PERCEIVING TOUCH: exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasImage: The Incredulity of St Thomas by Caravaggio

Given the hegemony of vision in today’s culture, Pallasmaa’s writings purposely centre on, ‘thinking through the senses’ . He believes that architecture; true, authentic architectural experiences are engaged with through the haptic realm. Hence, he places great importance on the role of the body and its interaction with the environment in attempting to fully understand the human condition. Pallasmaa writes:

“Even in the technological culture of today, the most important existential knowledge in our everyday life does not reside in detached theories and explanations, but it is a silent knowledge, beyond the threshold of consciousness, fused with daily environments and behavioural situations.”

Many scholars have argued for the significance of embodied perception and direct human experience, much of which has dominated the phenomenological branch of architecture, of which the work of Heidegger offers marked influence. For the philosopher, building configures physically, over time, how people measure their place in the world. This forms a basis for the promotion of the value of human presence and inhabitation that dominates much of Pallasmaa’s thinking. In addition to this, Steven Holl also argues for ‘a reassertion of the human body as the locus of experience’ , again characterising the notion that relation to place is expressed through direct interaction of the human body with its environment.

Pallasmaa’s polemic appeals to us to consider the sensual qualities of materials and the ‘affordance’ of objects in our haptic and direct experience of space and form. These qualities he believes, allow us a much more beneficial and engaging experience of our buildings in an age dominated by the detached visual image. Therefore, he has also argued that these sensual qualities are a means to address the superficiality of meaning in much of contemporary architecture.

This essay will determine the extent to which the work of Alvar Aalto is an appropriate paradigm of Pallasmaa’s ‘authentic architectural experience’. In doing so, it will also address wider issues relating to the phenomenology of architecture and the human existential condition.