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"Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." Thomas the Apostle [Figure 1: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio c.1601-1602]

[PERCEIVING TOUCH] exploring the work of Alvar Aalto through Juhani Pallasmaa Grace Quah


Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

 

CONTENTS ABSTRACT INTRODUCTION

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THEMES EARLY STYLISTIC DEVELOPMENT TRANSITION TO THE VILLA FINLAND AS CONTEXT THE LITTLE MAN

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CONCLUSION BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

 

ABSTRACT

[Haptic] relating to the sense of touch, relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch, from the Greek haptikos ‘able to touch or grasp’ Materials and surfaces have a richly complex language of their own that evolves and changes 1

over time. Several noteworthy writers have observed the value of an embodied aesthetic experience, putting forward the case for a haptic and sensuous architecture. Juhani Pallasmaa, former architect and Professor of Architecture at Helsinki University of Technology, uses Alvar Aalto as an exemplar for stressing the significance of this embodied experience.

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Introduction to J, Pallasmaa, Hapticity and Time, online article, th http://iris.nyit.edu/~rcody/Thesis/Readings/Pallasmaa%20-%20Hapticity%20and%20Time.pdf [accessed Monday 9 April 2012]

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  INTRODUCTION Given the hegemony of vision in today’s culture, Pallasmaa’s writings purposely centre on, 2

‘thinking through the senses’ . He believes that architecture; true, authentic architectural experiences are engaged with through the haptic realm. Hence, he places great importance on the role of the body and its interaction with the environment in attempting to fully understand the human condition. Pallasmaa writes: “Even in the technological culture of today, the most important existential knowledge in our everyday life does not reside in detached theories and explanations, but it is a silent knowledge, beyond the threshold of consciousness, fused with daily environments and behavioural situations.”

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Many scholars have argued for the significance of embodied perception and direct human experience, much of which has dominated the phenomenological branch of architecture, of which the work of Heidegger offers marked influence. For the philosopher, building configures 4

physically, over time, how people measure their place in the world. This forms a basis for the promotion of the value of human presence and inhabitation that dominates much of Pallasmaa’s thinking. In addition to this, Steven Holl also argues for ‘a reassertion of the 5

human body as the locus of experience’ , again characterising the notion that relation to place is expressed through direct interaction of the human body with its environment. Pallasmaa’s polemic appeals to us to consider the sensual qualities of materials and the ‘affordance’ of objects in our haptic and direct experience of space and form. These qualities he believes, allow us a much more beneficial and engaging experience of our buildings in an age dominated by the detached visual image. Therefore, he has also argued that these sensual qualities are a means to address the superficiality of meaning in much of contemporary architecture. This essay will determine the extent to which the work of Alvar Aalto is an appropriate paradigm of Pallasmaa’s ‘authentic architectural experience’. In doing so, it will also address wider issues relating to the phenomenology of architecture and the human existential condition.

                                                                                                                J, Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, UK, 2009, pp.19 Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand, pp.20 4 A, Sharr, Heidegger for Architects, Oxon, Routledge, 2007, pp.3 5 S, Holl, J, Pallasmaa, A, Perez- Gomez, Questions of Perception: The Phenomenology of Architecture, An nd Architecture of the Seven Senses, San Francisco, William Stout, 2007 (2 edition) pp.16 2 3

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  EARLY STYLISTIC DEVELOPMENT Aalto’s early work did not adhere to a focus on the use of sensuous materials or consider the possibilities of a haptic architecture. Instead, it followed the contemporary architectural trend 6

that was spreading through Scandinavia during the 1920s: Nordic Classicism. This characterised Aalto’s early stylistic development but does not bear much relevance to Pallasmaa’s argument except perhaps in its interpretation of reviving classicism in the local vernacular tradition. For example the asymmetrical floor plan of the Jyvaskyla Worker’s Club (1924-1925) is clearly a reference to classical imagery, characteristic of the Nordic classicism of that time. This point is also clearly demonstrated through the buildings use of formal elements such as Doric columns, its renaissance facade and Neo- Palladian window details. Shigeru Ban writes: “His conscious ambition during the 1920s was to turn his school town into the 7

‘Florence of the North’.

Figure 2: Renaissance façade, Jyvaskyla Worker’s Club (1924-1925)

                                                                                                                Edited by Pallasmaa, J, Sato, T, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, Blackdog Publishing in association with Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007, pp.76 7 Ed., by J, Pallasmaa, T, Sato, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp.104 6

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  TRANSITION TO THE VILLA If buildings are indeed ‘an extension of our bodies’ as Pallasmaa iterates, then the way in which we relate to them physically becomes extremely significant.

Figure 3: Main entrance to the Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, 1938- 1939 As one approaches the Villa Mairea, the building emerges subtly from the depths of the dense Finnish landscape in which it is rooted. One is welcomed by ascending stone steps into a generous canopy surrounded on either side by a repetition of bamboo like poles, the lashed and slanted structural supports seem almost primitive as they echo that of a temporary shelter. One grasps a bronze door handle and enters.

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

 

Figure 4: Interior of the Villa Mairea From the front door to the inside of the house, the materiality of the floor changes as it becomes progressively more domestic and intimate, from stone to tiles to timber boarding and rugs. The journey through this metaphoric forest echoes the interior of the traditional

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

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Finnish farmhouse ‘tupa’. As in the traditional farmhouse, a white plastered fireplace acts as 9

a reminder for the hearth- immersing oneself in nature in an authentically Finnish manner. Outside the Villa, one meets with low, medieval-like stonewalls, whilst descending rustic stone steps, onto glazed tiles and guided by a smooth timber handrail. This playful combination of rich associations affords the ‘dweller’ the experience of sensuously loaded

materials, stirring up feelings of intimacy and ‘nearness’. The meeting of the object with the body of the user in this dynamic spatial encounter moves us and we are touched. Pallasmaa writes: “The experiential world becomes organised and articulated around the centre of the 10

body”

By this stage in Aalto’s architectural career, he has made the transition from Nordic Classicism to Functionalist ideals to a more personal vocabulary. The houses he built during the 1930s, notably his own house and studio at Munkkiniemi, Helsinki, (1935-36) and the Villa Mairea (1938-39) allowed him to make technical and conceptual experimentations within his designs. These gave the utmost attention to the embodied experience and manipulation of the senses of touch and perception. Aalto’s ‘collage’ of materials in the Villa, characterises the almost paradoxical combination of different surface and material details that seem uncoordinated and unresolved. However, over time the patina of the timber handrail emerges, granting potential future haptic experiences for other users. Aalto himself declared: “The real qualities of a piece of architecture can only be judged 50 years after its execution.”

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He also adds to this by saying: “Pure playful forms, with no practical function whatsoever, have, in some cases, led to a practical form after ten years have elapsed…”

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Likewise, Pallasmaa welcomes the positive experience of a temporal continuum in awakening bodily experiences of sensual materials:

                                                                                                                R, Weston, in W, Nerdinger, (edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism, London, Prestel, 1999, pp.62   Weston, in Nerdinger,(edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism, pp.62   10 J, Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, Great Britain, John Wiley and Sons, 2005, pp.64 11 From an interview for Finnish television, July 1972, G, Schildt, in Aalto in His Own Words, in [Edited by J, Pallasmaa, T, Sato] Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, Blackdog Publishing in association with Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007, pp. 22 12 K, Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Thames and Hudson, London, 1992, pp.198   8 9

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  “Brick makes one think of earth and fire, gravity and the ageless traditions of construction…these are all materials and surfaces that speak pleasurably of time.”

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Figure 5: Experimental House, Muuratsalo, 1952-1953 showing ‘collage’ like free treatment of materials Aalto deliberately and playfully, calls into question formalist ideals, merely satisfying 14

functional requirements is not an adequate response to life.

These are epitomised in the

Villa Mairea, at Noormarkku, through the constant presence of certain irregularities and

                                                                                                                13 14

 

J, Pallasmaa, (edited Mackeith, P.B) Encounters: Architectural Essays, Finland, Rakennustieto Publishing, 2008, pp325 Nerdinger, (edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism, pp.17 9


Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  confrontations within the design. These include a deliberate change in the spacing of columns, which are singly or doubly wrapped in wooden staves, leather or rattan. One encounters this irregular spacing in the railings of the staircase also, allowing for the coexistence of imbalance and tension. What Weston refers to as Aalto’s ‘artful reworking of the 15

vernacular’ is the ‘intense poetic compression of the fireplace’.

The interplay of antithetical

materials creates a rich and lively ambience that act as triggers to ‘arouse bodily, muscular 16

and haptic experiences’.

Pallasmaa writes:

“Aalto’s architectures are based on a full recognition of the embodied human condition and of the multitude of instinctual reactions hidden in the human consciousness.”

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This fluid plan results in an organic approach, the sense of natural movement and freedom and was extremely significant in relating his buildings back to humans, ‘as a result, the user has ever new impressions of architecture as an expression of life and motion’.

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Figure 6: Partition wall between the living room and the study, with a characteristic opening at the top and a rattan- wrapped column in the foreground

                                                                                                                Weston in Nerdinger, (edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism, pp.74 Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, pp.71 17 Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, pp.70   18 Nerdinger, (edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism, pp.20 15 16

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

 

FINLAND AS CONTEXT It is easy to draw the parallels between Pallasmaa’s rural upbringing and Aalto’s childhood in the cultural centre of Jyvaskyla, as part of an investigation into their preoccupation with organic structures and directly with nature. Pallasmaa discusses his rural upbringing on his grandfather’s small farm in central Finland. He claims this has helped him by providing a rich understanding of his own embodied existence. He writes: “I believe now that even one’s sense of beauty and ethical judgement are firmly 19

grounded in the early experiences of the integrated nature of the human life world.” This bears great similarities to Aalto’s formative years. At the turn of the twentieth century,

Jyvaskyla, where Aalto grew up from the age of five, was the intellectual centre of the district and the stage for lively discussions about Finnish identity and culture.

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This was the basis for

Aalto’s architectural reinterpretation and constant reworking of the Finnish tradition during his career. Treib writes: “Physically, Jyvaskyla stood a town of wooden structures, more of the forest than the city…”

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Aalto’s consistent incorporation of the metaphoric ‘forest’ is rooted in his Finnish upbringing. “Nature, Schildt would have us believe, was never far from the boy and never even far from the man in later life.”

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Aalto is known to exploit many traditional vernacular Finnish designs in his architecture. The Finnish landscape epitomises an architecture grounded in extraordinary natural settings. It immediately has connotations of materialities and textures. Pallasmaa speaks of: ‘The rhythms of the Nordic forests and the forms of the traditional Finnish farm 23

constructions.’

                                                                                                                Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand, pp.12 Treib, M, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, University of California Press, Vol 46, No.1 March 1987, pp. 89-91 21 Treib, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, University of California Press, 46 (1987) pp. 89-91 22 Treib, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, University of California Press, 46 (1987) pp. 89-91 23 Ed., Pallasmaa, Sato, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp. 46 19 20

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  Furthermore, this spurred Aalto on to creating works that had a fundamental engagement with regional characteristics, Frampton writes: “[Aalto] grounded his buildings in the configuration of a specific topography and in the fine grained texture of the local fabric”

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Figure 7: Courtyard at Muuratsalo’s Experimental House Landscape and architecture are clearly interwoven at Muuratsalo. The courtyard is an outdoor living room. This site planning principle allowed for human dwelling in between a building split up into two distinct elements. The shaping of the site was decided by the movement of people through the ‘area in between’ in order to create ‘an intimate relationship between Man and Architecture’.

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It is clear that Finnish heritage played a key part in the architectural work and writings for Aalto and Pallasmaa respectively by giving them a deep awareness of nature and landscape from an early age.

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Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, pp.317 Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, pp.197   12


Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  THE LITTLE MAN Aalto’s preoccupation with ‘the little man’ or ‘man at his weakest’

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was entwined with his

consistently democratic and humanist motivations within design, a philosophy, which centred on accommodating the needs of the ordinary man. Weston writes: “Anyone who experiences the interior of the villa can feel themselves at home...”

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In this sense, Aalto allows for anyone to appreciate his buildings through an individual, idiosyncratic and intimate experience. Aalto declared: “Society is divided into factions, but I build for everybody… My starting point is that of the humanist, if such a solemn word can be used.”

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Figure 8: Photo- collage of the noiseless, splash free washbasin in the patients’ room at the Paimio Sanatorium 1929- 1933

                                                                                                                Aalto, Rationalism and Man, 1935 in Schildt ed. Alvar Aalto in His Own Words, p92 in [Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato] Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, 2007, pp. 50 27 Weston, in Nerdinger, (edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism, pp.75 28 Interview for Finnish television, July 1972 by Goran, Schildt, in Schildt ed. Alvar Aalto in His Own Words, pp.272-273 in [Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato] Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban,, pp. 50   26

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  ‘The little man’ is undeniably provided for in the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium 1929- 1933 and the Viipuri City Library 1927- 1935. The innovative design of the sanatorium is lead by humanist objectives, which shape the ambience of the building. Here, physical and psychological needs are met through Aalto’s organic approach. Design innovations include splash- free sinks to function noiselessly in patient rooms; ceilings which were coloured to reduce glare, whilst direct heat and light were kept away from the patients’ head, optimising human comfort by the exploitation of thoughtful architectural details. Similarly, the Viipuri Library incorporated many fresh designs. Frampton writes: “It was lit indirectly at all times through funnel shaped roof lights during the day and retractable spot- lights at night. The library’s acoustical properties isolated reading rooms from traffic noise and the lecture hall was equipped with an undulating ceiling reflector for the whole of its length.”

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Figure 9: Study for the acoustics in the auditorium, Viipuri City Library 1927- 1935 Both buildings served the general public; ‘the little man’ is grounded in the sensual qualities that these designs reflect.

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Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, pp.198 14


Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

 

Figure 10: Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 1962- 1971 Conversely, Pallasmaa refers to Aalto’s Finlandia Hall in characterising the work of his later career, which developed towards a ‘classicising monumentality’.

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Its use of stark Carrera

marble tiles as cladding does not embrace the responsiveness of decay and weathering. In reality, it cannot cope with Finland’s weather conditions and requires regular replacement. The use of white marble and other privileged materials; does not reflect the poetic, temporal or tactile nature of Aalto’s brick walls at Muuratsalo, nor the bamboo columns at Villa Mairea. Finlandia imposes its position on its surroundings and it becomes difficult to relate its dramatic and extensive foyers to the human dimension. ‘The little man’ is lost in the impressive scale of this work. Monumentalism prevails with the design of the Finlandia Hall where Muuratsalo and the Villa Mairea characterise Aalto’s period of Experimentation. The Church of Three Crosses (195558), North Jutland Art Museum (1966-72) and Finlandia Hall (1961-71) all characterise Aalto’s ‘white period’. Shigeru Ban writes: “Despite his exploration of organic forms consistent with the structure and materials during the ‘red period’, this consistency seems to have been lost in some of his works from the ‘white period’”.

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Pallasmaa in (Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato) Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp. 56 Pallasmaa in (Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato) Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp. 56 15


Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  In Alvar Aalto: Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, Pallasmaa refers to the work of the Finlandia Hall as, ‘virtuoso but somewhat manneristic architecture’. However in the very next paragraph, almost a non- sequitur, Pallasmaa writes: “In one of his last public appearances in 1972, Aalto ended his speech with these words: ‘We may not be able to eliminate error, but what we can try to achieve is that we should all commit as few errors as possible, or better still; benign errors.’

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Is Pallasmaa suggesting that the Finlandia Hall should be considered what Aalto termed a ‘benign error’? He adds to this suggestion by quoting John Ruskin: “Imperfection is in some way essential to all that we know of life…And in all things that live there are certain inequalities and deficiencies, which are not only signs of life, but 33

sources of beauty.”

On one hand, Pallasmaa’s argument here in convincing in the sense that the quote about ‘the benign error’ is made in 1972, a year after the completion of the Finlandia hall and 5 years before Aalto’s death in 1976. Perhaps he is reflecting on his career at this time in his life and looking back on his accomplishments. Perhaps he is suggesting that the most humane aspect of his career was the acknowledgement of the architect’s error. Pallasmaa then accepts this acknowledgement. On the other hand, Pallasmaa talks about the Finlandia hall then immediately after quotes Aalto’s ‘benign error’ deliberately in order to label the hall a harmless architectural blunder, as a way of maintaining Aalto as a perfect exemplar of his argument for haptic and embodied architecture.

                                                                                                                Pallasmaa in (Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato) Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp. 56 Pallasmaa in (Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato) Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp. 56, in Ruskin, J, The Lamp of Beauty: Writing on Art by John Ruskin, first published in 1849, Joan Evans, ed., Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1980, pp.238  

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  CONCLUSION Apart from Aalto’s early work, which is grounded in classicism and later works in monumentality, his work on the whole, acts as a convincing exemplar as part of Pallasmaa’s argument for a haptic, embodied experience of architecture. Hapticity and embodiment of the architectural experience are at the heart of the Aalto’s buildings and are reflected through his ‘collage’ like use of ‘sensual materials’, the paradoxical combination of modern fused with vernacular, informed by the context and landscape which the building is rooted to. Perception and understanding of our existential condition is arguably exploited here by Aalto’s use of contrast. Putting works of nature and man together often stimulates the viewer to see something more in both. Secondly, Aalto’s design methodology reflects his humanitarian ethos. His approach to ameliorating man’s wellbeing therefore strengthens our architectural experience and our lives in a tactile and meaningful way. Pallasmaa offers various examples of Aalto’s self- effacing approach to design whilst Colin St John Wilson likens it to a doctor’s Hippocratic oath: “This sensitive response to the users needs was highly original…a pledge of integrity between the architect and the user”.

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Aalto’s work offers a fine example of the way in which Pallasmaa envisions a more culturally sensitive architecture of today and of the future, one which is less preoccupied with visual imagery and more attached to social and contextual considerations. The basic understanding of Aalto’s architecture stems from the need for it not to be intellectualised. Instead, one must understand it on a more basic, instinctual and human level; ‘the little man’ acts as a reminder for this. Indeed, there are contemporary architects such as Peter Zumthor who also focus on the ‘affordance of objects’ and sensual qualities of materials in exploiting our haptic experience of space and form. In this sense, Aalto’s tradition or way of thinking continues to provide beneficial architectural experiences that enrich our lives in this way. As Colin St John Wilson puts it: “[Aalto’s] deep understanding of nature and of the fundamental needs of human 35

beings hold a timeless value and continues to be a source of inspiration.”

                                                                                                                CSJ Wilson in The Orthodoxy of Alvar Aalto in (Edited by Pallasmaa, Sato) Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, pp. 1 35 Wilson, The Orthodoxy of Alvar Aalto, pp. 19 34

 

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Grace Quah | PERCEIVING TOUCH | exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa

  BIBLIOGRAPHY Books Frampton, K, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (Thames and Hudson: London, 1992) Holl, S, Pallasmaa, J, Perez- Gomez, A, Questions of Perception: The Phenomenology of Architecture, An Architecture of the Seven Senses (San Francisco: William Stout, 2007) Nerdinger, W, (edit.) Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism (London: Prestel, 1999) Pallasmaa, J, (edited Mackeith, P.B) Encounters: Architectural Essays (Finland: Rakennustieto Publishing, 2008) (Ed.) Pallasmaa, J, Sato, T, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban Blackdog Publishing in association with Barbican Art Gallery: London, 2007) Pallasmaa, J, The Eyes of the Skin (Great Britain: John Wiley and Sons, 2005) Pallasmaa, J, The Thinking Hand (United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2009) Sharr, A, Heidegger for Architects (Oxon: Routledge, 2007) Online articles J, Pallasmaa, Hapticity and Time, online article, http://iris.nyit.edu/~rcody/Thesis/Readings/Pallasmaa%20th %20Hapticity%20and%20Time.pdf [accessed Monday 9 April 2012] Treib, M, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, University of California Press, Vol 46, No.1 March 1987, pp. 89-91, http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/990153?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=7 th 0&uid=4&sid=21100716941581 [accessed Friday 13 April 2012] Images Figure 1 of Painting by Caravaggio, accessed online, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio__The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg th [accessed Friday 13 April 2012] Figures 2-10 taken from (Ed.) Pallasmaa, J, Sato, T, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, Blackdog Publishing in association with Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007

 

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PERCEIVING TOUCH: exploring Aalto through Pallasmaa