domingo, 9 de diciembre de 2012

The “embodied image” of Juhani Pallasmaa

Reflection about the city and the city's architecture is currently one of the most imperative topics, not only because of increasing population density, ecological or economical reasons, but also because of aesthetic and philosophical reasons. Especially since the irruption of the steel, glass and concrete architecture, called modern, of the Mies van der Rode, Le Corbusier, etc, which has evolved strongly enough since the second half of the past century, going from a plain classical Functionalism free of useless ornaments to the Mannerist turn of the deconstructive architecture, like Frank Gehry's, in which the Euclidean geometry of buildings starts to be twisted, curving and bending capriciously the walls, or to the post-modern architectonic baroquism in which ornamentation tends to impose itself over function.

In turn, a new critique seems to emerge from these late modern death throes that doesn't try to twist them capriciously anymore, causing a greater dehumanization of art, as Ortega would say, but that seeks to reject and overcome them in a vitalist return to the essential human sources that characterize us in a transcendental way, not longer as metaphysically idealized subjects and fully computerised, but as existential subjects, imperfect, finite and unpredictable, given in relation with a difficult and always dangerous surrounding natural world, since millions of years. Inside this new critique stands out strongly, since the last few years, the figure of Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finish architect of international prestige, who has started with a small book The eyes of the skin. Architecture and the senses (2005), - translated into Spanish as Los ojos de la piel by Editorial Gustavo Gil (Barcelona. 2012) and well received as a necessary lecture in numerous architecture schools around the world – a penetrating critique to the presently predominant architecture in the most developed cities over the world, characterizing it as a predominantly visual architecture, largely made to be looked at. This implies a predominance of image in this new spectacle architecture that converges with the so-called culture of spectacle, the politics that aim to take care of the candidates image, etc., characteristic to the late modern societies.

Pallasmaa's book was followed by other two books which continue and examine the critique to what the author calls architectonic ocularcentrism, forming a sort of trilogy. This books are: The Thinking Hand. Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture (2009) and The Embodied Image. Imagination and Imagery in Architecture (2011). This set of three books, conceived by the author itself as a triptych, as he points out in the Acknowledgements chapter of his last book, can be interpreted as forming a structure which exemplifies the journey that every theoretical philosophical reflection must do, according to the academic model established by Plato in the famous Allegory of the Cave: critique to appearances, exit of the cave searching the true foundation and return to the cave to reinterpret the appearances from the new point of view acquired with the discovery of the truth. The first aspect of criticism to the purely visual architecture of the city for the eyes is approached by Pallasma in The Eyes of the Skin. The way out of this deceitful and alienating world of the present architecture, that seeks to impact with pure imagery, is found, in The Thinking Hand, returning to a new explanation of knowledge developed by contemporary philosophers like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre or Lakoff, that remits to the body and, more precisely to the manual actions, to the Heideggerian “ready to hand”, as original source of our immediate relation to the world (see on this Blog, “The Thinking Hand of Juhani Pallasmaa”, 4-4-2012).

His third book, The Embodied Image. Imagination and Imagery in Architecture (John Wiley & Sons, London, 2011), which culminates the triptych, deals exclusively with the production of images in the present city's architecture reinterpreting the artistic world of image, not visually, substantially and exempt from the rest of the body, but in its necessary connection with the corporality of the subject that creates, or the one who is merely a receptor or spectator of the art that inhabits the city and its sophisticated architectonic buildings. After the rejection and critique of the ocularcentric imagery, which causes the departure of the deceitful world characteristic of Plato's cave and the ascension to the manual hapticity, as the very Platonic “Sun” revealer of our true human condition, Pallasmaa is able now to develop a new liberating point of view. Such a point of view is substantiated in the systematical proposal of constructing a new image of the city, an “embodied image” that doesn't lose its own existential roots in the manual hapticity. As the author itself writes:

  “This book was written with the belief that we can liberate and sensitise ourselves through a re-mythicised and re-poeticised understanding of the world, and that human imagination is autonomous, self-generative and limitless. It is encouraging that during the past few decades, scientific imagery seems to have approached poetic imagery, and vice versa. We live in an imaginative world –or worlds- of our own making, and the future of humanity rest entirely on our capacity for imagination. The following chapters analyse the essence of the mental image and imagination, and suggest ways in which we might go about re-rooting the art of architecture in its existential soil” (Pallasmaa, J., The Embodied Image. Imagination and Imagery in Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, London, 2011, p. 24).

To do so, the author carries out in the first chapter an analysis of the image's hegemony in contemporary culture, in which he repeats his diagnosis about de predominance of ocularcentrism in publicity, the numbing and loss of imagination, in the spectacle architecture, etc., with the consequent loss of the sense of reality. In the second chapter we find an analysis of the relation between images, language and thought, in light of new knowledge, like that provided, e.g. by linguists like George Lakoff, with his revaluation of the body's role in the metaphorical images that configure our way of thinking or the advances of neuroscience concerning the localization of the brain functions connected with the verbal and plastic images:

     “The relationships and interactions between imagery and language, perception and thought, are fundamental to the understanding of the human mind and creativity. In the past, the prevailing views of language neglected the role of images. During the last few decades, however, psychological and psycholinguistic experiments have revealed and proved the crucial role of the mental images, or neural representations, in language and thought. These views have a crucial significance especially in the philosophies and methodologies of education” ( Op.cit., p. 26).

In the third chapter, the longest in the book, he addresses the multiple types of images (images of matter, multi-sensory, condensed, archetypical, unconscious, metaphorical, empathetic, incomplete, illusory, iconic, epic, poetic images as worlds, etc.) trying to understand what actually happens in the process of imagination, specially when viewed from the new manual bodily perspective, that is, from the new perspective of analysis achieved with the notion of a “lived and embodied image”:

   “The notion of the image is commonly attached to a schematised visual representation or picture. Yet in our mental life, we constantly deploy mental or imaginary images. The crucial faculty of the image is its magical capacity to mediate between physical and mental, perceptual and imaginary, factual and affectual. Poetic images, especially, are embodied and lived as part of our existential world and sense of self. Images, archetypes and metaphors structure our perceptions, thoughts and feelings, and they are capable of communicating messages of deep time as well as mediating epic narratives of human life and destiny” (Op.cit, p. 40).

In the fourth chapter he tries to carry out an anatomy of the poetic and creative image, considering that in such images two realities coexist simultaneously, the physical and the “unreal” caused by the imagination. In such sense, according to Pallasmaa, it is necessary to bear always in mind this duality without reducing the artistic experience to something merely physical or visual. Therefore,

     “The mental or lived image is a central notion in all the arts, although neither artists nor theorists often allude to it. When mentioned, the word ‘image’ usually refers to purely perceptual or visual phenomena. However, the image is the experimental entity, the synthetic perceptual, cognitive and emotional singularity of the artistic work that is perceived, embodied and remembered” (Op.cit.,p. 93).

In the fifth and last chapter, he deals specifically with the image in architecture. His essential idea is that architecture's authentic experience is not a purely visual or gestaltic experience, in the way that the dominant Post-Bauhaus fashion suggests, but rather:

      “….confrontations, encounters and acts which Project and articulate specific embodied and existential meanings. A building is encountered, not only viewed; it is approached, confronted, entered, related to one’s body, moved about, and utilized as a context and condition for activities and things. A building directs, scales and frames actions, interrelations, perceptions and thoughts. Most importantly, it articulates our relations with other people as well as with the ‘human institutions’, to use a notion put forward by Louis Kahn. Architectural constructions concretise social, ideological, cultural and mental order by giving them metaphorical material form” (Op., cit., p. 124).

Lastly, we will only refer here, to end this brief review, to what Pallasmaa considers the most primary images of architecture:

     “In the order of their ontological emergence, the primal images of architecture are: floor, roof, wall, door, window, hearth, stair, bed, table and baths. This view significantly assumes that architecture is born with the establishment of the floor, a horizontal surface, rather than the roof. As was pointed out earlier, profound architectural images are acts rather than formal entities or objects. These entities permit and invite: the floor invites movement, action and occupation; the roof projects shelter, protection and experiences of insideness; the wall signifies the separation of various realms and categories of spaces, and it creates, among other things, privacy and secrecy. Each one of the images can be analysed in terms of its ontology as well as its phenomenological essence.

     Architectural experience arises ontologically from the act of inhabiting, and consequently, the primal architectural images can be most clearly identified in the context of the house, the human dwelling” (Op. cit., p.129).

To conclude, Pallasmaa's proposal, in this third book, falls within the consideration of the architectonic images, or artistic in general, not anymore as substantial entities or purely visual representations, but as embodied images, given in their genetic relation with very complex actions, understudied to date, of bodily organs, obstinately relegated in such a sense, like our own hands.

(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)

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