Juhani Pallasmaa




embodied experience and sensory thought


The World


the Mind



'How would the painter or the poet express anything other than his encounter with the world'1, writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose writings analyze the intertwining of the senses, the mind and the world, providing a reliable ground for understanding artistic intention and effect.


Art structures and articulates our being-in-the-world, or the inner space of the world (Weltinnenraum)2, to use the notion of Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art does not mediate conceptually structured knowledge of the objective state of the world, but it renders possible an intense experiential knowledge.

Without presenting any precise propositions concerning the world or its condition, art focuses our view on the boundary surface between our Self and the world. '



It is bewildering that while grasping what surrounds him, what he is observing, and giving shape to his perception, the artist does not, in fact, say anything else about the world or himself, but that they touch each other3, writes the Finnish painter Juhana Blomstedt. The artist touches the skin of his world with the same sense of wonder as a child touches a frosted window.




An artistic work is not an intellectual riddle seeking an interpretation or explanation. It is a complex of images, experiences and emotions, which enters directly our consciousness. An artistic work has an impact on our mind before it is understood. The artist finds his/her way behind words, concepts and rational explanations in the ever repeated search for an innocent re-encounter with the world. Rational constructions provide little help for artistic search because the artist has to rediscover the boundary of his own existence, time after time.


 'In my work, I have never had any use for anything that I have known in advance'4, said the great Bask sculptor Eduardo Chillida in our conversation once.


The artist's exploration focuses on lived experiential essences, and this aim defines his/her approach and method. As Jean-Paul Sartre states: `Essences and facts are incommensurable, and one who begins his inquiry with facts will never arrive at essences. ... understanding is not a quality coming to human reality from the outside; it is its characteristic way of existing.'5


An artistic work approaches this natural mode of understanding entwined in the very experience of being. Sartre's view also suggests a difference between the categories of scientific and the artistic approach.





We do not live in an objective world of matter and facts, as commonplace naive realism assumes. The characteristically human mode of existence takes place in the worlds of possibilities, molded by our capacity of fantasy and imagination. We live in mental worlds, in which the material and the mental, the experienced, remembered and imagined completely fuse into each other.


As a consequence, the lived reality does not follow the rules of space and time of the science of physics. We could say that the lived world is fundamentally `unscientific', when measured by the criteria of western empirical science.


The lived world is closer to the reality of dream than a scientific description. In order to distinguish the lived space from physical and geometrical space, we can call it existential space. Lived existential space is structured on the basis of meanings and values reflected upon it by an individual or group, either consciously or unconsciously; existential space is a unique experience interpreted through the memory and experience of the individual. On the other hand, groups or even nations, share certain characteristics of existential space that constitute their collective identities and sense of togetherness. The experiential lived space is the object and context of both the making and experiencing of art as well as of architecture.

The task of architecture is 'to make visible how the world touches us', as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote of the paintings of Paul Cezanne. In accordance with Merleau-Ponty, we live in the `flesh of the world', and architecture structures and articulates this existential flesh, giving it specific meanings. Architecture tames and domesticates the space and time of the flesh of the world for human habitation. Architecture frames human existence in specific ways and defines a basic horizon of understanding. We know and remember who we are and where we belong fundamentally through our cities and buildings.


In my view, the artform closest to architecture is not music - as is often thought - but cinema. The ground of both artforms is lived space, in which the inner space of the mind and the external space of the world fuse into each other forming a chiasmatic bind. The lived space of cinema offers a great lesson for us architects, who tend to see our craft through a formal bias.


Great film directors show us that architecture can be utilized to evoke and maintain alienation or domesticity, melancholy or terror, frustration or bliss.

The Reality



  Imagination is usually attached to a specific human creative capacity or the realm of art, but the faculty of imagination is the foundation of our mental existence and of our way of dealing with stimuli and information. Recent research by brain physiologists and psychologist at Harvard University6 show that images take place in the same zones of the brain as visual perceptions, and that the first are equally real as the latter.


No doubt, actual sensory stimuli and sensory imaginations also in the other sensory realms are similarly close to each other and, thus, experientially equally real. This affinity, or sameness of the external and internal experience is, of course, self­evident to any genuine artist without the proof of psychological research.


The experienced, remembered and imagined are qualitatively equal experiences in our consciousness; we may be equally moved by something evoked by the imagined as by the actually encountered. Art creates images and emotions that are as true as the actual encounters of life; fundamentally, in a work of art we encounter ourselves and our own being-in-the-world in an intensified manner. An artistic and architectural experience is fundamentally a strengthened experience of self.


An artwork made thousands of years ago, or produced in a culture completely unknown to us, touches us because we encounter the timeless present of being human through the work, and consequently, we encounter our own being-in-this-world. One of the paradoxes of art is that although all moving works are unique, they reflect what is general and shared in the human existential experience. In this way, art is tautologic, it repeats the same basic expression: How does it feel to be a human being in this world.


Art offers us alternative identities and life situations, and this is its great mental task. Great art gives us the possibility of experiencing our very existence through the existential experience of some of the most talented individuals of the humankind. This is the miraculous and merciful equality of art. I cannot, however, experience the feelings of the gloomy protagonist of Crime and Punishment; for instance, I do not borrow his feelings. I lend Raskolnikov my feelings and my waiting; Raskolnikov's agonized waiting is my experience of my own frustration of waiting. But all artistic effect and impact is based on an identification of self with the experienced object, or the reflection of the self on the object.


 `The taste of an apple is not in the apple, but in the encounter of the apple and the palate', as Jorge Luis Borges writes. We experience a work of art or architecture through our embodied existence and identification. An artistic experience activates a primordial mode of embodied and undifferentiated experience; the separation and polarization of subject and object is temporarily lost. Both the glorious beauty or the pitiful ugliness and lameness of the object of artistic representation are momentarily identified with our own embodied experience.


Can anyone look at Tizian's painting The Punishment of Marsyas, (The Flaying of Marsyas) without the horrifying pain of experiencing one's own skin being stripped off? The viewer lends the tormented satyr, flayed in Apollo's revenge, his own skin.


Many of us can never mourn our personal tragedy with the intensity we suffer the fate of the fictive figures of literary, theater and film, distilled through the existential experience of a great artist.Architectural ugliness or falseness can make us feel alienation, weakening of the sense of self, and eventually, make us fall mentally and somatically ill. We understand architecture through our bodies and metabolic systems.

The Reality

of Art



The manner through which art affects our mind is one of the great mysteries of culture. The understanding of the essence and mental workings of art has become confused and blurred by the superficial use of the notions of symbolization and abstraction. A work of art or architecture is not a symbol that represents or indirectly portrays something outside of itself; it is an image object that places itself directly in our existential experience.


The idea of symbolization should be viewed critically and with suspicion. Andrey Tarkovsky, for instance, whose films appear to be saturated by symbolic signification strongly denies any specific symbolization in his films. Rooms are flooded with water in his films, water soaks through ceilings and it keeps constantly raining. Yet, he writes: 'When it rains in my films, it simply rains'.


'Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provoke it', writes Sartre. 'Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish becomes thing, and anguish which has turned into yellow rift of sky (...). It is no longer readable'.7


A work of art may, of course, have conscious symbolic contents and intentions, but they are insignificant for the artistic impact and the temporal persistance of the work. Even the most simple work of art by its appearance, is not devoid of meanings or of connection with our existential and experiential world. An impressive work is an image condensation that is capable of mediating the entire experience of being-in-the-world through a singular image. But as Anton Ehrenzweig writes 'a meaningful abstraction in art differs from a meaningless ornament in the same way as a significant mathematical formulation differs from a meaningless combination of letters and figures'. In the words of Andrey Tarkovsky: `An (artistic) image is not a specific meaning expressed by the director; the entire world is reflected in it as in a drop of water'8.


Rainer Maria Rilke, one of greatest poets of all times, gives a memorable description of the utter difficulty of creating an authentic work of art and of its density and condensation, reminiscent of the core of an atom. ` For verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings ... - they are experiences. For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men and things, one must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning.'9 The poet continues his list of necessary experiences endlessly. He lists roads leading to unknown regions, unexpected encounters and separations, childhood illnesses and withdrawals into the solitude of rooms, nights of love, screams of women in labor, and being beside the dying. But even all of this together is not sufficient to create a line of verse. One has to forget all of this and have the patience to wait for their return. Only after all our life experiences have turned to the own blood within us, `not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them'10. Architectural quality does not either derive from a formal or aesthetic game; it arises from experiences and an authentic sense of life. The tendency for aesthetization today, in fact, threatens authentic qualities of architecture. Architecture can move us only if it is capable of touching something buried deeply in our forgotten memories.
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1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, as quoted in Richard Kearney. 'Maurice Merleau­-Ponty', Modern Movements in European Philosophy. Mancester University Press, Manchester ja New York, 1994, p. 82.

2 Liisa Enwald, 'Lukijalle', Rainer Maria Rilke, Hiljainen taiteen sisin: kirjeit√§ vuosilta 1900-1926 (The silent innermost core of art; letters 1900-19261. TAI-­teos, Helsinki 1997, p. 8.

3 Juhana Blomstedt, Muodon arvo (The significance of form), ed. Timo Valjakka. Painatuskeskus, Helsinki 1995.

4 Private conversation between Eduardo Chillida and the writer, 1987.

5 Jean-Paul Sartre, The Emotions: An Outline of a Theory. Carol Publishing Co., New York 1993, p. 9.

6 Dr. Ilpo Kojo, 'Mielikuvat ovat aivoille todellisia' (Images are real to the brain). Helsingin Sanomat, 16.3.1996.

The research group working at the Harvard University under Dr. Stephen Kosslyn has established that the areas of the brain which participate in the formation of images are the same areas where nerve signals from the eyes, which produce visual perception, are processes. The activity in the brain of this area looking related with images is similar to the looking of actual pictures.

7 Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?. Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass., 1978, p. 3.

8 Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time. Bodley Head, Lontoo 1986, p. 100.

9 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. W.W., Norton & Company, London, 1992, p. 26.

10  ibid., s. 27.