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.”
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Juhani Uolevi Pallasmaa is a Finnish architect and former professor of architecture and dean at the Helsinki University of Technology. Among the many academic and civic positions he has held are those of Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture 1978-1983, and head of the Institute of Industrial Arts, Helsinki.