The Eyes of the Skin (2012) -- Book Review

In my view, poetry has the capacity of bringing us momentarily back to the oral and enveloping world. The re-oralised word of poetry brings us back to the center of an interior world. 'The poet speaks on the threshold of being,' as Gaston Bachelard notes, but it also takes place at the threshold of language. Equally, the task of art and architecture in general is to reconstruct the experience of an undifferentiated interior world, in which we are not mere spectators, but to which we inseparably belong. 
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. 
Architecture strengthens the existential experience, the one's sense of being in the world, and this is essentially a strengthened experience of the self. Instead of mere vision, or the five classical senses, architecture involves several realms of sensory experience which interact and fuse into each other. -- quoted from The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa 
I am delighted that I met this book in the way that I did. It wasn't a recommendation, nor did I hear about it from another book. I was in the small acquisitions and labeling office of the university library when I saw the grey and yellow steel of the new books cart, loaded with architecture books, many still in their plastic wrapping. Many of them were fascinating to me, but not enough to take out and request the librarian to tag for me before the others. As she spoke to me I continued browsing the cart and found a slim dark blue book, bound in clear plastic wrapping. The gold lettering on the cover read The Eyes of the Skin. I tore through the plastic -- the librarian still speaking to me about this and that - and began flipping through the book. The pages weren't thick but weren't thin either -- they were an off white, the font was delicate and fine, a little like Garamond, if not Garamond. There were a few pictures. Words leaped out to me -- words like shadows, nooks, senses, the hand...and the hardcover of the book was bound in something cloth-like, smooth to the hands. I could feel my hands warming to the book.

For me it seemed that the thesis of this book was a lament on the growing obsession and precedence of the eye and the gaze above all other organs and senses. The eye for Pallasmaa is a flattening organ, a sort of piercing, pinning, and also distancing organ. It is a way to experience without a bodily closeness, and as such pushes phenomenon to an abstract plain. In contrast, smelling, listening, tasting, or touching something brings you closer, lets it invade your experience. I think Pallasmaa feels it is a more genuine or authentic experience when something is felt by the skin, or smelled, or heard, as opposed to being seen and emphasizes this with what I felt was a memorable and true line, 'In heightened emotional states and deep in thought, vision is usually repressed'.

Womb imagery pervades this little book. Architecture according to Pallusmaa should be conducive of mobility, of osmosis. The environment entering you, and you entering the environment. In layman's terms these are ideas long circulating in literary theory and in literature -- the house and the bedroom and to an extent the country being an extension of the self. As you change your home changes, and perhaps as your home changes, you change. As a child I read Pat of Silverbush, by L.M. Montgomery and the titular character Pat cries bitterly at the thought of ever parting from her house, even at the prospects of moving to a  "better" or more "elegant" house. The living places in Montgomery's novels were profoundly linked with those living in them. Anne (of Anne of Green Gables) transforms her bare bedroom after living in it and her bedroom allows her to, the house, Green Gables, allows her to. Metaphorically a womb is a place of plenitude, of constitution and reconstitution, of energies and drives, creativity, and most of all, belonging and warmth. Every particle of the body is in touch with the amniotic fluid, and similarly, every organ for Pallasmaa should be just as involved in the formation of a building -- the way the shadows are created, the sounds and echoes of the building, how the building feels on touch, how it feels to taste in contrast to simply -- how it looks from afar.

He refers to this (modern and postmodern) condition as the 'hegemony of the eye', and the decreased importance given to any other organ. In many ways the discussion in this book beckons feminist theory, and in particular discussions of traditionally conceived linear male discourse (Jacques Derrida's phallogocentrism) which privileges the masculine. Whereas l'écriture féminine is more in line with Pallasmaa's notions of how a building should be constructed and experienced since it is an attempt to reinstate the woman's body in writing, a sort of multiple, poetic, circular method of writing after the multiple erogenous zones of a woman --lips, breasts, vagina, clitoris-- as opposed to the singular penis in a man.

What struck me most about the work was its discussion on light and shadow. For years I have been trying to understand what I disliked about bright lights and in particular the white UV lights, the tube lights that I have been accustomed to growing up.

I thought this was brilliant, and of course reinforced what I felt was his emphasis on the womb-like quality of homes and abodes. Pallasmaa extends the argument, or at least I feel that the central argument of the book extends this argument to the increasing detachment of humans in the modern day, from one another and from oneself. In this way I feel the book was influenced also by Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, where the world is flooded with one dimensional images, ads, fast foods, synthetic experiences and images instead of wholesome, three dimensional, natural things. The whole world is flattened with the advent of technology, something Susan Sontag articulates when she says the world is begun to be seen as a series of photographs (and I had to admit to myself how I had begun to see sights and take 'mental pictures' of them and see them within those frames rather than as an organic part of the environment -- also reminding me of the new Instagramming phenomenon). Maybe in a way it's an attempt to be immortal, to be invincible, a sort of modern day arrogance that the world is for the taking, to be folded inside the pocket, instead of being subsumed in it, by it, being vulnerable to it and bleeding into it and from it. And hence perhaps the obsession with the immortal vampires, and as Pallasmaa writes, the obsession with clean hard lines, steel, glass, and materials which are incapable of showing wear and tear in the way wood can as it gradually softens and darkens with age.

I liked: The writing was absolutely beautiful. So profound, and so poetic. He refers to Rainer Maria Rilke a few times and mentions being inspired by him! Also, he references Bachelard whose Poetics of Space is a poetic and philosophical reverie of memoir, space, time and homes. The points he makes are well integrated, the pictures he uses are subtle and beautiful. A wonderful, accessible, and wholesome read.

I disliked: His critique of the hegemonic 'eye' seemed a bit fanatical at times. Yes, I understand how the mind and body are molded together and the ideal home could perhaps be a forest for the senses, or a facilitator between the body and environment and mind, yet I don't see how more abstract designs and abstract furniture can prevent that. Perhaps streamlined environments or those that cater to the eye can be like meditation, a case of less is more, that perhaps these environments can bring out different and just as crucial sensation. I feel more emphasis could have been put on a happy balance rather than on a complete war on terror on the eye.

A brilliant book. I would advise just about anyone to read it. A writer, a poet, an architect, a human being, a child, someone who never reads books, someone who reads everything. This is a book that can make you open your eyes to yourself, to your condition, and your environment. A book for all the senses, and a book you can own and return to time and again and find something new and compelling to ponder.