In Plain Sight
Reading the Room
The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses
by Juhani Pallasmaa.
London: Academy Editions, 1996
In this second installment of Clare Fentress’s recurring column, we asked her to review a “canonical” or commonly read architecture book that she herself had not yet read (and was not permitted to read during the writing of her review).
Juhani Pallasmaa’s 1996 book The Eyes of the Skin argues against the primacy of vision in Western conceptions and constructions of architecture—or so a vague and buried memory tells me. I’m not sure how I know what this text is about; I can’t recall ever having seen a copy of it, let alone read it. Did I absentmindedly scour its dust-jacket blurb at a bookstore? Did a friend draw its arc for me during a long dinner conversation? I once heard a psychoanalyst describe memories as Word documents and our minds as vast hard drives. Every time you open a memory, he said, you write a new copy of it. Sometimes you end up with many copies of the same story, its narrative static over time, repeated with precision and care. But usually, the memory changes. A transposed letter here, a different word there. Gradually, the order of events gets mixed up. Key details drop out. Years later, all that’s left is garbled text and some feelings.
In my mental copy of The Eyes of the Skin, Pallasmaa writes that sight was prized by the Greeks, then by the Christians, and finally canonized as the dominant sense in the Renaissance when perspective was developed. During each phase of this history, the human body was progressively deemphasized, reduced to the one sense that (supposedly) does not produce sensation and is easily externalized. Architects must reclaim touch, smell, taste, and hearing as elements of spatial experience, Pallasmaa claims in my apocrypha. Don’t just orchestrate views and sightlines; don’t just design through drawing; don’t create architecture that is only articulated by what the eye can perceive.
But I can hardly relay this spurious summary without the feelings asking for a turn. They begin with someone else’s words: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” This quote, a paraphrase of Paul Valéry and the title of a 1982 collection of interviews with Robert Irwin (another book I haven’t read), comes to mind often. It’s such a clear description of how visual experience can release you from the cages of language, of categories, of the conscious self. To lose the capability to name an object as other is to lose the hard edge around oneself as subject, too.
In 2013, when the Whitney Museum of American Art still lived in the 1966 Marcel Breuer building at 75th and Madison, there was a temporary exhibition of a site-specific work Irwin made for the building’s fourth floor in 1977. Just a piece of translucent, almost transparent white scrim stretched taut across the gallery, bisecting it, running flush with the ceiling, and ending about five feet above the floor. When I walked into the gallery, time paused; then it began to dissolve. The scrim, all but invisible, couldn’t be comprehended by looking straight at it. You had to observe other visual phenomena—blurred figures on the opposite side of the room, the last rays of twilight sun refracted along the wall, ceiling panels that suddenly turned black as your eye traced them overhead—to understand what the scrim was doing. But there it was, in plain sight, hiding nothing of itself or its mechanisms. I had to sit down.
Mystery is easily fetishized. It’s harder to make things that are so clear, so just themselves, that their fullness hits you in the gut and makes you forget, for a little while, who you are.
Clare Fentress is a second-year M.Arch I student at the Yale School of Architecture.