Juhani Pallasmaa, the well-known Finnish architect and theorist, highly-regarded in international circles partly for his long term of service on the jury that assigns the Pritzker Prize, visited as a guest speaker and protagonist at a series of three conferences in Italy in March. The conferences gave Pallasmaa the ideal platform to present an Italian audience with his ideas and theories on the subjects of the forests, light and the silence of Nordic architecture. Architecture journalist Arianna Callocchia writes about the event and discussed with Pallasmaa in Rome.
In cultural terms Italy is a central part of my feeling and thinking universe. I am a great believer in traditions, and I do not think that we can ever create anything meaningful on our own; everything that has meaning is bound to have resulted by collaboration, and frequently these collaborations may involve artists and thinkers who died five hundred years ago. Italy as a historical continuum is what is so important for me.
— Juhani Pallasmaa
The unity between external and mental
Pallasmaa′s lecture series was titled “Architectural Atmospheres of the North. Forest, Light and Silence” and the three talks were held in Rome, Milan and Cagliari. The Faculty of Architecture of the Università degli Studi Roma Tre hosted a conference titled ″Forest Architecture. Landscape, Space and Metaphor” on 23 March, 2015. The event in Milan (25 March) was organised at the facilities of Lombardini 22 and titled ″Touch of Light. Tactility and Mood of Illumination″. The Cagliari conference, scheduled for 27 March and held at the city’s university, bore the title “Voices of Silence. Space of Tranquility”.
″I chose these three themes, Forest, Light and Silence,″ explains Pallasmaa, ″to emphasise the unity of our external world with our mental world. The outer and the inner realities constitute a continuum. I also wanted to make the point that differences in regional and local architectures are not only a consequence of deliberate aesthetic choices, but are reflections on our living environment and timeless traditions″.
The conference in Rome was deemed a great success by the Rome-based architects, students and university lecturers. The guest of honour was the Ambassador of Finland in Italy, Petri Tuomi-Nikula.
″It was a great honour and pleasure to be part of the qualified public who gathered to listen to my compatriot Juhani Pallasmaa and learn more about his relationship with architecture and design and also the relationship between philosophy, art and cinema,″ said Tuomi-Nikula. ″In my opinion, Italy and Finland have many things in common; in particular, they have a common point of view on the concept of contemporary aesthetics in architecture and design. Just think of the Finnish Maestro Alvar Aalto who always considered Italy to be his second home in the world of aesthetics.″
Finnish architecture as a reaction to the natural forest environment
The Rome conference was hosted in the beautiful spacious Aula Magna dedicated to the Modernist architect Adalberto Libera. The auditorium has been created in one of the buildings of the former Roman abattoir in the city’s Testaccio district. Some years ago, the premises were converted into the headquarters of the Department of Architecture of the Università degli Studi Roma Tre, all created with an elegant design and completed wood-panelled, reflecting the Finnish style and the forest-based theme examined by Pallasmaa.
″I argue that Nordic architecture, and especially Finnish architecture,″ stated Pallasmaa, ″is a reaction to the natural forest environment more than a reaction to the traditional urban context, which is the case for southern Europe. I also argue that light and silence have special values for the Nordic mind″.
Following the introductions by Elisabetta Pallottino, Director of the Department of Architecture of the Rome 3 University, Antonello Alici, architect and historian of architecture at the Università Politecnica Delle Marche, and Saverio Sturm, Rome 3 University, Pallasmaa talked humbly and modestly for approximately one hour and presented a beautiful slideshow illustrating his ideas and his theories on the theme.
The global mono-cultural that we are currently uncritically heading towards implies the ultimate death of culture.
″Architecture appears to be a reaction to the prevailing climate, the landscape and the local culture,″ stated Pallasmaa. ″There is no doubt in my mind, that even today we can distinguish and perceive a specific Nordic architectural mentality or sensitivity. Regrettably, we are living in an age of globalisation and global economies, and architecture is being uprooted from its natural connections with local realities. In my opinion, architecture must urgently become receptive to local natural and cultural conditions once again rather than turning away from them. The global mono-cultural that we are currently uncritically heading towards implies the ultimate death of culture″.
Forest, light and silence
In spite of the fact that the lecture hall was packed with students, lecturers and architects, for the duration of Pallasmaa’s lecture (in English), you could hear a pin drop. The silence was absolute. Everyone concentrated on the words of the Finnish architect, attentively focusing on the images of architecture, art and nature, pictures he selected to express his ideas and theories. The enormous respect and the deep admiration the audience had for Pallasmaa was tangible. He is a prestigious name in international architecture, yet the man himself is modest, friendly and approachable. In addition, he was able to communicate his thoughts smoothly to a broad public in a simple and efficacious manner.
Arianna Callocchia: How are the concepts of forest, light and silence expressed in Nordic Architecture? How are these concepts translated into architecture, material and space?
Juhani Pallasmaa: My argument is that the prevailing landscapes and settings of our lives influence on our subconscious understanding of space, and this understanding is expressed through architecture. Also languages are grounded on subconscious assumptions regarding the essence of space, and those principles of our language are also reflected in our understanding and use of space. I argue that the Nordic people, and particularly the Finns, were traditionally forest dwellers and consequently the characteristics of the forest space are reflected in our architecture compared to the traditionally urban architecture of the Mediterranean region, for instance. Alvar Aalto is the greatest Finnish architect, and his architecture clearly demonstrates my argument in favour of Finnish forest architecture.
AC: How can an international architect use these concepts in architecture if he lives in a chaotic metropolis, for example?
JP: My objective is to sensitise my readers to their own environments and the hidden influences of the prevailing landscapes, whatever they might be in each reality.
AC: How can Nordic architecture and the themes of forest, light and silence influence international architecture?
JP: We often learn best from examples that arise from backgrounds different to our own. I have always taught architecture through other art forms for this very reason. I find it easier to emphasise the existential and poetic phenomena present in the art forms of painting, music, poetry, cinema, literature, for instance, rather than in architecture. All art forms have a common existential ground, and the mental essence of art is often easier to identify through differences as opposed to similarities.
AC: What advice would you give to Italian students of architecture?
JP: My advice to Italian students would be the same as the suggestions I give to students anywhere else in the world: do not ignore history, do not abandon your books, draw and sketch every day, and find friends who work in other crafts and who have different thought trains.
Between manipulative and the emancipatory and poetic imagery
The cycle of conferences “Architectural Atmospheres of the North. Forest, Light and Silence” was organised by Safarà Editore, a publisher in Pordenone, with the scientific coordination of Antonello Alici, architect and architecture historian at the Università Politecnica Delle Marche and Stefano Tessadori, architect and curator of the series ″La mano che pensa″ [The Thinking Hand].
″The objective of this series of conferences,″ explained Stefano Tessadori, ″was to broadcast the thoughts of Juhani Pallasmaa, who is a reference point in Italy for the people who are interested in architecture and neurosciences, aesthetics and sustainability, and to promote the two books The Thinking Hand and The Embodied Image, the Italian edition of which was first published by Safarà Editore in 2014″.
″The two books are studies on human embodiment, perception and imagination,″ explained Pallasmaa. ″The first book explores the significance of the hand-mind co-operation in various modes of working, including artistic work and thinking,″ concluded Pallasmaa. ″In reference to the second book, its subject matter is imagination and imagery. I argue that in our era of the visual images, it is important to understand the difference between manipulative images (as in advertising) and the emancipatory and poetic imagery of the arts.″
″I am thrilled that Safarà Editore has decided to publish the works of the architect Juhani Pallasmaa, one of my country’s leading authorities in architecture,″ concluded Petri Tuomi-Nikula. ″Thanks to this initiative, his scientific and philosophical ideas will have considerable influence in Italy and his genius will be recognised and appreciated by the younger generations.″
Text and photos by Arianna Callocchia.
English translation by Fiona Johnston.