Aditi Gaitonde Fernandes / April 13, 2018
One could say that he has written the textbook on architecture, literally. The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, a book he wrote back in 1996, is on the reading list in most design schools world over. After a conversation with the Finnish polymath, I was richer – his thoughts and theories on the human connection with architecture, in my opinion, are universally applicable. An architect, academician, prolific writer, former museum director and revered critic, he spends his time these days writing essays and lecturing around the world.
“I often tell my students that I am not going to teach them what architecture is, but will try to show them who they are. Because, one’s sense of self is a fundamental realisation, and everything else is related to that,” he states, for he believes that the role of the body is paramount in everything we do. “In architecture, vision is not the most important sense. Instead, we confront architecture as a full body encounter,” adds the 81-year-old scholar.
In 2009, he authored The Thinking Hand, where he upholds the endless potential of the human hand. Tracing the origins of this concept, Juhani recalls spending his childhood on his grandfather’s farm in central Finland, while his father fought in the World War. “My grandpa gave me my first knife at the age of four and I still have scars on my fingers because of it. But I’m so grateful for them because I learned to use my hands. I assisted him in carpentry and construction work,” he deduces.
Juhani was a young rebel who completed his formal education only as a necessity. He felt the need to learn outside of the institution and joined the newly founded Museum of Finnish Architecture where he met and interacted with the greats. “I think that’s where my interest in philosophising and verbalising ideas about architecture germinated,” he infers. Before practising architecture, he worked on construction sites and even in a furniture factory. “I think it’s very important for an architect to understand how things are made. I always tell my students not to waste their time with architect friends. Seek other friends – carpenters, bronze casters, glass blowers, sculptors, poets, painters – and you’ll widen your world. By only talking to colleagues, you’re only reinforcing a preconception of the craft, whereas when you collaborate with a friend who is a sculptor, you begin to look at your own work from a different angle.”
Juhani was greatly influenced by his mentor Professor Aulis Blomstedt, a modernist architect and theoretician. “I learned the value of poetry, literature and the arts from him. Of course, his studies in harmony were also significant to me and ever since, I’ve used his harmonic system in giving measures to things I design,” he states.
A young Juhani, who believed in rationality and universality, worked with other professionals before briefly moving to Ethiopia in 1972 for two and half years. “It changed me,” exclaims the professor. “I realised there are very few universal truths, and cultural conditions are so powerful. I was a rationalist architect but became softened after my experience in Africa.” It was here where he first became interested in anthropology, psychology and psychoanalytics. Towards the late ‘70s, one of his closest friends, Daniel Libeskind, introduced him to phenomenology, a philosophical study of the structures of personal experience, observation and consciousness. “Turns out, I had written articles in phenomenological manner even before I knew about the word. I would say my childhood experiences on the farm turned me into a specialist,” adds Juhani.
In 1983, at the age of 47, Juhani established his own practice Arkkitehtitoimisto Juhani Pallasmaa KY in Helsinki and built memorable structures in the city including Itakeskus Shopping Centre (1989-91), Viikki landscape bridge (2002) and Kamppi Center (2003-06). “I’ve never made advanced plans. I just react to what is asked of me. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to start planning your life. Same thing applies to work. I’ve done graphic design, product design, furniture design, architecture, urban planning and writing and teaching, etc. They are all the same to me,” he explains.
Talking about his friend, Indian contemporary and our guest editor, Prof BV Doshi, Juhani says, “I meet so many colleagues but I don’t like businessmen or professionalist architects. I prefer individuals like Balkrishna Doshi who is a human being, a thinker, an emotional and wise man with an ethical sense, which is missing in the world right now.”