“The body knows and remembers. Architectural meaning derives from archaic responses and reactions remembered by the body and the senses.” 

These lines are drawn out from one of those usual architecture ‘must-read’ recommendations you get from a professor at architecture school. Someone who would probably scribble nothing but marks in graphite, on your final sheets, to follow up and say, “Aha! There is your concept.” To which, in response, you have nothing but a sad smile. 

The book is called ‘The eyes of the skin’ composed by an architect, author, former museum director, professor, and may we suggest a philosopher—Juhani Pallasmaa. 

Juhani Pallasamaa: Life and Works
Juhani Pallasmaa ( source : “Juhani Pallasmaa On Humane Cities, Monumental Architecture, And The Architect’s Role In Society” 2020)

Dear Juhani,

I have found slivers of alchemy—words and visuals—bounded in the seams of your crafted texts. They seem to devour the essence of architecture, while spitting out an urgency of serenity in the process of reaching a state, we call architecture. 

When I was a student, I held the first-ever, Pallasmaa piece. In the midst of piles of architecture books lying comfortably, it sat on the corner table of the library. Buff book pages, confined in leather-textured blue, the alphabets stood out. From the navy-ness of the cover, as if whispering chants of sorcery, the gold letters looked confident to call out their assigned title: Eyes of the skin. At first glance, I knew this would be a revelation.

It was when I flipped the pages of the book, I recalled the first time architecture sunk its teeth to pierce the layers of my skin. It twirled what lived in the ambiguous void of my chest. The building I speak of was a mosque of the desert, an Egyptian descent. 

I must admit, your words, “Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world” brought back a memory; an echo of the afternoon ‘asr. How eloquently you spoke of architecture domesticating limitless space for inhibition as if it were an act of curating. Full of precision, intentional effort, and nurture; followed by asking in cohesion, for architecture to domesticate endless time. 

One led to another. I, soon had to get my hands on more texts by Pallasmaa, when I came met—the Thinking Hand. Your illustrated series of essays were correctly described as a part treatise, part memoir, part moan by Tom Emerson. 

I paint, so I know the value of a hand in practice. I am not trained, so I realise how easily the brush moves across my canvas solely depends on how much I have been using the brush on a routine basis. 

Architecture is also similar. I believe, within layers of defining the architecture, we can consider it also as an act of communicating. To make good architecture, hence, an embodied sense of making would be essential; using our hands, an internalised sense of knowledge rather than memorised facts. The truth is, there is limited space for concepts and intellect to spread its wings between a keyboard and screen. Where the grids of a software first and foremost, instill a sense of order.  

The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture brought to life the words of Gaston Bachelard in the poetics of space, “The image, in its simplicity, has no need of scholarship. It is the property of a naïve consciousness; in its expression, it is youthful language.” 

In the book, you suggest “primal images of architecture:” floor, roof, wall, door, window, hearth, stair, bed, table and bath.” These are images rather than things because they “are acts rather than formal entities or objects” which “permit and invite”; in other words, they have an impact on our feelings and behaviour that goes beyond their obvious primary function. 

You offer a description of materials, by stating – “Brick makes one think of earth and fire, gravity and the ageless traditions of construction..Being a supercooled liquid, glass evokes images that are closely related to those of water.” “There are,” you continue, “great poets among glass designers, artists, architects and engineers, all capable of imagining enchanting dreams in glass… able to express the multiple essences of the material, its simultaneous brittleness and malleability, hardness and fragility, immateriality and solidity, heaviness and weightlessness.” 

Sometimes, we come across silhouettes of cities, easily identifiable with no more than fractions of seconds to realise the skyline of London, India, San Francisco, Tokyo, so on and so forth. Other times, it’s hard to distinguish one city from another. With this piece, you pushed me to ask questions such as what does my city stand for, what dialect does my place of residence speak? 

At 84, you continue to stun the community with a set of thoughts questioning the morphing, contemporary environment while acting as a wake-up call for the facilitator of the same, setting a reminder of what it means to be in that position. 

Maybe if architecture was treated the way you speak of it, as a ritualistic process; if Barragan’s philosophy was swallowed whole, of architecture being a place of refuge rather than cold convenience, spaces bubbling out of a passionate, steaming piece of graphite soon to be made permanent in concrete, would have a different quality. 

Envisioning a sacred ground for the community rather than mere people, users would be looked at as not just assigned identities but beings of complex emotions and attitudes. Politics would be challenged while geography embraced. Consequently, to presume a meditative quality being exhumed out of all that has been touched by the notion. 

For that, I express my gratitude.

Yours Sincerely, 

Seeking authenticity of human experience

(Encounters) 

Shristi Sainani
Author

Currently a student of Architecture at the University of Sydney, Shristi Sainani is an artist and a certified interior designer. She is an absolute enthusiast for learning - an avid traveller, reader of anything non-fiction, a lifter! Yes, she could be your typical gym bro or even you local potter. But her all time favourite job is the one she’s doing now, for RTF— writing about architecture!

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