The human body exists in the physical realm and experiences it through its five senses – Vision, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. The engagement of all these senses allows the body to be the locus of reference and memory in space and time.
If any of these senses were to take predominance over the others, a distorted or partial representation of the world would be suggested to us.
Finnish Architect and professor, Juhani Pallasmaa, makes a case against the dominance of vision overall senses in the way we perceive the built form in his book, The Eyes of the Skin. The author terms this bias as ‘Ocularcentrism’. Published in 1996, the book was developed from a series of essays and lectures by Pallasmaa. The argument uses a critical lens to examine architecture that appeals to the eye but does very little to engage with the other senses. It raises many interesting points that compel one to introspect. Do we remember the places we have been to, the cities we have visited only because of the sights we have seen? Or are our experiences of spaces enriched by a certain smell or feeling that become so strongly etched in memory that they have the power to transport us back?
Divided over two parts; the first is an elaboration of Modernist Design and how its isolation of the body and other senses makes our memories and imaginations homeless from the architectural experience. The eminence of vision has led to an ocular-centric architecture that aims at creating a striking and memorable visual image of a building. This does not allow us to experience our being in the world, and instead makes us mere spectators of an image that is projected into the eye. A historical narrative of how an image has gained predominance and sight becomes the most privileged of all senses over time.
The second part brings the body to the centre stage.
“I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the facade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections; my bodyweight meets the mass of the cathedral door, and my hand grasps the door pull as I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.”
― An excerpt from The Eyes of the Skin
Architecture is not merely an object for visual seduction. It is an extension of nature in the man-made realm. Similar to a forest, that engages and heightens all our senses to create and envelopes with stimuli, architecture that is life-enhancing must address all the senses simultaneously. To further this point, Pallasmaa draws our attention to the process of design with the advent of computer technology. The digital process of design may certainly help create new possibilities and push the boundaries of construction but it tends to flatten our magnificent and multi-sensory imaginations. A physical model brings the designer in haptic contact with the form creating a simultaneous act of being inside and outside the built form. Historically, the human body has been an essential aspect of deriving the proportions of space in architecture.
The book interestingly uses art as a constant point of comparison while explaining ideas of architecture. Renaissance and Baroque art that evoke the sense to mirror and feel the light in a landscape and the warmth of a tub is not unlike the evocations of architecture. The author describes the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier that evoke the same memories and haptic senses within the viewer.
Pallasmaa makes a compelling argument that is a starting point for many architects to examine their ideas and processes of design to incorporate a more sensory experience in their architecture. Buildings are not only objects that we inhabit, but we also respond to them in an equal measure. The book is well illustrated with graphics and experiential references that nudges the reader to participate and creates a convincing argument for his theories that one finds themselves nodding along to.
This book is a valuable offering to both students of architecture and architects alike.
It is a definite recommendation, and its references to art and architecture and theories will enrich the reader’s knowledge for a better understanding of architectural theory. The simple text, even possibly comprehensible to non-architects, is not cumbersome and creates a flowing and systematic backing by sufficient examples. The Eyes of the Skin is a crisp yet detailed read and a milestone in the history of Architectural Theory.