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Finnish architect Pallasmaa advocates for more individualized education

Juhani Pallasmaa

The audience was in for an esoteric ride as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa spoke about the contradictory world of architecture, and how best to educate the future designers of the world.

“The complexity of the phenomenon of architecture results from its impure conceptual essence as a field of human endeavor,” Pallasmaa said. “Architecture is a practical and metaphysical act. It is utilitarian and poetic; technological and artistic; economic and existential; a collective and individual manifestation, all at the same time."

Pallasmaa -- architect, author, professor and demi-philosopher -- was a former professor of architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology and the former director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, and spoke to students and staff at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design Wednesday night.

“How does one possibly teach such an impossible entanglement of requirements and contradictions?,” he asked.

Pallasmaa admits his theory for undertaking this task is a bit unusual, but makes no apologies for it. He suggests an individualized approach, since the art of architecture is so personal at its core, and said he’s found his favorite teachers in literature, art and cinema.

“The essence of architecture is not in buildings as physical objects, but in their role as frames through which the world is seen, and as horizons of experiencing and understanding the human condition,” Pallasmaa said.

He has found the best lessons in architecture in Anton Checkov’s letters, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry and his novel, Joseph Brodsky’s poetic analysis essays, and the works of Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Italo Calvino and Jorge Borges -- “pure architecture in literary form.”

Though music is often credited as being the art form closest to architecture, Pallasmaa said he actually thinks it is cinema that most closely resembles his life’s work, because both articulate lived space. He said art, particularly late Medieval and early Renaissance paintings, should serve as inspiration to architects, though not of course by simply copying what is depicted.

“I cannot think of a more inspiring and illuminating lesson in architecture than early Renaissance paintings,” he said. “If I were to one day design a building with the tenderness of Giotto’s, Fra
Angelico’s or Piero della Francesca’s housing, I would have reached the very purpose of my life.”

Pallasmaa also encouraged scientific studies, though again not prescribing any certain pedagogic formula.

“I don’t think that every student should receive the same education -- not every student needs to read philosophy or not every student needs to read neuroscience,” he said. “I believe in the power of the collective of architects and architecture culture. And when there are individuals who have read philosophy and others who are conversant in scientific situations, they enrich architectural culture. And I think true architecture arises from that culture just as much as from education.”

To Pallasmaa, the true test of an architect is their ability to measure up to tradition, which a lack of humility -- one of today’s most pressing problems -- can get in the way of.

“Any authentic work is sent into the timeless tradition of artistic works, and the work is meaningful only if it presents itself humbly to the tradition, and becomes part of the culture,” Pallasmaa said. “Countless architecture works made today are too ignorant, disrespectful and arrogant to be accepted as constituents of the esteemed institution of tradition.”

Pallasmaa set the bar high for NewSchool students and, perhaps more so, for their instructors. Luckily, they’re not on their own.

“Architecture, as with all artistic work, is essentially the product of collaboration,” he said. “It is not only collaboration in the obvious and practical sense of the word, such as the interaction with numerous professionals, workmen and craftsman, but it is collaboration with other artists and architects -- not only one’s contemporaries and the living, but with predecessors who have been dead for decades or centuries.”

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