Death as a Human Reality

An Interview with Juhani Pallasmaa

The following interview was carried out with Juhani Pallasmaa, Finnish architect, former professor and dean at the Helsinki University of Technology. Famously known for his book Eyes of the Skin, Pallasmaa spent most of his life advocating for a multi-sensorial experience of architecture. On our end, Sarah, Misha and Ujal talked to him about the way he sees the discourse of Posthumous Geographies today against the backdrop of 20th-century sterility brought by modernism.

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Prologue

Juhani Pallasmaa

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So maybe to begin with, a couple of words about the magazine itself: the topic of the next issue we’re working on is Posthumous Geographies. What we are trying to do is to open up a discussion on an alternative understanding of death through concepts such as loss, memory, and identity. We’re particularly interested in what comes after the point when something ceases to exist.

So, my first question would be about the experiential realm of space; one can say that modernity had the mission of Progress in the name of good virtue. It was exercised with an ultimate aim for productivity and health, evoking a positive spectrum of associations. This in itself brought about the «sterilisation of space». By this I mean that the other equally important side of emotions, which is traditionally seen as more negative and let’s say is more difficult one to coexist with, to experience, and to understand like mourning, nostalgia, fragility of memory. These emotions have been at least neglected and at most suppressed.

In your book, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space and in Cinema, you rediscovered the importance of these emotions through the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is particularly interesting to see how the cinematic medium uses architectural language to transmit complex, intangible notions, whether they are portrayed through decaying walls, burning buildings or raining inside the house. The poetic image is constructed through the architecture of erosion.

 

So how do you think architecture can go about bringing that neglected half of the spectrum of emotions to the surface and do these experiences need to be revealed through the architectural medium in the first place? Or this task cannot be carried out by architecture alone?

I think that there are few aspects in the architectural experience that modernity at large has not approached very efficiently. One is the fact that architecture has become almost totally visual and formal; the material aspects have been forgotten. And as a consequence of this very strict orientation, the temporal element has also been lost. We need to live in space, feel that we are dwelling in space, but we also need to dwell in time.

I think the rising interest in materiality and other senses, for instance, will bring back a more sensuous attitude towards architecture. And also, I think modernism believed too much in form, abstracted form.

But the stronger emotions are mediated by peripheral phenomena rather than in focus with the visual perception. I think the shift which is now happening in many schools towards a multi-sensory architecture, towards emphasizing imagination and memories is a very welcome change after a century of visual modernity. Architecture retains some of the deepest memories. For instance, it is a historical or rather pre-historical fact that architecture was not born from a need for shelter. It was not built for utilitarian purposes. Men buried the dead much before they built anything to protect themselves which shows that the origin of architecture is mental, not utilitarian or practical. That mental emphasis needs to be brought back to architecture.

Nowadays, I often write about the need for architecture to be mediating. Until modernity, architecture mediated between gods and mortals, the cosmic and the earthly, between institutions and beliefs and so forth. Today, architecture has lost almost all of its mediating role, and that impoverishes the subconscious language of architecture in a great manner. So I also believe that we need to bring back this mediating task of architecture.

Interesting, it’s almost like what Adolf Loos was talking about the fact that “only a very small part of architecture belongs to the realm of art: The tomb and the monument». It is interesting to see how these architectural types dealing with that spectrum of non-sterile emotions have been disregarded as merely “art.”

Yes, I have one of my earliest essays, entitled The Two Languages of Architecture1 where I proposed that architecture communicates on two levels: the conscious level, which is how we usually understand and discuss architecture, but also on a subconscious level. Often these two messages can be very contradictory. I suggested in my essay a way of analyzing the current culture through subconscious expressions of architecture. For instance, the preference of mechanical as opposed to organic, formal as opposed to material, the nowness instead of the past, so you see…

Yeah I think that’s also interesting in relation to the architect itself, and I think this was one of the things we were interested in as well.

This leads to our next question about how the architect, as you said, shifted his focus on formality or materiality; We’ve talked about the experience of spaces and how architecture can be perceived through different mediums. We see that since the Renaissance and most recently modernity, the persona of the architect has enjoyed the status of creative individual - an artist let’s say. Capable of executing complex spatial works through his vision and artistic vision in particular. However, we have seen a shift from this traditional “architect as an artist” towards the “commercial architect”, simply providing a service in the late market economy that we’re living in nowadays.

So if we take the death of modernism and its ideology as a priori, has the most intrinsic value artistic value of the modern architect, die with the traditional image of the architect? Since it was so inherently intertwined with it. And if not, how has the artistic expression been translated into contemporary commercial practice we see nowadays?

Yes, in the past decades architecture has become increasingly conscious of aestheticization—manipulative aestheticization, which is true for commercial architecture everywhere around the world. That’s an extremely shallow, meaningless approach to aesthetics. Aesthetics have to be much more firmly grounded in existential issues. In my understanding no one, no artist can really aim at beauty. Beauty is a consequence of other things. It is a gift in the final end. So the current attitude to beautify buildings in a manipulative way is similar to commercial advertising. Art manipulates feelings in the same way that every department store in the world has a perfume section on the first floor so that you enter through the perfume and you are conditioned by it.

These are the kind of manipulative aesthetics however, in my way of thinking, the task of architecture is to liberate, open up, and increase an individual’s freedom as opposed to manipulation. So I cannot agree with using architecture to force behavioral patterns or experiences. They have to arise naturally without such speculation.

 

As if this commercialization directs the user or the individual to experience a certain thing for a certain goal. While you would say that it’s more about liberating the individual to think about multiple senses.


 

Yes, architecture has to liberate individuals and empower them, strengthen individuality instead of weakening it, in the way that commercial architecture manipulates and weakens the individual.


 

It’s quite paradoxical; don’t you think? Because on one hand we have populist tendencies and the democratization of architecture. But on the other hand, you’re saying that it actually deprives us from the right to understand architecture in our own way.


 

Yes. Well, I personally would not use the word understanding. I would say living architecture. Because architecture is not really understood. We encounter and live it. The bond between space and mind is totally unavoidable. Architecture has a very powerful presence in our minds.

I think it was interesting what you said about the task of architecture, how it’s supposed to, let’s say, liberate other than constrain or manipulate certain feelings and emotions that we experience. How we “live spaces.” And at this point, I think it’s also interesting to see how in order to practice or understand or even be aware of all the spatial notions or emotions that you’re experiencing in a space, a person somehow needs to be either educated or has to have some inputs. So
we’re really curious to know about these institutions that, let’s say, nurture that architectural education and not only institutions, but also publications of other things through which people are getting familiar with the practice. It’s interesting to see how different schools of thought, radical movements and ideas have originated very o en in the nurturing  environment of academic institutions and yet they have managed to impact the architectural practice and academic discourse. So what do
you think is the role of academic institutions nowadays in the over saturated age of information?

(Short Pause) Academic institutions and universities should aim at wisdom.  at is the ultimate goal, not the information. Information is just material for doing something— thinking. But it’s not of value in itself. I usually emphasize the importance for any creative weld to focus on the personality of each student. A young architect needs to discover herself first, create herself first before she can create architecture. But the schools very rarely have this kind of attitude that aims at the self
identity of the students first. Very often schools kill that sense of identity by becoming too critical too early. The entry to an art or architecture school should be so. It should be so that the school doesn’t frighten students because when you are frightened, you begin to merely intellectualize.

 

And going a little bit back to the institutions, knowing your love for cinema, would you agree that alternative sources of knowledge such as films, publications, magazines, blogs nowadays, among many others, can form and affect one’s vision arguably stronger than the institutions can?

Yes. I have never in my rather long career... I can’t say never, but very rarely looked at the works of other architects. I look at paintings, most o en early Renaissance or Pre-Renaissance paintings just to get into the mood. And when you look at, for instance, the paintings of the Siena School, very often they represent buildings or townscapes, but the buildings are shown almost as people. They have the same kind of structure. They have a head, and a body. They are so touching in their humaneness. I find my inspiration in such images. I advise my students to seek their friends from painters, poets, actors, craftspeople, philosophers not among architects.

 

I have been very lucky in having had friends like that from my student years onwards. Because having for instance, a good sculptor as your friend, extends your interests and your certainties about things. One of my important friends was Colin St John Wilson, the architect of the British Library in London. He died twelve years ago. When I write, I often feel that Sandy is standing behind my shoulder. Then in my mind, I ask him: “Sandy, what do you think?” So friends, even after their deaths, can have a meaningful relationship with you. One of my closest friends was Tapio Wirkkala, legendary Finnish designer. He often told me that his most important teacher was Pierodella Francesca. But Piero della Francesca died 462 years before he was born. But that’s the fantastic quality in the world of art: that you can select your mentor among the dead if you have the courage.

It certainly transcends the notions of time. That’s what you were saying before that the image can actually be explored and investigated and a lot of knowledge is contained within it that you can rediscover after many times. And regarding the mentor even though he or she is not physically present the knowledge, advice, and certain ideas still remain and transcend the physical.

I also think that our understanding of time as a linear sequence is a mistaken understanding. I was friends with Aldo Van Eyck. When he first became a professor at the University of Delft, the Chancellor who was his friend, asked him to give his inaugural lecture on the influence of Giotto on Cezanne. Aldo refused to give that lecture; instead, he gave a lecture on Cezanne’s Influence on Giotto.

But that’s the way all great masterpieces of today, make us see history differently. So perhaps the influence goes even more that way, back to history.

Back to the death of something or the point at which something is not actually going with time forward, it goes on beyond that I think; Instead of thinking linearly as you said about time and death, then what happens after? How does reverse time affect death?

For instance, I’m sure that we look differently at Stone Age rock paintings after Picasso than before Picasso. He simply has changed our way of looking at things.

Yeah, I mean, it’s just like this whole temporal dimensional thing is super interesting for us in general, especially for this issue. What we’re trying to do here is that again to kind of go a bit beyond this conventional understanding of death as an end of something but more interested in talking about how time kind of folds back upon itself and starts influencing things before and after, simultaneously.

I think thinking about death or accepting the presence of death as a human reality is utterly important. The whole culture is becoming schizophrenic because we all know death has been eliminated from our consciousness. Because of this attitude I have often given exercises to my students which are related to death. In several countries I have given an exercise to design an urn, for figures like Rilke, Giacometti, Morandi, and so forth. Which first makes students really read and understand the artist’s personality and work. When you make an urn for an imaginary person, you also bury yourself. You have to go through that process. It activates the understanding of death, a necessary dimension of human life.

It’s inevitable and it has to be reintroduced to the general conversation.


This has been a pleasure not just on a formal but on a personal level. We didn’t really know what to expect in this interview, and we actually thought it would be a bit more formal. But we’re happy and we appreciate you being open with us. 


I guess three of us are very lucky to have had a conversation with such a thinker as you are.

 


Well, I think things have to be personal. When I’m introduced as a theoretician, I always feel irritated because I’m not theorizing anything. I’m being sincere and honest and I’m telling what I have seen, touched, thought. So everything has to be personal.


This was clearly felt.


Thank you very much.
 

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Palasmaa, Juhani, 1980, The two languages of architecture: Elements of a bio-cultural approach to architecture. Reprinted in Encounters:
Architectural Essays, Juhani Pallasmaa, 2005, Hämeenlinna: Building Information Ltd.

"To ignore the emotional or psychological significance of (an action, feeling, dream, etc.) by an excessively intellectual, cognitive or abstract explanation."

“The Siena school of Italian art, founded by Guido da Siena and Coppo di Marcovaldo, flourished in Siena, between the 13th and 15th centuries. Devoted exclusively to Christian art, it had a significant influence on the development of Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400).”

(1922-2007), British Architect, Author, and Lecturer, spent more than 30 year in the progression of building the British Library in London.

(1945-1985). Finnish Designer, Sculptor, and leading figure of post-war design and Modern Finnish Industrial Art.

15th century Italian Painter of Early Renaissance, Although known as Mathematician and Geometer as well, he is mainly appreciated for his art.

(1918-1999). Dutch Architect, one of leading figures and protagonists of Structuralism, Known for his 1960 Amsterdam Orphanage

13-14th century Italian Painter and Architect from Florence, worked during Gothic/Proto Renaissance Period. For almost seven centuries Giotto has been revered as the father of European painting and the first of the great Italian masters.

Rainer Maria Rilke - 19-20th century Bohemian-Austrian Poet and Novelist.

Alberto Giacometti - 20th century Swiss Sculptor, Painter and Printmaker

Giorgio Morandi - 20th century Italian Painter and Printmaker specialized in still life.