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Seeking enchantment—here, there, everywhere…The Great Haul, a site-specific installation by Anna Hepler at the Portland Museum of Art. The light becomes crystalline and kaleidoscopic through the layered netting of meshed plastic.

We have an innate capacity for remembering and imagining places. Perception, memory and imagination are in constant interaction; the domain of presence fuses into images of memory and fantasy. We keep constructing an immense city of evocation and remembrance, and all the cities we have visited are precincts in this metropolis of the mind.

Literature and cinema would be devoid of their power of enchantment without our capacity to enter a remembered or imagined place. The spaces and places enticed by a work of art are real in the full sense of the experience. ‘Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provide it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, anguish which has turned into yellow-rift of sky’ writes Sartre. Similarly, the architecture of Michelangelo does not present symbols of melancholy; his buildings actually mourn. When experiencing a work of art, a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and percepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.

Another memorable quote from Juhani Pallasmaa, from Eyes of the Skin. So many concepts to consider here: Our capacity to imagine, remember and inhabit a space; the metropolis of the mind, built from every city we have ever visited; the power of enchantment that is elemental to art; the aura that surrounds a work of art; the interplay of our own emotions and state of mind with (and on) a work; encountering ourselves in what we see.

And not surprisingly, Pallasmaa’s small book functions for me as a work of art, enchanted, possessing its own aura, providing a reflection that allows me to encounter myself. It continuously speaks to me, holds my attention.


Waiting for Hurricane “My Name is Earl” to gather over the Northeast. We will be descending nonetheless on Cape Ann for a weekend of nuptial celebrating with Alexis and JP. So begins a month of wonderful wedding weekends. Life happens like that, big shifts that occur all at once, like the culmination of storm systems that become a hurricane. Nature does excess so effortlessly (which could be used as a defense for my own proclivities to go too far, too big, too much.)

Meanwhile here is another set of ideas from Juhani Pallasmaa that speaks to the concept of the eye (the human version that is):

An essential line in the evolution of modernity has been the liberation of the eye from the Cartesian perspectival epistemology. The paintings of Turner continue the elimination of the picture frame and the vantage point begun in the Baroque era; the Impressionists abandon the boundary line balanced framing and perspectival depth; Paul Cezanne aspires ‘to make visible how the world touches us’; Cubists abandon the single focal point, reactivate peripheral vision and reinforce haptic experience, whereas the colour field painters reject illusory depth in order to reinforce the presence of the painting itself as an iconic artifact and an autonomous reality. Land artists fuse the reality of the work with the reality of the lived world, and finally, artists such as Richard Serra directly address the body as well as our experiences of horizontality and verticality, materiality, gravity and weight.

The same countercurrent against the hegemony of the perspectival eye has taken place in modern architecture regardless of the culturally privileged position of vision. The kinesthetic and textural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the muscular and tactile buildings of Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn’s architecture of geometry and gravitas are particualarly significant examples of this.

My favorite thought provocateur these days (actually “these days” is actually now several months) is Juhani Pallasmaa, architect and author of The Eyes of the Skin. Here are a few more of his insights about seeing, the dominance of the eye, modes of vision. (Other great quotes from Pallasmaa that I have posted here: Focused vs Peripheral Vision; Inside and Outside, at the Same Time; Mind and Eye;The Eye in the Hand; Human Rootedness; Fully Engaged; Sensory Intimacy, in Art and in Architecture.)

Perhaps, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power, it is precisely the unfocused vision of our time that is again capable of opening up new realms of vision and thought. the loss of focus brought about by the stream of images may emancipate the eye from its patriarchal domination and give rise to a participatory and empathetic gaze…

The haptic experience seems to be penetrating the ocular regime again through the tactile presence of modern visual imagery. In a music video, for instance, or the layered contemporary urban transparency, we cannot halt the flow of images from analytic observation; instead we have to appreciate it as an enhanced haptic sensation, rather like a swimmer senses the flow of water against his/her skin…

David Michael Levin [author of “The Opening of Vision”] differentiates between two modes of vision: ‘the asssertoric gaze’ and ‘the aletheic gaze.’ In his view, the assertoric gaze is narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, rigid, fixed, inflexible, exclusionary and unmoved, whereas the aletheic gaze, associated with the hermeneutic theory of truth, tends to see from a multiplicity of standpoints and perspectives, and is multiple, pluralistic, democratic, contextual, inclusionary, horizontal and caring. As suggested by Levin, there are signs that a new mode of looking is emerging.

The sense of how water feels on the skin when we are swimming. Saying yes to the “multiple, pluralistic, democratic, contextual, inclusionary, horizontal and caring” gaze. Nuggets to carry today, in the studio and out.


Sensuality afoot at the Metropolitan Museum

The gift that just keeps giving…I don’t think there is a single page of my copy of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin that isn’t marked up and annotated. Although Pallasmaa is an architect and writing primarily about that metier, his book is full of passages that are a parallel reflection of my own views on the visual arts (and painting in particular.)

I hope my ongoing reference to his work is of interest to some of you too.

Beyond architecture, contemporary culture at large drifts towards a distancing, a kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality. Painting and sculpture also seem to be losing their sensuality; instead of inviting a sensory intimacy, contemporary works of art frequently signal a distancing rejection of sensuous curiosity and pleasure. These works of art speak to the intellect and to the conceptualising capacities instead of addressing the senses and the undifferentiated embodied responses. the ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to a gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their very existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.


Architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa

A few days ago my friend Janet alerted me to an appreciation of Frank Kermode in the New York Times (an excerpt is posted here.) She also left a comment on an earlier post about Dorothea Lasky that asked this question: “I am curious about what your response might be to V. Klinkenborg’s remembrance of Frank Kermode in today’s NYTimes. He included this provocative quote from Kermode: ‘To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character.’ Hmmmm.”

Hmmmm indeed. My response to her was this:

As for that quote… It put me in that deeply ambivalent place about art making, something I am dealing with more now than ever. So a part of me says OK, yeah, you’re right Frank, it IS essentially frivolous. But another part asks, does anything else feel this authentic? And look at what survives time to speak about a culture once it is gone. I am of two minds too much these days.

Several days later, and that two-mindedness has thankfully dissolved. I am not feeling that ambivalence. Maybe that feeling of “e) all of the above” is just another symptom of the micro crises—or periodic periods of drought—that seem to be a new aspect of my art making terrain of late. Right now I am more aligned with this quote from Juhani Pallasmaa in Eyes of the Skin:

The sense of self, strengthened by art and architecture, allows us to engage fully in the mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire. Buildings and cities provide the horizon for the understanding and confronting of the human existential condition. Instead of creating mere objects of visual seduction, architecture relates, mediates and projects meanings. The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being. Significant architecture makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings. in fact, this is the great function of all meaningful art.

Allowing all of the sensations—dark and light, frivolous and essential—to flow through: isn’t that being fully engaged in the “mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire”?

No Frank, I’m not signing up for the “art is frivolous” argument today. I’ll pass. For now.


Another book that sounds like it is right in my sweet spot: Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, by Yael Reisner. Ah, beauty… It continues to be an issue of dispute in every contemporary métier—visual art, music, literature. This topic continues to engage, divide, provoke, perplex.

I know a bit about the constituencies on this topic within fine arts, but I appreciated finding an article by Jay Merrick in The Independent that drew the architectural battle lines. Given my current interest in the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, I was not surprised to see his name show up in Merrick’s lay of the land:

The troubled relationship between architecture and beauty is being re-exposed at just the right moment. For at least a decade, the life has been squeezed out of potentially fine architecture by developers or clients who talk the enlightened talk, but walk the value-engineered walk. But are buildings like Will Alsop’s the Public in West Bromwich beautiful or ugly? Is there anything about the architecture of Thom Mayne or Hernan Alonso Diaz that even triggers the idea of beauty? And what about Wolf Prix’s extraordinary BMW Welt building – is it a nightmare, or pure heaven?

Let’s set the scene. In the blue corner, the visionary American architect, Lebbeus Woods, who says that aesthetics is rarely discussed in schools of architecture because “it’s still a legacy of the Jewish-Protestant ethic. You can take Calvinism as an extreme example, but generally all Protestant religions are very anti-visual and very anti-aesthetic”. Hence, Modernism’s purified, quasi-socialist Detroit production-line mantra, form-is-function. “Before Modernism,” adds Woods, “architects were just decorators.”

In the red corner, one of architecture’s most important historian-philosophers, Juhani Pallasmaa. He deplores current architectural cravings for “novelty based on a shallow understanding of artistic phenomena”, and delivers a crisp left uppercut to doubters by quoting the poet Joseph Brodsky: “The purpose of evolution is beauty.”

And somewhere in the middle – let’s call it the royal purple corner, though not necessarily By Appointment – are architects such as the classicist Francis Terry, who started a recent essay in The Architects’ Journal with this miserablist sentence: “Given all the terrible things about life, it is sometimes easy to hate the world.” How about: “Given all the beautiful things about life, it’s very easy to love the world”?

What a palaver. Faced with the threat of beauty, architects tend to default to particular design trenches, or utter that duplicitously exclusive word, taste. Rather than looking through cracks in their avoidance of beauty as a creative motive or perception, architects Polyfilla them with blurring obstructions; they’re shadow-boxing in a Plato’s Cave where beauty can never quite be experienced as real. Just as super-articulate philosophers are often regarded with suspicion by colleagues embalmed in infinite chains of hair-splitting, so too do most architects prefer the safety of a bunker of clichés rather than risk exposure to the languages of cultural exploration.

More on this once I’ve actually read the book (which is on its way from the UK where it costs half as much as it does in the US for some reason…)


The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority. The art of the eye has certainly produced imposing and thought-provoking structures, but it has not facilitated human rootedness in the world. The fact that the modernist idiom has not generally been able to penetrate the surface of popular taste and values seems to be due to its one-sided intellectual and visual emphasis; modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.

–Juhani Pallasmaa, from The Eyes of the Skin

Note: I am in New York for a few days. I have queued up a few small-scale directionals, gentle proddings that shift the way to view the familiar.


If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.

Richard Rorty, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

What a provocative quote from the philosophical giant himself, and one that I have been pondering all day after spending some time on Mind Lab, a beautifully constructed site that enables you to experience firsthand the mysteries and vagaries of how the mind and eye collude. (And thank you to vetting machine extraordinaire, Maureen of Writing Without Paper, for this find.) What we think we see, we don’t. Do the experiments on Mind Lab and you will be aghast at how actively your mind is creating a reality for you that is just plain bogus. I kept thinking of a recent piece in the Boston Globe by Joe Keohane that demonstrates how difficult it is for most people to admit they are wrong. We trust our senses and yet it is clear from this site that making that assumption is a big mistake.

An earlier post here referred to architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s provocations around the role of peripheral vision in architectural design. I’m even more intrigued now about how peripheral vision really works and how it impacts our visual experience. And I don’t think the understanding I am looking for is just a scientific one. It has so many layers to it, bafflingly so.

Body. Mind. Seeing. Knowing. Who can say what is what?


Photo: From the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Another evocative passage by way of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin. (More quotes from the book here, and more will be posted in the future since I have been in a state of awe regarding this book for some time.) The role of the hand and the body in creativity is not trivial and yet easily overlooked.

The computer is usually seen as a solely beneficial invention, which liberates human fantasy and facilitates efficient design work. I wish to express my serious concern in this respect, at least considering the current role of the computer in the design process. Computer imaging tends to flatten our magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacities of imagination by turning the design process into a passive visual manipulation, a retinal journey. The computer creates a distance between the make and the object, whereas drawing by hand as well as model-making put the designer into a haptic contact with the object or space. In our imagination, the object is simultaneously held in the hand and inside the head, and the imagined and projected physical image is modelled by our bodies. We are inside and outside of the object at the same time. Creative work calls for a bodily and mental identification, empathy and compassion.


Packing material in my studio which confounds the eye depending on which way you look at it. Focus vs peripheral sight at play…

I’ve referenced one of my greatest recent finds several times on this blog—The Eyes of the Skin by architect Juhani Pallasmaa. I’ve been rereading this slim volume and can’t not share just a few great quotes. So over the next few days I’ll pull out some passages that just keep reverberating.

Today’s theme: Focused vs peripheral vision

The very essence of the lived experience is moulded by hapticity and peripheral unfocused vision. Focused vision confronts us with the world whereas peripheral vision envelops us in the flesh of the world. Alongside the critique of the hegemony of vision, we need to reconsider the very essence of sight itself.

All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility. Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised parts of our enveloping membrane.

A forest context, and richly moulded architectural space, provide ample stimuli for peripheral vision, and these settings centre us in the very space. The preconscious perceptual realm, which is experienced outside the sphere of focused vision, seems to be just as important existentially as the focused image. In fact, there is medical evidence that peripheral vision has a higher priority in our perceptual and mental system.

These observations suggest that one of the reasons why the architectural and urban settings of our time tend to make us feel like outsiders, in comparison with the forceful emotional engagement of natural and historical settings, is their poverty in the field of peripheral vision…Peripheral vision integrates us with space, while focused vision pushes us out of the space, making us mere spectators.