Ode to the human experience

Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa in a talk with founder Frida Starvid about being human - the basis of all his architecture and all our design.

Juhani Pallasmaa has been an internationally known architect for many decades and his CV is humbling. Having held the positions of Dean of the School of Architecture in Helsinki, Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture and Head of the Institute of Industrial Art, he´s also been on the jury for the Pritzker Prize. His office in Helsinki is located one block away from his apartment, a place he can´t reach in Corona times. His current work as a lecturer at the university of Barcelona takes place over Zoom. Physical distance as a theme is uncharacteristic of Pallasmaa, who has published several books and given lectures around the world on the value and meaning of incorporating physical presence and the human senses in design work. For me, I encountered him in 2009, when I came across his book "The Thinking Hand" in a bookstore. After that there was no way back.


FS: Considering the fact that your work has revolved so heavily around phenomenology, embodiment and the senses - why do you think you ended up focusing on these kinds of themes, rather than any other line of architecture theory? Are there any clear origins - personal, corporeal, experiential? 

JP: Both my design work and writing arise from personal observations and intuitions, not theory. I do not theorize; I work and write on my experiences and observations. I am not really even interested in theory. For me, writing and philosophy are alternatives to design as ways of approaching and encountering architecture. I see my writing as a way of working in architecture. My intention is to mediate architectural encounters. My way of observing developed in my early childhood during the war years at my maternal grandfather´s small farm. There were no other boys, no toys, no books, no radio. I was obliged to construct my own experiential and mental world. The farm life was dominated by practicalities, physical work and skills. I sincerely feel that I have just been re-enacting and continuing my childhood world all my life. I was happy to explore my world in solitude, and I never felt lonely observing the nature and relations.

FS: I had a professor when I studied in Brazil who liked the expression “We are all standing on the shoulders of giants”. Who are your giants? Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger? Any unexpected people that you admire? 

JP: In my view, the most valuable thing we can possess in culture is tradition. Human and artistic worlds do not progress, as we keep returning to the same existential themes, questions and values. The course of life is really a way of finding and establishing one’s personal place in the traditions of being human. My mind is nourished by countless masters of the arts, architecture and thinking. I am inspired by the wonders of science just as much as poetry and painting. I do not separate these realms, as they all seek to frame a respectful and responsible view of life. All these areas are facing the mystery of existence. I have a long list of heroes through history, or I would rather say, personal friends, as the magic of art as well as science, enables anyone of us to communicate with the great individuals of all history. You just need the humility to concretize those ties. My “friends” extend from Giotto and the Masters of Sienna all the way to today´s and tomorrow’s art.

FS: In Eastern philosophy there has always been less of a divide between the body and the mind, a gap we try harder to bridge within Western schools of thought. I´m thinking, for example, of Zen Buddhism, or Vedic philosophy. Have you had any connections to non-western philosophies at all? 

JP: I have encountered eastern thinking only superficially, but in its avoidance of boundaries, I find it parallel to my way of looking at the world. Some of my Chinese and Japanese friends have sometimes suggested that my way of thinking is parallel to theirs.

FS: I recently read someone who wrote: “Vision is informative, sound is transformative.” It struck me as being very much to the point. Do you agree?

JP: In my view, the most important difference between vision and hearing is that seeing makes us observers and onlookers, whereas the enfolding and unfocused sense of hearing makes us participants. We seek with our eyes, whereas sound comes to us.

FS: Do you engage in any specific physical and/or spiritual practices? Meditation, yoga... jitterbug? I read somewhere you used to dance...

JP: In the late 1960s I studied hatha yoga in New Delhi, and I practiced it quite intensely for couple of years. Regrettably I stopped the exercises, as I was appointed rector of the University of Industrial Arts in 1969. Those years were very intensive, with work consuming a lot of time and energy, and in that time, I stopped doing yoga. Nowadays I do an exercise system called “Asahi”, developed by four Finnish medical doctors and sport trainers, from several eastern practices such as yoga, Tai-Chi and karate. I practice more or less every day, not always at the same time but when I can.

FS: Eastern philosophies seem to be less afraid of the topic of death and the disintegration od the human body. You wrote somewhere that modern architecture in some cases point towards a desire for "untraceable ageing” and that this is evidence for a fear of death. In my experience, the more embodied I can make my life, the less anxiety do I feel towards death. How do you feel about ageing? 

JP: The western world has a growing mental problem in its rejection of the reality and truth of death. In today’s urban life, death takes place behind closed doors and in specific facilities. I will be 84 in four months, but I am not conscious of my age. Only this strange pandemic time has made me feel as a pensioner. I continue travelling, teaching, lecturing and working and I have simply forgotten to age. 

FS: Still, as active as you are - if you could choose a non-architectural object to design, door handles excluded, which I know you have spent many hours on, what would it be? What are you working with at the moment?

JP: For me, the core of everything reflects our humanity, the mysteries, enigmas and ecstasies of living. During the past months I have been making a series of silkscreen prints for an art center. They are abstract figures, originally conceived in the 1970´s as a large collection of sketches for a mural painting in a housing project in Addis Abbeba. So now I have chosen some of these for printing, I have given them double dates – 1970/2020. I have been engaged in the world of art since my childhood, but only at my current age, have I finally had the courage to seriously try it and call my humble things works of art.

FS: Why do you think you have lacked that courage before?

JP: Some of the most prominent artists in Finland have been my best friends. I have not wanted to.. -step into their realm and call myself an artist before. But now most of those friends are dead.

FS: You had to let the competition die off, in other words…?

JP: Haha, yes!