Last edited 19 Oct 2016

Phenomenology

Juhani Pallasmaa (2005, 10) in explaining the aim of his book “The Eyes of the Skin”, emphasises his intention “to create a conceptual short circuit between the dominant sense of vision and the suppressed sense modality of touch.”

Our daily lives have been greatly influenced by the applications of modern technology. Technology has satisfied our need for simplicity and comfort (defined by Oxford Dictionaries (2012) as “a state of physical ease”). One of the purposes of modern architectural design and also a measure of our quality of life is comfort. The meaning of comfort is . But, as it has made our lives easier so it has reduced the manual aspect of daily life, and our bodily involvement in our experience of life has been focussed on the senses favoured by technology, predominantly vision.

Our daily needs are often satisfied with the click of a button, and touch screens have reduced our interaction with our physical environment to a mere touch on a digital surface. It can only be expected that there will continue to be further reductions in the haptic aspect of our day to day interaction with the world.

Comparing the sense of vision to the sense of touch, Rene Descartes suggested that tactility “is more certain and less vulnerable to error” (Pallasmaa, 2005, 19). Pallasmaa (2009, 16) argues that “the hand grasps the physicality and materiality of thought and turns it into a concrete image”. To Pallasmaa the traditional methods of sketching are more natural and certain. The hand interacting with the paper reveals an almost primitive relation in Luis Kahn’s words in his 1931 writing “The value and aim in sketching”: “I try in all my sketching not to be entirely subservient to my subject, but I have respect for it, and regard it as something tangible – alive – from which to extract my feelings.” (Kahn, 1991, 11)

But is this true even in the modern world, a world which Pallasmaa (2009, 22) characterised as hedonistic, where our skin is responsible for our most dangerous desires?

Vision is still considered honest in an instinctive way: people have been looking into each other’s eyes for evidence of truth. They are still considered the “mirrors of the soul”. In that sense vision can be penetrating but at the same time discreet. When we stare intensely in another person’s eyes, we instantly look away like two magnets of the same polarity. Vision has boundaries.

Touch on the other hand is still penetrating, looking for truth but in the same way it can be invading and unwelcome. Its boundaries are ambiguous. Today our daily social interactions cannot easily be defined by the tactile sense because of the existence of a strong “personal space” (defined by the Oxford Dictionaries (2012) as “the physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which encroachment can feel threatening or uncomfortable”). The intimacy of the tactile sense is not without risks.

Pallasmaa’s concerns regarding the way architecture is approached today are centred on the dominance of the visual sense (occulacentrism) and its consequences: “the world becomes a hedonistic but meaningless visual journey” (Pallasmaa, 2005, 22). However modern conditions promote and extend the visual sense, and 'correcting' this would have an impact not just on architecture, but also in areas like the media, marketing and advertisement, urban planning and the internet.

Architecture could not have been unaffected from the media frenzy in recent decades or from the persuasive power of advertisement and marketing. The outcome of this process was to create a commercialised aspect to architectural practise. According to Vesely (2004, 3), such commercial forces created a “rather narrow contemporary vision of architecture as a discipline that can be treated as an instrument, or as a commodity”.

Simulation techniques, along with the emergence of the internet has enabled people to “share” architecture even where there are large physical distance between it and the observer. We can experience architecture without being physically present and without the involvement of senses like touch and smell. The design of the built environment affects millions of people in the highly urbanised world in which we live in. The visual imagery offered by technology, proves to be an absolutely necessary tool through which architectural projects can be globally communicated to the public. This allows for discussion and critique, greatly improving social contribution to decision making.

Technology has created even greater possibilities in the creative process of architectural design through computer aided design software (CAD). In this context Pallasmaa focuses his argument about a distant visual sense in comparison to the traditional haptic approach to design: “The computer creates a distance between the maker and the object, whereas drawing by hand as well as model making put the designer into a haptic contact with the object or space” (Pallasmaa, 2005, 12).

However despite the obvious authenticity of the traditional design method, it seems that the role of the multisensory bodily experience in the design process is still overshadowed by the demand for a more accessible, market oriented and above all, technologically compatible practise. In his interview to Blaine Brownell, Makoto Sei Watanabe who is involved in algorithmic design, suggests that 'traditional' deisgn techniques are “arbitrary in nature” (Brownell, 2011, 218). According to Watanabe, traditional design is “the genius of the brain” and not accessible to everyone (Brownell, 2011, 218). To improve the accessibility of architectural practise “...we can instead use software that is accessible to anyone because its rules are transparent” (Brownell, 2011, 218-219).

Is such approach to design then incapable of creating meaningful architecture? The work of the Mexican modernist architect Juan O'Gorman, in an era greatly defined by the machine and a shift away from tradition. Japanese architect Toyo Ito (2011, 134) suggests that O'Gorman’s design for the Rivera-Kahlo house “...failed due to a rejection of the body as a strong collective memory of the land."

Toyo Ito's own work is largely based on computer technology. His approach may be the key in reconfiguring the urban environment towards more human-friendly conditions. In the heavy urban landscape, Ito’s “obsession with lightness and his desire to strip away anything that reminds us of gravity” (Worsley, 2002), can be thought of as a decisively human approach. For Ito (2011, 168), the dissection of structural elements such as columns beams and walls offered by computer technology and the use of innovative materials, has revolutionised the way space is conceived through architectural design. Talking about his 2002 Serpentine pavilion – designed in collaboration with structural engineer Cecil Balmond – Ito explains the experience created in the absence of these traditional construction elements: “...the experience of being inside the pavilion with no visible columns and beams or windows and doors, none of the usual hierarchy of architectural forms, is that of space itself – an ever-fluctuating, self-recursive abstract space” (Ito, 2011, 169).

Computer technology can inform the design process in a way which can allow for enhanced spatial interaction.

However, Pallasmaa (2005, 31) warns that “architectural structures become repulsively flat, sharp edged, immaterial and unreal” ? Is it because of “the loss of tactility” as Pallasmaa (2005, 31) suggests, or is the computer actually to blame for this result? The computer is mistakenly blamed because of its predominantly visual nature. From a phenomenological point of view, the flat and sharp nature of architecture is because this is more acceptable to the visual realm. Is that true however or is it because it is simply easier to craft? Complexity is everywhere in nature and our vision is intrigued by it and not alienated. But it is not easy to physically replicate – craft – nature. It could therefore be argued that hapticity has constraints and computer technology is needed to complement it in order to achieve the high levels of precision required in architectural representation.

So the visual dominance of our times may not be the reason why today’s architecture is so simple and flat. It is the restraints in the representation – the actual crafting of such organic forms – and not the constraints in their conceptual creation. It is eventually a problem which tactility is unable to solve. In order to rationalise the complexity of organic forms you need the help of CAD.

The influence of the body and its senses on architecture is not as clear as one would think: it is evident that there is a distinguishable division between on one hand the design process: here multi-sensory involvement and the reconsideration of the visual dominance are desirable, and on the other hand, architectural representation, where the visual realm empowered by technology is vital in the current context. The rest of our senses have as yet little to offer in this field but technological progress may change the situation in the future.

This distinction is evident in Vesely’s words: “The distance separating the instrumental and the communicative understanding of architecture represents a wide gap in our contemporary culture” (Vesely, 2004, 4). But Vesely does not look at this issue lightly. He goes on to suggest that our calls for a reinforcement of the visual realm is not without costs. The risk lays in “...issues pertaining to the truth of representation” (Vesely, 2004, 44). To him – as for Pallasmaa – the aim of our practise is human life (Vesely, 2004, 5). In these words the meaning of architecture is immediately defined even in the contemporary context. He comments that trying to achieve humanity with inhuman means such as computer technology is indeed paradoxical (Vesely, 2004, 5).

Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role; though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised” (Vesely, 2004, 5). The goal of architecture has not significantly changed, only the tools to realise it.

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External references

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