We behold, touch, listen, and measure the world with our entire bodily existence, and the experiential world becomes organized and articulated around the centre of the body. (64)
The noted Finnish professor, critic, and architect, Juhani Pallasmaa, has written extensively on the disordered emphasis we place on the sense of sight and timeless visual presentation in modern and contemporary architecture. What is lost, he argues, when we privelege the visual over the other senses is a properly holistic understanding of the deep and rich embodied temporal experience that is natural to us all as humans in the world. In short we lose the ’incarnational’ sensibility of architecture.
I agree, and I think it is important to point out the ways in which the visual realm dominates our reception of and engagement with the built environment. But Pallasmaa offers us more than that. He makes the case that we ought to hold at bay the speed and scope of the optical appropriation of our surroundings; so that the non-visual ways of encountering the material world can play a more active and informing role in our lived experience of the spaces within and through which we move.
In Pallasmaa’s short book The Eyes of the Skin he says,
It is inconcievable that we could think of purely cerebral architecture that would not be a projection of the human body and its movement through space. The art of architecture is also engaged with metaphysical and existential questions concerning man’s being in the world. The making of architecture calls for clear thinking, but this is a specific embodied mode of thought that takes place through the senses and the body, and through the specific medium of architecture.
Architecture elaborates and communicates thoughts of man’s incarnate confrontation with the world… and the task of architecture is to make visible how the world touches us… (45-46)
I’ve always felt that this line of reasoning – pursuing a more complete appreciation of man’s body-soul unity – has a particularly “incarnational” and Catholic sensibility. Such a mode of perception places great trust in our embodied condition to engage the material realm in meaningful ways; almost in a mode of receptive dialogue. I might go so far as to apply the term “sacramental” to the way in which Pallasmaa expects the substance of this world to speak to us through all of our senses – suggesting truths about matter and time.
The Church places the same trust, albeit articulated in more specifically theological terms, in the ability of the goods of Creation to point and lead us toward the Creator. These lines of thought are at least parallel, and they often intertwine.
Consider these additional few excerpts from the book - which appropriately enough, employs as its cover image the well known Caravaggio painting of St Thomas placing his fingers into the side of Christ – who is Himself the firstfruits of all Creation redeemed and restored.
As buildings lose their plasticity, and their connection with the language and wisdom of the body, they become isolated in the cool and distant realm of vision. With the loss of tactility, measures and details crafted for the human body – and particularly for the hand – architectural structures become repulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial and unreal. The detachment of construction from the realities of matter and craft further turns architecture into stage sets for the eye, into a scenography devoid of the authenticity of matter and construction.
… Natural materials express their age and history, as well as the story of their origins and the history of human use. … the patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time to the materials of construction. (31)
Architecture emancipates us from the embrace of the present and allows us to experience the slow, healing flow of time. Architecture connects us with the dead… and enables us to see and understand the passing of history, participating in time cycles that surpass an individual life. (52)
But the buildings of this technological age, with their machine-made materials, usually deliberately aim at ageless perfection, and they do not incorporate the dimension of time, or the unavoidable and mentally significant processes of aging. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death. (32)
The current over-emphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual, and embodied essence. Contemporary architecture posing as the avant garde, [is not] responding to human existential questions. This reductive focus gives rise to a sense of architectural autism, an internalized and autonomous discourse that is not grounded in our shared existential reality. (32)
We have a mental need to grasp that we are rooted in the continuity of time, and in the man-made world it is the task of architecture to facilitate this experience. Architecture domesticates limitless space and enables us to inhabit it, but it should likewise domesticate endless time and enable us to inhabit the continuum of time. (32)
This same spirit of temporal and tactile richness should animate our discussions about Sacred Architecture in service to our Liturgical celebrations. From the cool solid mass of polished stone, to the particular smell and slow movement of incense, or the lingering reverberation of the organ as the sound reverberates long after the last note has been struck. From the flicker of a few candles captured by a gold leafed surface, to the woodgrain pews, and our fingers moistened as a bodily recollection of our baptismal promises upon entering the church.
In his conclusion Pallasmaa offers a particularly poignant comment, especially considered within the context of Sacred Architecture;
Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and the mediation takes place through the senses. …And this view calls for a full understanding of our human condition.
Our bodies – not only our eyes and our intellects – should convey to us real truths as we mark time and touch the world. In the sacred liturgy, we are called to make a priestly offering of both back to the Lord.