Juhani Pallasmaa – Retinal Architecture and the Loss of Plasticity
‘The architecture of our time is turning into the retinal art of the eye. Architecture at large has become an art of the printed image fixed by the hurried eye of the camera. The gaze itself tends to flatten into a picture and lose its plasticity; instead of experiencing our being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the surface of the retina.’
Unprecedented access to technologies of the visual enables us to capture and reference our environment with exceptional ease. We have become accustomed, even conditioned, to quickly record our surroundings and transform them into ephemeral moments of appropriation. It seems that we require tangible proof of our lives so as not to forget a single moment, a single encounter.
The cult of the image is also actively promoted by the carefully constructed ideals of glossy magazines and coffee table books celebrating architecture and architects. This gives us instant access to archives and desires but what are we losing or gaining in the process? Does the prominent role of the image in Western culture today affect our cultural identity?
The development of cultural identity happens over time as a historical set of recollected moments that shape our knowledge, thoughts and behaviour. So memories and the ability to remember are an essential part of not only our past, but also our present and future. As our understanding of architecture becomes increasingly conditioned by the way it is photographed, flat images become abstractions of buildings and we are presented with a series of fragmented views of externalised and idealised versions of our environment. Memory however is dynamic, not a simple storage device. It consists of mental images gathered through experiences. Environments are all encompassing multi-sensorial entities and immersion triggers what Marcel Proust calls ‘involuntary memories’(1), experienced through being, knowledge, matter, identity, time and space.
So the gaze loses its ability to form itself into the environment when, superseded by the eye of the camera, it cannot construct the relationships characterised by the multiplicity of meanings we encounter as we move through our surroundings. When the gaze is confined to flat restricted viewpoints, it cannot be interactive or participatory, nor can it facilitate, in the words of Jean Piaget ‘a gradual construction of meanings essential to our perceptions of our environment’(2). Positioning ourselves behind a camera creates a warped relationship between the body and its surroundings, a loss of direct connection and engagement. We look but we don’t see, we see but we don’t feel. Time accelerates and we are compelled to move quickly to the next subject, emulating what Fredric Jameson calls ‘the frantic economic urgency’(3). So, when experience is reduced to the unfulfilled encounter of the image and impoverished two-dimensional environments, the supremacy of the visual over other sensorial modalities means we are in danger of losing the knowledge that we need to inform awareness. Maurice Merleau-Ponty even suggests we become ‘programmed machines, removed from the open and active form of the sensing body’(4) and therefore it seems that in our postmodernist culture, awareness follows depiction.
The resulting fragmentation of our perceptions leads to both the dispersal and reconfiguration of collective memories resulting in subjective experiences defined by the media, where desires, manufactured with the help of semiotic advertising psychology, replace reality. Bernard Stiegler takes this point even further and expresses his concern about the communality produced by the similarity of images available in the media. He remarks that we ‘come to share an increasingly uniform memory. For example, those who watch the same television news channel every day at the same time become, in effect, the same person.’(5) Transposed into architectural images, this implies that those who repetitively view the same photographs of any given environment, are likely to develop the same perceptions of that environment.
Take Peter Zumthor’s celebrated Thermal Bath Vals in Garubunden, Switzerland. It is entirely designed through careful manipulation of sensory modes. Local materials are used for their relationship with the site and tactile qualities, room plans are labelled by temperature notation and slivers of light and dripping water are introduced to enhance atmospheric conditions. The character of its interior emanates from the considerations of its components as active participants to promote the feeling of wellness and serenity essential to the context of the environment. However most of us only know this building because we have seen carefully executed and selected images, not because we have been there and experienced it for ourselves. Yet many will profess the characteristics of the Thermal Baths with genuine enthusiasm. Although to a certain extent, memories, knowledge and imagination allow us to decode what we see and transpose it to stimulate other senses, we are nonetheless reduced to spectators in the construction of cultural ideals. Our architectural and spatial consciousness and by default our related memories, are defined by images more than by direct experiences. In the words of Susan Sontag ‘photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is’(6)
So the commodification of culture, imposed on us by the architecture of the visual and the drive to create striking and desirable images, favours the representation of form over real human enjoyment, and authentic pleasure is removed when architecture is staged to fulfil lifestyle consumer desires. Architecture becomes flat and lifeless, debased by its assimilation into consumer images, removed from human experience. The loss of plasticity, the lack of direct engagement with our environment and the proliferation of superficial encounters bring about an idealised, distorted and subjective view of reality whereby meaning becomes referential to the image rather than deferential to the multiplicity and complexity of the human condition. In other words ‘reality has come to seem more and more what we are shown by the camera.’(7) However, as Yi-Fu Tuan points out ‘what begins as an undifferentiated space becomes a place as we get to know it better and endow it with value’(8) and ‘the more our sense of touch is restricted or neglected, whether social relationships or urban design, the more we diminish our possibilities for aesthetic enjoyment and our sense of connection with the material world.’(9) As a result our cultural identity seems diffused and even confused. Faced with a much more disappointing reality when our expectations are not met, we can become prone to anxiety due to an inability to form meaningful relationships with our environment.
Science fiction cinema and writers have also expressed their unease at the potential the image for manipulation. For example, Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner is based on the impossible task of its main character figuring out whether his memories are real or implanted and his only link with his real or imagined past are photographs. Phillip K. Dick’s protagonist in ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ merges reality and fantasies by selecting both factual and false memories, which are then further woven into his identity with the addition of images in the form of films and postcards as proof of his voyage to Mars. The alteration of photographs is today common practice, but unless someone remembers, are we not in danger of altering our collective memories by re-visualising history?
So is there nothing to be gained from images of our environment? Pierre Nora speaks of ‘lieux de mémoire’ (spaces or realm of memory), connecting the driving force behind the image with ‘the rise of the visual narrative in contemporary culture’(10) . Despite its experiential limitations and the danger of distortion in our cultural identity and history, photography enables us to preserve an archived version of past architecture displaced by urban development that regularly obliterates many areas of our cities. It provides us with a unique means to construct our own personal architectural mementos and in effect, curate our memories of places we have been to. It also offers us an opportunity to re-discover our environment by framing its components in ways that remove the surrounding visual clutter. The act of reinterpretation helps us stop and reflect. Although the image does produce a two-dimensional encounter, it also makes the invisible visible by helping move our gaze beyond the foreground and adjusting our environment to reveal previously unnoticed vistas, elements and details.
We often take our environment for granted yet our daily interactions are complex and dynamic. We are confronted with social constructs, historical products, personal emotions, memories and imagination. So, while spaces are constantly evolving and re-made, it is our memory, the way we retain information, that really creates the mental space each of us possess of individual or shared experiences. I agree that we need to immerse ourselves in our environments to fully experience them, but I also believe there is a place in our culture for images that are not about revealing all, but surprise and offer constituents of moments fixed in time, yet always evolving because they are alive with personal sensorial connotations; they are windows onto past experiences, unlocking hidden meanings to create alternative memories beyond the original moment in space and time. At a personal level, photographs trigger not only visual but also sensorial and emotional recalls beyond the limitations of time, whereby captured moments become permanent ones that we can revisit at will and public spaces become private memories.
1. Farr I. Ed (2012) Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art MIT Press [p.33 Para 2]
2. Malnar M. J., Vodvarka F. (2004) Sensory Design University of Minesota Press [P49 Para 5 / P50 Para 1]
3. Jameson F. (1991) Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Verso [P9 Para 3]
4. Malnar M. J., Vodvarka F. (2004) Sensory Design University of Minesota Press [P25 Para 1]
5. Farr I. Ed (2012) Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art MIT Press [p.17 Para 2]
6. Pallasmaa J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses Wiley [P31 Para1]
7. Pallasmaa J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses Wiley [P30 Para5]
8. Malnar M. J., Vodvarka F. (2004) Sensory Design University of Minesota Press [P129 Para1 ]
9. Classen C. ed (2005) The Book of Touch (Sensory Formations) Berg Publishers [P49 Para2 ]
10. Farr I. Ed (2012) Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art MIT Press [p.20 Para 3]
Classen C. ed (2005) The Book of Touch (Sensory Formations). Berg Publishers
Van Schaik L. (2008) Spatial Intelligence. New Futures for Architecture. John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Williams R. (1976) Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society. Fontana Press
Sturken M., Cartwright L. (2001) Practices of looking. An introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press
Hoboken S. A. (2009) Place advantage: applied psychology for interior architecture (N.J. : Wiley ; Chichester : John Wiley [distributor])
Malnar M. J., Vodvarka F. (2004) Sensory Design. University of Minesota Press
Jamesom F. (1991) Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Verso
Pallasmaa J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. Wiley
Cairns G. (2010) …deciphering Advertising, Art and Architecture. New Persuasion Techniques for Sophisticated Consumers Libri Publishing
Belsey C. (2002) A Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism. Oxford University Press
Farr I. Ed (2012) Memory. Documents of Contemporary Art. MIT Press
Gibson J. J. (1986) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Psychology Press
Borden I. (2012) Stimulating the senses in the public realm. a-n Publications [P1 Para8] <http://www.a-n.co.uk/publications/article/341492/341479> [accessed 3rd November 2012]