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Reading Diary: Eyes of the Skin

“If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought we had a mind.” Richard Rorty...

“The taste of the apple [...] lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself” Jorge Luis Borges

These two quotes are found in the opening pages of Juhani Pallasmaa’s book ‘Eyes of the Skin: Architecture & the Senses’. This book explores how an eye-dominated approach is prevalent in architecture, which distances people from design, and makes a case for an architecture which encourages us to approach buildings as environments which our entire body is in a dynamic relationship with.

What interested me about Pallasmaa's book is how deeply in tune his approach to the senses is with the views of phenomenologists like Husserl, Bergson and Merleau-Ponty and the shift they make in philosophy back to the body and first person experience as the site of consciousness. As Husserl writes ‘A theory of the body is already a theory of the mind’ a sentiment which Richard Rorty’s remark also echoes. This branch of philosophy sets itself up against the strong tradition of thinking of minds as separate entities which are somehow mysteriously (and for some regrettably) linked to our bodies. Just like tasting Borges' apple is in the contact between us and the apple, through all of the senses we are in a kind of continuous contact with everything around us, and our consciousness results from, or simply is, this contact. Pallasmaa's book applies this philosophy to the built environment, and suggests that when we build environments which cater only to the eye, we reinforce this kind of dissociated split between mind and body which is prevalent in the history of philosophy. For Pallasmaa the danger of an eye dominated approach in architecture, is that we are creating environments suited to that rapidity, and losing the potential for a more integrated way of inhabiting our environment.

This kind of dissociation is strongly connected with an anthropocentric worldview, which treats the human mind as the apex of rational thinking. Humans become separate and superior to the rest of life, rather than just one of many possible expressions of the conscious nature of the universe. It also seems clear that by living in environments which cater to this perceived human, anthropocentric thinking is being continually reinforced. A left-brain science world view does not acknowledge the possibility of intelligences outside of human grasp. The unknown is treated as ‘not-known yet’, with no concept of the possibility that some things may be outside of our sensory foothold, and the humbled awe which goes with this. Just as a single-cell organism doesn’t have the ability to perceive things visually, or to smell or taste, we may be ignorant of whole dimensions of possible consciousnesses.

The challenge of the modern city is to avoid this totalising approach and to keep us connected the earth we are dependent on. Reconnecting wih our senses and reconnecting with limits.

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