, demonstrates this obsessive attitude in modernism. In the recent history, the preferential position of vision has been reinforced by numerous technical inventions, such as writing, telescope, microscope, mechanical printing, photography and the new digital world. Historically, the most dramatic change in our sensory reality was the shift from oral to written speech and eventually to printing. ”This is an insistent world of cold, non-human facts”, Walter J Ong argues.

The senses have almost exclusively been studied separately in the isolation of the research laboratory. However, in our existential reality, we seek integrated experiences in our encounters with the world. This fusion of sensations and the consequent fullness of experience was pointed out convincingly by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Our entire reality sense is not based on vision, as it is a result of the fusion of all our senses. There are indications that hearing was the initial sense for man’s constructions, not vision. Recent reasearch also shows that the auditive expercince is often more decisive in defining the character of a situation, space or place. Even our less appreciated senses, touch, smell and taste, are seminal for the fullness and depth of experience and the sense and authority of the real. Yet, these sensory domains have practically been excluded from architecture as conscious and intentional qualities.

We have been fixated to the five Aristotelian senses, each of which has a visible and identifiable organ. But the number of human senses is disputable; Steinerian philosophy and pedagogy posits twelve senses, and a recent study suggest that we have more than thirty systems of sensing. Besides, the crucial significance of our intestinal bacterial universe has only recently been discovered. I wish to argue that vision is not the most important sense in architecture; the irreplaceable sense is our existential sense, the integrated sense of being. Through this sensory synthesis we grasp the existence of the world as well as of ourselves. Besides, there are seminal but neglected composite, diffuse and unfocused ways of sensing, such as the atmospheric sense, which I have called our sixth sense. As Merleau-Ponty suggests, we live in ”the flesh of the world”, and ”our body is in the world as the heart is in the organism; it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breaths life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system”. And as the British artist and psychoanalytical writer Adrian Stokes argues: ”In a way, all art derives from the body”.

The strengthening shift in architectural discourse from form to experience and from visual impression to multi-sensory and fused encounter, suggests a new design consciousness and methodology. It is evident that as architects and designers we need to grasp the essence of the entire human sensorum and to sensitize ourselves to our neglected and nearly lost senses.

Juhani Pallasmaa is a Finnish architect and former professor of architecture and dean at the Helsinki University of Technology. Among the many academic and civic positions he has held are those of Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture 1978-1983, and head of the Institute of Industrial Arts, Helsinki. He established his own architect's office – Arkkitehtitoimisto Juhani Pallasmaa KY – in 1983 in Helsinki. From 2001 to 2003, he was Raymond E. Maritz Visiting Professor of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and in 2013 he received an honorary doctorate from that university. In 2010-2011, Pallasmaa served as Plym Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, and in 2012-2013 he was scholar in residence at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. Pallasmaa has also lectured widely in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia.

His exhibitions of Finnish architecture, planning and visual arts have been displayed in more than thirty countries and he has written numerous articles on cultural philosophy, environmental psychology and theories of architecture and the arts. Many of his articles are first featured in ARK (The Finnish Architectural Review). Among Pallasmaa's many books on architectural theory is The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, a book that has become a classic of architectural theory and is required reading on courses in many schools of architecture around the world.

Pallasmaa is a member of the Finnish Association of Architects, and an honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. During the spring of 2010, Pallasmaa, along with American playwright Leigh Fondakowski, was an Imagine Fund Distinguished Visiting Chair at the Institute for Advanced Study at University of Minnesota. Pallasmaa was jury member for the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize. His architectural work include Kamppi Centre (under the direction of architects Helin & Co), Helsinki, Snow Show, Lapland (with Rachel Whiteread), Bank of Finland Museum, Helsinki, Pedestrian and cycle bridge, Viikki Eco-village, Helsinki, 2002.