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The True Meaning of Architecture

Reflection on Juhani Pallasmaas The Eyes of the Skin"


Maria Katrina Ysabel V. Sarao

Mapua Institute of Technology, Manila, Philippines


Juhani Pallasmaas The Eyes of the Skin is a thought provoking book that centres in the
senses of a human and how it plays a large role in the judgement of which is aesthetic in
architecture. But in the modern times it seems like we are living in a vision-centred
culture whereas the vision of ones beholder dominates the other senses in the making
and interpretation of any type of art. The term of the author for this situation is ocular
centrism which is act of prioritizing visual stimuli to all other sensory stimuli available
in human perception. It explains how the absence of the other sensory realms has led to
an underdevelopment of our environment, causing a feeling of detachment and
alienation. And how the ocularcentrism holds back architecture to be meaningful and
wholesome as it is supposed to be. As Juhani Pallasmaa said he is deeply concerned in
the bias towards vision and the suppression of other senses on how the way architecture
is conceived, taught and critiqued, my mind seeks answers out of curiosity on how the
vision-centred culture we have now affects the designs of a building in modern times and
find my way in understanding the true meaning of architecture.

Keywords: ocularcentrism, criticism, architecture, alienation, detachment, perception, dominates,

meaningful, wholesome, vision-centred, culture, bias

It has come to thought that there exists one central theme to all of architecture, and it is summed up in this

meaningful quote from Juhani Pallasmaas The Eyes of the Skin: The ultimate meaning of any building is
beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and
being 1 Constructing and designing a building is more than just drawing geometric shapes and forming it in
an eye-pleasing structure. Architecture goes through peoples heart upon seeing your masterpiece. Its
having the accomplished feeling of contentment in your design because you have made a structure out of
your emotions and having the people feel it too. It is expressing yourself in the form of art. Just how we
feel the warmth of water in the bathtub in Pierre Bonnards paintings of bathing nudes and the moist air of
Turners landscapes, and we can sense the heat of the sun and the cool breeze in Matisses paintings of
windows open to a view of the sea. 2 But as of now the sense of vision is more likely to overpower the
other senses upon the interpretation of architecture. It has been considered as a cultural bias upon the
perception of building as it turns out that the visual aspect is more important than the essence of
experiencing the whole being of ones self in their works which makes an art meaningful.

1.1 Intimacy
Architectural work is not experienced as a series isolated retinal pictures, but in its fully integrated
material, embodied and spiritual essence. It offers pleasurable shapes and surfaces moulded for touch of the
eye and other senses, but it also incorporates and integrates physical and mental structures, giving our
existential experience a strengthened coherence and significance. 3 What makes art great is within its
making. The intimacy between the artist and his work tells as much of a human being he is. But nowadays
vision has made a negative impact on designing structures and buildings as the main target of the plan is to
be pleasing to the eyes of the people. It focuses on the image quality which is a flat and empty
representation of a building and lost its sense of touch to our existential experience. A part of this literature
explains the use of modern technological materials such as computers became one factor of the distance
created between the architect and his work. Unlike the manual drafting and sculpting, computers isolates
our imagination from flying through our design. On hand drawing creates an intimate contact with his work
which gives us an interaction between our mental and physical aspects of a being. Our head imagines while
our hand works. Creative work calls for a bodily and mental identification, empathy and compassion.4

1.2 Ocularcentrism
Ocularcentrism. What does it really mean? How does it affect the true meaning of architecture?
Ocularcentrism means that we appreciate the visual aspects of things. We tend to disregard the other
sensory experience and we use only our vision in perception. And it is a disturbance that we over rely on
our sight in the interpretation of architectural works instead of having the other senses work in your design.
This is mostly the reason why we end up feeling disappointed in the real life result of a structure as we only
conceive the design in drawings. For example, the purpose of a house is for privacy, family bond, protection
and comfortability of the resident/s. So its our job to make those factors possible in our design. The essence
of feeling home is important as this is the primary objective of the house. So why design a house so huge
and all made of glass where every passing person can see the inside? Is it because it is suitable in the kind
of architecture we have today, it signifies modernism? Yes the design looks sophisticated and modern to the
residents pleasing, vision, but how about the other senses that truly capture the essence of a home? Where
emotional involvement of the family is highlighted. This proves that vision is more prioritized than other
sensory experience of a structure. This changes overtime until we can no longer feel the value and
significance of modern architecture.

1.3 Technological Inventions

The hegemony of vision has been reinforced in our times by a multitude of technological inventions and
the endless multiplication and production of images an unending rainfall of images, as Italo Calvino
calls it.5 Is an excerpt that explains the participation of technological inventions add to the dominance of

1 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 11)

2 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 44)
3 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 12)
4 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 13)
5 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 21)

vision as it can produce images or drawings pleasing to the humans eye disregarding the other senses in
their contribution of criticism.

1.4 Multi-Sensory Experience

Multi-sensory experiences are fundamental qualities of architectural design today. They are able to help us
to understand our physical connection with others and the world we share, through reminding us of what it
is to be human.6 A great architectural work is incorporated by the use of the human senses.
Pallasmaa discusses how the sense of hearing can help us distinguish and understand space like in an empty
room our eyes can reach out the edges and other aspects of the room and thats it, our vision couldnt give
us a response as the sense of hearing receives echoes in our ears as we speak loudly in an empty room
which signifies space. The eyes see what its supposed to see but the skin feels whats within it. Which
connects to the taste-smell system that allows us to feel the temperature of water, texture of stones and
smell the fresh air breeze, blooming flowers and sense of nature in a forest. In time, eyes forget and the
nose makes the eyes remember7whats forgotten. Old houses have a distinct hollow smell because of the
left plants, old woods out of the furniture etc. As we smell the odours of the said old hollow house it brings
back memories of how the families get together in the couch how grandma always water the plants every
morning and we feel different emotions suddenly run through our veins.
The power of these senses gives the architectural work life and meaning unlike the vision only see the
flatness of an image. These sensory systems incorporates and collaborates to our vision and connects us
with our imagination which is the rightful process in architecture. Vision seduces the mental thinking of
people in which as they see it pleasing then its possibly enough without experiencing the spiritual value
and the wholesome of a building. We are supposed to use all of our senses for us to be able to be exposed to
the significance of our own existence.

1.5 Images of Action

Like all things has its purpose, every form of architecture has its own function. Working our way in to a
house, a door is not about the faade or design of the door or even the knobs. But the act of entering a
different world which is your home. Its not just about the design of the stairs and the handrails, The legs
measure the steps as we ascend a stairway, the hand strokes the handrail and the entire body moves
diagonally and dramatically through space.8 Thus appreciating the art of a structure not just by the looks of
Your existential being is practiced in the activities being made in a house. And the experience of home is
structured by these said activities. Cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing, reading, storing, intimate acts not
by visual elements.9

Modern architecture is provoked with vision-centred culture leaning towards a bias to the visual nature of
design. It disseminates the primary purpose of an architecture which is to heighten the existential of a
human by providing an intimate contact with the architectural work. Architecture is not a retinal image
which remains untouched by the viewer mentally and physically. It is to create a meaningful purpose of
which why we created the building in the first place. Incorporating other senses of a human with vision
helps create and distinguish the wholesome of a structure. The dominance of our sense of vision over the
other senses poorly affects the design of a building and judgement in what is aesthetics because of the lack
of emotions and integrity we put in our work because we are too coped up in making an eye pleasing
structure. Just like how Pallasmaa stated that What is needed most in architecture today is the very thing
that is most needed in life-integrity 10 this embodies what hes trying to convey in his literature.
Architecture needs to inherent firm principles that give architecture its true meaning, and these principles

6 (jazmin, 2014)
7 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 54)
8 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 63)
9 (pallasmaa, 1996, p. 63)
10 (pallasmaa, 1996)

are seeing architecture in a multi-senses and with a spiritual viewpoint.11

And as Ive said that all senses must be equally obtained in conceiving and creating architecture as these
senses have the power to give the architectural work life and meaning unlike the vision only see the flatness
of an image.
The entire book is filled with a really argumentative quotations from well-respected philosophers and
theorists it also contains graphics and experiential reference that makes the book more interesting and adds
to the argumentative sense. The author saturates the text with examples. This makes the argument very
convincing and becomes intimate with reader. The author also makes psychological and physiological
references making this argument scientifically sound and not just something rooted in poetry. One of the
major textual references that are made, are to Halls book - The Hidden Dimension. 12The author laments that
architects today have forgotten it- and hence his written response to this ignorance 13

hall, e., 1966. the hidden dimension. s.l.:doubleday publishers.
jazmin, 2014. urbantimes. [Online]
Available at:

11 (moody, 2011)
12 (hall, 1966)
13 (shamim, n.d.)

moody, j., 2011. blogspot. [Online]

Available at:
pallasmaa, j., 1996. The eyes of the skin. s.l.:s.n.
Patel, K., 2012. [Online]
Available at:
shamim, a., n.d. scribd. [Online]
Available at: