Questions of Pallasmaa

Posted Thu 22nd Dec 2016 | efront

Over the past two years Bates Smart has been building a close relationship with the new Abedian School of Architecture in the Gold Coast, where Kristen Whittle is a visiting professor and leads a design studio. Recently the school welcomed a new head of Architecture, Professor Adrian Carter. Professor Carter is an internationally recognised scholar and expert on the architecture of Jorn Utzon, as well as an architect and educator with extensive experience in Scandinavia. In what is a major coup for Bond University, Professor Carter arranged for his close friend, renowned architect and writer, Juhani Pallasmaa to visit the University to deliver a lecture. Juhani Pallasmaa is considered one of the great architectural thinkers of our time and his works ‘Questions of Perception’, ‘The Eyes of the Skin’, and ‘The Thinking Hand’ are seminal architectural texts of the twentieth century. Juhani, who was born in 1936, has had the privilege of knowing many of the great philosophers and architects of our time and as a young man he also knew the master Scandinavian architect Alvar Aalto. His reputation has meant he has also been a Pritzker Prize judge from 2009-2014, the award of which is considered the highest accolade an architect can receive. In April this year, Studio Director, Tim Leslie had the good fortune to represent Bates Smart as the principle sponsor for the Juhani Pallasmaa lecture and had the opportunity to ask him a number of questions prior to the evening regarding what has shaped him as an architect.

Juhani, thank you for agreeing to answer these series of questions. The first set of questions is trying to gain an insight into what shaped your worldview as a young man. In particular I am interested in three areas, which you are most welcome to provide multiple answers: Books – Which books, texts and/or novels shaped your early thinking? Places – Which places were particularly memorable to you as a young man? Architecture – Which buildings were catalysts for you?


At the time I was in high school age, it was still customary to read the great classics of literature, which regrettably is not the case any more. Books like Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Fjodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, opened entirely new worlds to a young mind and suggested that the world I was experiencing around me was just one of the possible mental worlds. These great books also concretized issues of human fate and ethics for me. Later, I also began to read English and American literature as well as writers from other countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Hungary and Turkey. Still later, books from Japan, South America and China became available in the Nordic countries. During the past 25 years I have read books in philosophy, psychology, anthropology and psychoanalysis, and most recently also in the neurosciences, in addition to literature. As a young architect I organized my books in two categories: architecture books and other books. Soon I realized that “the other books” were more inspiring and important for the understanding of the human and mental essence of settings and buildings than books on architecture. Architecture books tend to present buildings as aestheticized objects through a distinct formalism, whereas literature presents buildings as lived experiences and part of the lives of the depicted human figures. In the past decades I have read more texts by philosophers, poets, painters and film directors than architects. Architects simply do not write books like the essays of Joseph Brodsky, or the autobiographies of Jean Renoir, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, or Andrej Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time. My full list of recommended reading would be too long to be included here. As I was Dean of the School of Architecture in Helsinki, I sent all the accepted new students a list of forty books to be read before entering the School. Still, I often recommend a few books to my students, such as Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Anton Chekhov’s letters, Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, and Paul Valéry’s Dialogues, especially the dialogue “Eupalinos, or the Architect”. But I could just as well recommend Vincent van Gogh’s letters, or Henri Matisse’s and Paul Cézanne’s short essays, or numerous other books by artists. I feel that the important thing is to keep reading, not so much what you read. Reading widens and empowers your imagination, sensitizes your emotions and strengthens your capacity of empathy and compassion. Looking at great works of art and listening to great music is equally important; it simply makes you a better human being. “Be like me.”, is the imperative of a great poem, Joseph Brodsky suggests. All arts, including architecture, are engaged in the same task, and that is the attempt to make our mental lives more true and dignified. I have ten thousand books in my office library and each book is valuable to me in its own specific way. Books are not primarily for information, as their greatest value is that they permit us to imagine narratives of culture and lived life.



For anyone, places of childhood and youth are significant; they are part of our very constitution. I lived the war years 1939-45 at my farmer grandfather’s humble farm house, and the settings and situations of ordinary farm life were engrained in my memory, no, they became engrained in my entire body. Now, approaching the age of eighty, I can still return to these places and spaces and recall their sounds, smells and temperatures. I have been fortunate enough to travel the world for fifty years and visit most of the places that one would wish to visit as an architect. For me numerous places have made a decisive impact, from the temples of Luxor to the Dogon villages at the Bandiagara Canyon in Mali, and from Machu Picchu to the Rio-an-ji zen garden in Kyoto. I carry these places with me no matter where I am. I have also been fascinated by deserts from Sahara to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, and from the allsnow landscapes of Lapland to the metaphysical emptiness of the great oceans; the imaginary line where the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean meet outside of the Cape of Good Hope, emanates a special magic.



I have understood the simple functionality and beauty of the farm house and auxiliary buildings of my grand father only later when I was already studying architecture. In my youth I did not understand architecture as a specific art form. On my daily school trips by street car in Helsinki, I passed the Serpent House, a meandering apartment building designed by Yrjö Lindegren in 1952, and this building fired my imagination; the building seemed to be moving instead of myself, sitting in the street car. I had been thinking of becoming a medical doctor, a surgeon to be exact, but I entered the architecture school instead, and I believe that it was this serpentine apartment block that twisted my mind. I have realized that I did not go too far from my original intention as both the medical doctor and the architect aspire to improve the human condition. Later on, when I was already studying architecture, the great works of the modern masters impressed me greatly. I must say sincerely, that I began to value historical buildings, such as those by Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and the baroque masters, only later; I first learned to see the timeless qualities of architecture through modern buildings. I believe that through experience my appreciation of architecture has deepened from aesthetic values to existential qualities. The deep melancholia of Michelangelo’s works moves me especially strongly, and for me, he is the greatest of architects. I have been fortunate to know many of the best architects and architectural writers of our time personally. I can say that it is easier, or emotionally more clear, to have an admiring relationship with buildings of designers, or works of art by artists unknown to me than by my friends. It seems to me that great works exist in an autonomous universe of their own, and that distance or autonomy tends to weaken if you know the maker. My first great architect idol was, of course, Le Corbusier, and then Mies van der Rohe. Only later I have learned to appreciate the less orthodox architectures of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, for instance. I used to regard Louis Kahn as a curiosity, but now he is in my Pantheon of the greatest. His Kimbell Museum, Salk Institute and the Parliament of Bangladesh in Dacca are supreme works of architecture for me. They are of our time, but at the same time, they invigorate the entire history of art. That is the power of all great art works; they make us see the entire history of art in a new light. We are conditioned to think of art in general in futuristic terms—the influence of predecessors on us, but an equally important influence is the reverse perspective of how the great modernist artists from Cézanne onwards have changed our vies of the history of art. The modernists have resurrected the Neolithic cave paintings, for instance. Technology is allowing for the creation of complex geometry, of plasticity, layers and patterns. It is making the intricate design of the low cost labour markets of centuries past commercially viable today, through the use of sophisticated automated production (3d printing, multi axis robotic arms, etc). What are your thoughts about the opportunities and potential challenges that these technologies bring to architecture?



I realize the possibilities that the new technologies are opening for us, yet I am somewhat skeptical. Architecture is still in its very essence the art of the mind, the hand, the heart and human imagination and compassion. Great architecture arises from existential wisdom, sensitized senses and a poetized mind. Art and architecture are about the poetic essence of the world and life, not of technology. It would be foolish not to use the newest technologies, but architectural qualities continue to be mental, experiential and poetic. The architect’s imaginative and empathic capacity is still more important than any technology. Evidence based design has been a developing area of investigation in architecture, particularly in health care projects. Its success in being implemented by clients lies in the ability to quantify faster healing times through good design measures such as access to light, views to landscape, natural materials. Do you see this ability to quantify the benefit of good design happening more often and is it occurring in other building types? I have myself written quite a lot on the new scientific views of the qualities in design, as seen for instance, through research in neuroscience, but I want to say that subtle creative minds have always understood how atmospheres, spaces, places, materials, forms, and colors work on the human nervous system and mind. The poetic intuition is always ahead of the scientific mind in the existential perspective, and in fact, they are interested in different things. Poetic imagery explores human existential experiences, while science studies the logical and functional structure of things. I believe in the continuity of humanist architecture based on human empathy, compassion and intuition. I do not believe that ”evidence based design” can create a better healing environment than Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium of the early 1930s, based on empathy and ”designing for man at his weakest” as Aalto wrote. I do not want to underestimate evidence based design, but our empathic imaginative power is still our best bet, and remain so, as we are bound to design for human bodies and minds, not numerical or statistical conditions. And finally…. a question which I am very curious about your thoughts. On one of your lectures I listened to on line you were discussing the problem with contemporary architects seeking beautiful buildings, I believe this was in light of them being too focused on celebrity. I found this quite fascinating, as I believe that the pursuit of beauty is a key component of architecture, however elusive it may be. Today, I believe, it is very rare to hear of designers striving for beauty, rather it appears to be they seek to be ‘interesting’, to be the next notable media release. It has been said that the modernists stopped using the word beauty all together to describe architecture, especially as it was considered to be in the eye of the beholder. To me, the loss of searching for beauty in design is a shame, it is too easy to be interesting and controversial, yet it is remarkably difficult to produce a work of beauty. Do you think beauty is too vexed word in relation to architecture, should it be seeking something else? BEAUTY I have argued that architecture is threatened today by two opposite tendencies, total functionalization and total aestheticization. But beauty is a fundamentally deeper notion and experience than mere aestheticization. I think in the same way as Joseph Brodsky, that beauty is the driving force of evolution. But, as the poet also writes, beauty cannot be targeted, as it is the consequence of other concerns, and often of quite mundane ones. In our time the meaning of the notion of beauty has become quite confused. The modern era has not been consciously or theoretically interested in beauty, whereas beauty was the self evident goal of art until the industrial era, or perhaps, the Romantic movements of the late 19th century. For me ”beauty” is a primary concern, but I understand it as ”integrity”, ”wholeness”, ”singularity”, or ”universality”. Beauty reveals the timeless essence of things.

Stay in the loop