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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Book Review: The Embodied Image and Thinking About Architecture

The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture by Juhani Pallasmaa
Wiley, 2011
Hardcover or paperback, 152 pages

Thinking About Architecture: An Introduction to Architectural Theory by Colin Davies
Laurence King Publishing, 2011
Paperback, 160 pages

The Embodied Image is Finnish architect, educator, and writer Juhani Pallasmaa's third and final installment in his "study on the role of the senses, embodiment and imagination in architectural and artistic perception, thought and making."  It follows The Eyes of the Skin and The Thinking Hand, both also highly recommended titles. Those familiar with these and other titles by Pallasmaa will find Pallasmaa treading familiar ground: valuing architectural experience over intellectual conceit; seeing image as metaphor for structuring our lives over the aestheticizing of fetish forms and objects; and embracing art and architecture as ways of elevating life's experiences. This does not mean that Pallasmaa does not have anything new to say. If anything his arguments are so subtle, his dissection of imagery so nuanced that this essay adds to and reinforces his call for an architecture that balances newness and tradition with our experiences as embodied individuals.

Pallasmaa discusses imagery in architecture, art, poetry, and literature across five chapters. The majority is expended on "the many faces of the image" in the middle of the book, where the author distinguishes between the unconscious image, the iconic image, the collaged image, and many other types. It is not until the last chapter that he goes into depth on the architectural image, but coming after the previous exposition the direction is clear. Nevertheless his call for "the fragile image" is an intriguingly worded direction that can be found today in the architecture of Peter Salter, Sarah Wigglesworth and others, but is exemplified in the buildings of Carlo Scarpa and Alvar Aalto. Pallasmaa values architecture that responds to context over architecture that strives for concept and strong images. His call may be drowned out by the plethora of publications, both print and online, that continue to focus on the latest iconic forms, but every action has a reaction. In this sense Pallasmaa's well-formed arguments provide a strong basis for reconsidering image based on experience rather than image based on novelty.

Common ground between Pallasmaa's triumvirate and British architect, professor, and writer Colin Davies' introduction to architectural theory can be found in the latter elevating the importance of the embodied individual in architectural thought. The first chapter in his book that focuses "on the ideas rather than the theorists and philosophers behind them" makes this clear: Representation in architecture arises from humans being creatures that have evolved to stand between the ground and the sky; columns do the same, and Davies describes it in a way that "we have hit upon something fundamental in the nature of architecture." Over the next seven chapters -- Language, Form, Space, Truth, Nature, History, The City -- a similar conversational tone prevails, making the book ideal for students in architecture but also for professionals with an interest in theory but not its dense presentation. (His quote from a JAE article humorously runs this point home.) Also, like Pallasmaa, Davies ends on a note of response, in this case towards reality and away from the virtual. He finds it interesting that people populate Second Life with buildings, even though the rules of the world (gravity, shelter, etc.) don't exist. In this he finds that people want to grasp onto what makes them human, something found in the "physical, spatial, enduring, human architecture."

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