In books like, ‘The Eyes of the Skin’, architectural theorist, Juhani Pallasmaa posits unmediated sensual experience as the site of authentic encounter with the built environment. Such ideas are today very prevalent in architectural discourse. This paper will argue that they are also highly problematic.
Pallasmaa rejects visual intentionality, construing it as the instrument of an alienated and objectifying reason that, manifested in architecture, distances us from the true nature of our Being-in-the-World. Drawing on Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and owing a debt to Henri Bergson’s concept of ‘duration’, Pallasmaa’s theory promises a poetic inhabitation of the world, irreducible to reason and characterised by an animistic embodiment, allegedly offering more meaningful architectural experience.
From a position informed by contemporary rationalist thought, and drawing on neuroscientific, historical and philosophical arguments, I make the case that, Pallasmaa’s project is weakened to the point of collapse by the misunderstanding of his own intellectual resources. I will show how his ideas about embodiment, disinterested vision and sensuality actually constitute, not a richer, but an impoverished account of experience that, far from overcoming alienation, mystifies it and is unwittingly complicit in its construction. I will specifically discuss Pallasmaa’s account of experience in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, his comparisons of human and animal-created structures and his forays into neuroscience. The paper will dispute his claim that immediate sensual encounter is the route to authentic engagement with the world and question whether the unmediated experience for which he yearns, is possible for humans at all.