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Monday, October 04, 2010

Book Review: The Thinking Hand

The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture by Juhani Pallasmaa
Wiley, 2009
Paperback, 160 pages

Finnish architect and professor Juhani Pallasmaa is a prolific writer, probably known more for his words than his designs. His pint-sized book The Eyes of the Skin is considered a classic, a call for architecture to go beyond the visual and consider the haptic, the sense of touch that is the root of all senses. The Architecture of Image studies five pieces of cinema to see how they reflect "the inherent ephemeral architecture of the human mind, thought and emotion." Constant throughout his writings -- even including one- or two-page contributions like his afterword to Hands On -- is an emphasis on experience in body and mind, two interconnected entities that make up our being in the world, our existential predicament. This latest book by Pallasmaa compiles ideas from lectures given over the last ten or fifteen years, culminating in a succint effort to remedy the ramifications that arise from divorcing our thoughts from our hands, evident in a lot of contemporary society, from the technologies we use to the buildings we inhabit.

Pallasmaa focuses on the hand as the link between our experiences and our imagination. He starts the book outlining its general thesis, and over the next seven essays he moves from the physical to the abstract, from the hand itself to emotion and theory. So many strong ideas, references, and fodder for a semester-long class on these essays alone follow that it's difficult to single out even one or two things to discuss. Pallasmaa's writing comes across as if the paragraph that you are reading is the most important paragraph you'll ever read; this isn't to say the words are self-important, they are just so concisely meaningful that it's a wonder if if they next paragrph could say anything more. Of course this makes for a book that ideally is devoured slowly; a quick read yields great insight, but also a desire to go back and focus on certain paragraphs or essays until they sink into the subconscious.

To take a stab at discussing one idea, potentially the most controversial or unpopular notion in this book, is the overarching importance of the hand as a tool, negating the use of the computer as a replacement for hand drawing or the like. Examples abound of the connection between the movements of the hand and the development of the mind and the role of the imagination, from the development of man to contemporary artists, musicians, and writers who insist upon developing ideas with the hand, even though the final result may require the computer in some way. Such is the case with architecture, or the way it should be according to Pallasmaa. Removing sketching and other investigations of the hand is detrimental to architecture because it denies the well-established link between our hands and our experiences. In other words, when we're using our hands as tools (for pencil to paper, not finger to left-mouse button) we are imbuing each stroke with our experiences and potential experiences based on our imagination, something that does not happen as naturally with the computer. And buildings that are not based on the experiences of the body are devoid of "sensuous experiential and existential qualities." Yes, those are fighting words, and I think it's time for architects to react.

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