Interview with an Architectural Icon: Juhani Pallasmaa

Categories: Articles

By Andrew Caruso

National Building Museum Online contributor Andrew Caruso interviewed Juhani Pallasmaa during his time as a professor in residence and 2011 Walton Critic at The Catholic University of America.Offering the design field some of its most poignant reflections, Juhani Pallasmaa has written and designed his way into the zeitgeist of architectural discourse. The Eyes of the Skin—Architecture and the Senses, his 1996 reflection on architecture, perception and one’s self, has become a core part of the canon of architectural education throughout the world.

Juhani Pallasmaa

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): You approach design with an insatiable sense of inquiry as well as a quiet, yet intense, sense of introspection. What role did your Finnish childhood play in developing this point of view?

Juhani Pallasmaa (JP): I have never regarded architecture as my profession. It has been a window through which I look at the world. Such an attitude immediately puts you in a different position in relation to your work. Architecture has always been my way of getting to know the world, myself, and other people. It has also served my sense of curiosity more than anything else.

I guess early intellectual and emotional experiences are important and I was very fortunate to work at the Museum of Finnish Architecture ever since I was a second-year student. The best architects in my country used to meet there and most of them were a generation or two older than I was, but they always accepted me as an interlocutor. I would listen to the conversations of wise colleagues early on. In Finland in those days, there were no large offices at all (Alvar Aalto had perhaps twenty people at that time at most), and so I felt that all of these architects had an existential and philosophical orientation in relation to their work rather than a professionalist [sic] one.

Sāmi Lapp Museum, Inari, Lapland, Finland, 1998. Photo by Rauno Träskelin.

I have grown in a situation where architecture is fully integrated with the architect’s life. As a consequence, I have never seen any difference between work and life, or work and vacation. They are all the same continuum of life for me. And, at the age of seventy-five, I still feel that I am an amateur, a beginner.

NBM Online: You are wildly multidisciplinary, but do you identify as an architect? Would you call yourself an architect

JP: Yes I do all kinds of things. I have been a farmhand, a construction worker, an administrator, a university rector, a graphic and product designer, etc…but I do everything through an architect’s eyes and mindset. However, I don’t mean architect as a professional, but as an archetype, a “-smith,” as it were. A blacksmith would not be a professional, but almost a mythical person. In the same way I regard an architect as a supporter of the mythical dimensions of life, not a professionalist.

NBM Online:  You’ve often talked about “responsibility” in our profession. How would you define your responsibility as an architect?

JP:  I have always been concerned of doing things that will not serve any of my purposes; that do not express myself, but express and clarify how things are. I think architecture can clarify that existential base against which human acts and relations are seen and understood. That is my concern. I could not think of doing work as self-expression. It would be intolerable if I found myself doing work like that. I would know that I have gone crazy.

NBM Online: Do you sense that there is a shared perception of an architect’s responsibility within the profession? Is this perception beginning to shift?

JP: We have numerous architectural subcultures, from world-conquering capitalist architects to the Rural Studio, and everything in between. I think that’s a good thing. I never believed in uniformity.

NBM Online: I would characterize your approach to work as both active and passive. You are involved in the act of creating, yet equally engaged in listening. Is that a conscious pursuit? Do you always have to be mindful to balance these two modes of operating?

JP: When I was young—and I would believe this is part of anybody being young—I was impatient and wanted to intellectually control everything. You tend to dictate rather than listen. But, you learn to listen by age. There is a working rhythm, phases when you have to push and phases when you just observe, trying to see what has happened. In an authentic creative process, the work achieves a certain autonomy rather early on in the process. After that, design becomes a dialogue between you and your work, rather than the work simply recording your conscious ideas. The method is part of your way of being. I don’t believe authentic design can be a very determined, intellectual, or theoretical thing. Design is engaged in too many uncertainties and existential issues to be entirely intellectually controlled.

NBM Online: You’ve lectured and written widely about silence in architecture. Is this one of the most profound qualities of architecture? Are there others?

JP: I would quote Louis Kahn on silence and light. They go together and it’s the height of architectural impact.

There are also other possibilities. For instance, when you climb to Pharaoh’s chamber in the Cheops pyramid, it rises in a forty-five-degree angle inside a huge mass of stone. It is so narrow that two persons can only pass by turning sideways. The feeling of the weight and mass of the stone is incredible. Many of the travelers cannot take it and run down the steep stairs in panic. So, one can have a very strong spatial experience completely without light.  And, I guess silence is important to me as a country boy, because that’s what I still am in my heart. I grew up in silence.

NBM Online: You speak of the very personal and powerful emotive quality of architecture. As a designer, how do you mediate the tension between the personal experience and shaping a universal message through your work?

JP: I cannot separate them in any fundamental sense. Ludwig Lichtenstein writes, “I am my world.” If you think that way, you can’t separate things. And I don’t believe all things need to be separated. I think today there’s too much of that categorization as an intellectual game. For instance, one’s sense of existence absolutely calls for the simultaneous acknowledgment of self and the world, doesn’t it? There is no existence unless the two dimensions fuse into one.

NBM Online: As a prolific author, would you describe writing and designing as equal creative pursuits? How are they similar or different?

JP: I think they are both similar and different. Let’s start with the difference. Architecture is a somewhat more genuine area of autonomous creativity because in writing you organize conceptual and linguistic categories. The role of logic in writing is already more strongly established than in making architecture. As an architect, you can move on untouched ground if you wish to.

The similarities to me arise from the fact that both architecture and writing deal with existential issues, the personal questions: “Who am I, what am I doing on this earth, what is my role and responsibility?” That perspective from ego does not at all lead to a self-centered position, rather it sensitizes all the issues you bring to your own existence.

NBM Online: What was your original impetus for publishing?

JP: Curiosity. You can take your entire life as a way of finding out about something. Of course you will never find it; that is why the project continues until your deathbed. But, it makes life interesting and meaningful to be searching for the meaning of things.

NBM OnlineWhen you consider that a whole new generation of architects and designers have come of age in their craft alongside your work, what is the impact you hope you’ve had on them?

JP: I never think that way. I am glad of course to know that my books are being read around the world, but that was never my intention. Not once did I think of that. I just realize with gratitude that people read my texts but I don’t think of the implications at all. I can only aspire for sincerity and precision in the things I do.