Confusing Encounters – Senses in film and architecture

17.2.2006 Carl-Dag Lige
The following essay will look at the topic of modern urban space. Focusing on the problems of individual perception of contemporary architecture and public space in general, the essay criticizes the prevalent domination of the visual as well as the notion of anonymity in Western architecture. By using Anu Pennanen’s film A Monument For The Invisible (2003) and Juhani Pallasmaa’s essay The Eyes of the Skin (1996) as it’s main inspirational sources, the essay proposes a view that individual experience (including the sensory experiences, thoughts, memories and imagination of a subject) is essential to consider when aiming to design public urban environment (including architecture) of high and diverse experiential potentiality.

Any Western scholar would agree with the opinion that the most reflected and discussed human sense through the history of philosophy has been vision. From the time of Plato and Aristotle philosophical writing has abounded with ocular metaphors to the point that knowledge has become analogous with clear vision and light becoming the metaphor of truth.

To accentuate the importance of vision, the scholarship of the Renaissance established a hierarchy of the senses, vision (with the rediscovery of linear perspective) being the noblest, followed by hearing, smelling, tasting and finally touching as the lowest. There is no doubt that our contemporary technological culture has ordered and separated the human senses even more distinctly. Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered archaic sensory remnants with a merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.

Agreeing with Pallasmaa, one can say that
“/-/…many aspects of the pathology of everyday architecture can …/-/… be understood through an analysis of the epistemology of the senses, and a critique of the ocular bias of our culture at large, and of architecture in particular. The inhumanity of contemporary architecture and cities can be understood as the consequence of an imbalance in our sensory system,”
and that

“Modernist design has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the senses, as well as our memories and dreams, homeless.”
The hegemony of vision has been reinforced in our time by a multitude of technological inventions and the endless production of images. The only sense that is fast enough to keep pace with the technological world is sight. But the world of the eye is itself threatening to turn into the flat world of the present. Visual images have become commodities. With the words of David Harvey,
“A rush of images from different spaces almost simultaneously, collapsing the world’s spaces into a series of images on a television screen… The image of places and spaces becomes open to production and ephemeral in use as any other (commodity).”
Michel de Certeau adds, that
“/-/…our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, …/-/… transmuting communication into a visual journey.”

Modern architecture likewise, instead of an existentially grounded plastic and spatial experience, has adopted the psychological strategy of advertising, of instant persuasion and gratification, and buildings have turned into image products detached from existential sincerity. With the loss of tactility and measures and details crafted for (the appreciation by) the human body – particularly for the hand – architectural structures become repulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial and unreal, the stage-sets for the eyes. Sight as a sense, degenerates because the inhabitants sense the cityscape as flat as the television screen.

Anu Pennanen’s film A Monument For The Invisible is a sensitive insight into the life of a blind woman named Johanna. Without a straightforward narrative, the film observes the main character’s actions in the city – mainly in the modern parts of the city such as the construction site of a new shopping centre, as well as in her home yard. Pennanen’s director-approach is visually analytic and thought provokingly intellectual. The composition reflected on the screen is always balanced, the camera standing still or moving slowly.

The film is edited in a linear and rhythmically slow manner. This kind of investigative position is contradictory but necessary to emphasize the sensory and mental experiences of the main character.
Johanna’s blindness is a key for us to investigate further the crisis of Western “paradigm of visuality” and look for possible solutions. One usually thinks that a blind person is in a way inherently handicapped, that his/her experience and sense of the world is poorer from that of a “normal” person. Georgina Kleege discusses in her brilliant essay Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account, that the general assumption seems to be, that the blind are immune to images. As a result, they must also be immune to the significance of the events and therefore somehow detached from, or indifferent to such experiences as collective horror and grief e.g. In Western culture, it seems to be rather the images than the mere fact of the events or phenomena that produce the emotional response.

But people with disabilities should not be considered as “normal persons minus sight, hearing or sense of smell”. It is evident but usually unobserved that a person whose sight, or any other sense is partially damaged, will compensate for it with the enhanced skills of other senses. The perception of the world and its phenomena will most likely be different but not necessarily insufficient or disadvantaged. As a matter of fact, the total opposite might be the case. A person with a disability might experience actual events more thoroughly than a “normal” one. Kleege quotes a blind philosopher, Martin Milligan, who criticizes the traditional metaphorical approach to blindness as a tomb-like imprisonment. Milligan says that the blind develop potentialities, which those with vision have also been endowed with, but do not develop because they have less need of them. Blind people might for example, be able to negotiate new environments more precisely than those with vision, feeling in the darkness the presence of large objects even without touching them.

Now let us consider the sensory experiences of Johanna. One of the main passages of the film was shot at a highly dangerous construction site, where the building lot consisted of a 15m deep hole in the ground, and huge piles of soil and stones around. Whereas the director herself admitted being worried about Johanna, the protagonist managed to navigate the area skilfully, gaining diverse sensory data via touch, hearing as well as the sense of smell. The reason for the director having been worried might be that sight is usually considered as being the most important human sense for gaining information about the surrounding environment. The alternative way of Johanna’s functioning of the senses proved that it is possible to manage successfully in diverse (in the particular case a highly dangerous) environment, in spite of the lack of sight. Even more, that those endowed with sight are potentially able to use other senses (i.e. side by side with sight) more actively as well.

On another occasion Johanna’s experience was rather different. In the highly visual and Hi-tech surroundings of Ruoholahti, a part of central Helsinki with blocks of modern architecture, Johanna felt distracted. The technological bias, artificiality and homogeneous (visual) structuring of this kind of environment severely restrict the diversity of experiences registered by the human senses. One can hear abstract industrial noise of the factories or “elevator-music” in the shopping centres; feel the commodities sold in the shops; one can smell the perfumes of people or emissions from the cars. The architectural homogeneity of the environment makes it seemingly easy to navigate (because the places look, feel and sound the same), but as a matter of fact makes it difficult to separate between places, especially for the blind. It would be false to say that Johanna couldn’t get a grip on her surroundings but the noise of the city and the visually biased (materially and structurally) uniform design of the city made it difficult for her to separate between (the experiences of) the places (buildings e.g.).

The main conclusion for us to draw from this discussion is that it is highly important to have different kinds of (natural) balanced sensory data in our environment, because of the differences in the way people use their senses. Secondly, we can say that keeping in mind the potential to further develop our senses, all of us have the possibility to perceive our regular environment more diversely than we have done thus far.

From this perspective, it seems appropriate to emphasize the importance of balance in the functioning of various human senses. Without the application of the other senses to the same situation as has happened in the contemporary domain of vision, the ways to enhance balanced sensory versatility in urban environments should be carefully analysed. Artists, architects, urban planners, sociologists, psychologists, engineers, politicians, citizens – all of them should be drawn into the process of producing public space.

Keeping in mind the experiences of Johanna, let us return to Juhani Pallasmaa’s critique of modern architecture. One of his main points is that modern buildings, aiming for visuality, lose their materiality.
“Buildings of this technological age aim at ageless perfection and do not incorporate the unavoidable and mentally significant process of aging. /-/ [But w]e have the mental need to experience the reality that we are rooted in the continuity of time, and in the man-made world it is the task of architecture to facilitate this experience.”

The notion “architectural autism” could be used for describing the situation where contemporary architecture, posing as the avant-garde is often more engaged with the architectural discourse itself and mapping the possible marginal territories of the art, than responding to human existential questions. The situation is, though, not hopeless. Proposing a new kind of vision and a balanced type of sensory experience, Pallasmaa says that a new type of architectural imagery has emerged, which employs reflection, gradations of transparency, overlay and juxtaposition to create subtle and changing sensations of space, movement and light.

This new sensibility promises an architecture that can turn the relative immateriality and weightlessness of recent technological construction into a positive experience of place and meaning. Our vision, due to the everlasting flow of images, which are not necessarily limited to concentrate on particularities, is freed from the implicit desire to control. The unfocused look of our time, our empathetic gaze, tends to see from a multiplicity of standpoints and perspectives, and is multiple, pluralistic, democratic, contextual, inclusionary and caring. We should try to communicate with the environment as “being-in-the-world”, described by Martin Heidegger. In response, Pallasmaa proposes a multi-sensory architecture in opposition to the prevailing visual understanding of architecture.

Our bodies and movements are in constant interaction with the environment; the world and the self inform and redefine each other constantly. The city and one’s body supplement and define each other. The aspects, which are missing from modern architecture, are the potential transactions between body, imagination and environment. Pallasmaa defines every close experience with architecture as multi-sensory because qualities of matter, space and scale are equally measured by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton and muscle. All the senses work together, creating an experiential whole. In addition, every experience of architecture is a mental one. All the memories, allusions, thoughts and dreams intertwine with the senses. The present and the absent, the near and the distant, the sensed and the imagined fuse into one. In all, architecture is engaged with metaphysical and existential questions concerning man’s being in the world, and the task of architecture is “to make visible how the world touches us”, as Merleau-Ponty said of the paintings of Paul Cézanne.


Without being too elaborate, we will not include and analyze all the aspects of Juhani Pallasmaa’s theory for multi-sensory architecture. Instead, we will pick out the most necessary in terms of the film by Anu Pennanen. Pallasmaa criticizes the use of light in modern architecture,

“In our time light has turned into mere quantitative matter and the window has lost it’s significance as mediator between two worlds, between enclosed and open, interiority and exteriority, private and public, shadow and light,”
and from an earlier passage,
“Homogenous bright light paralyses the imagination in the same way that homogenisation of space paralyses the experience of place.”

In the film Johanna is walking in her home yard which is full of low and square light boxes, shining brightly and calling the attention of the inhabitants of the building (a high apartment building). Johanna caresses the symbolical sources of light and points of attention, and doesn’t notice that she is being watched. Or maybe she does notice, but does not care? As the time proceeds, Johanna in the light of the boxes as a performer for the inhabitants watching from their windows, the tension grows. As a culmination, one of the boxes explodes while Johanna has disappeared. In the words of Anu Pennanen: “What if there is too much light, too much looking?” The dominant visuality of our culture produces the habit to watch. Even to watch other people’s intimacy. The overwhelming use of light over-exposes the sight. Those people on their windows become the blind ones instead of Johanna. Pallasmaa adds that,

“In great spaces of architecture, there is a constant, deep breathing of shadow and light; shadow inhales, and illumination exhales, light.”
Shadow is the private and light is the public. The latter dominating the former, deprives us from our solitude and depth.


The importance of the tactile sense is that it connects us with time and tradition, the touch connects our inner self with materiality of the world. The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature . “The door handle is the handshake of the building,” says Pallasmaa. But what if all the doors open automatically? The possibilities for touching anything with one’s hands in the public space, seem to diminish all the time. In the contemporary cities, one can hardly touch anything more than commodities in the shop and dirty handles on public transport. In terms of architecture, it means that artificially produced materials have conquered the place of natural ones. (True, the former being cheaper.) Although wood is quite popular, especially in Finnish modern architecture, its surface is usually so polished (plywood) and lacquered that it is difficult to separate it from artificial materials. It is very improbable that a citizen can get a splinter when visiting contemporary public buildings.

For the blind, touch is a highly important sense. The white cane, which is usually considered to function as a mind mapping tool but actually functions more as an auditory tool and is the announcer of a potential obstacle , is one of the most important assistants of a blind. But still, the closeness of the skin and the material are necessary for satisfactory information and even more because of emotional connectedness. Johanna feels distracted in glossy shopping centres and noisy streets when trying to cross the road but she feels at ease when wandering around the building site where she can be in contact with the soil, nature soon to be buried under reinforced concrete. Actually, concrete could be considered a natural material, and the presence of it in modern space is manifest. But the coldness of it, together with the fact that constructions are often covered with other materials make it hard to get in touch even at that level.


Sound is a definite component of architecture. Every building has its characteristic sound of intimacy or monumentality, invitation or rejection, hospitality or hostility. A space is conceived and approached through its echo as much as through visual shape, the haptic forms. The sound measures space and makes its scale comprehensible. However, we are not usually aware of the significance of hearing in spatial experience and the acoustic precept remains an unconscious background experience. In spite of the latter and reminding Martin Milligan’s words about the (extra)ordinary compensatory capabilities of the blind, the sound has got a power within our imagination as well as within our direct experience of the surrounding environment. The problem in the modern urban environment is that the natural and positive sounds acquire no place. As a result, the wide, open spaces of contemporary city streets do not reverberate (natural) sound, and in the interiors of today’s buildings, echoes are absorbed and censored. The “elevator-music” eliminates the possibility of grasping the acoustic volume of space.

As said above, the artificiality and “guided” experiences of sound in modern cities leave only particular kind of (and unsatisfactory) possibilities to obtain information via hearing. Therefore remain only few possibilities to enjoy as well as to use practically the sounds of the urban environment. But sound is one of the most important sensory objects for the blind, for whom hearing becomes a conscious “tool” to be in touch with the environment. Johanna as a blind person senses every action in the city mainly by sound. Being more open to acoustic stimuli than those with sight, she senses the pleasing or irritative stimuli more intensely than other people.

Therefore it would be worth to pay more attention to the soundscape of the designed urban environment. Till today the problem of sounds in the city has not been a concern for architects, nor for the city planners. Designing a new building or complex in the city gives a possibility to enhance the diversity and (re)create the nature of the sounds connected to the particular site. The question is not about recorded music from the loudspeakers. The soundscape could be created, or at least influenced e.g. by the use of the materials; the shape and form of the masses; the allowed/prohibited infrastructure in the site, feeding overall transport and the movement of people in a certain direction. All this changes the specific nature of the particular environment’s sound. It is possible to create an architectural environment in which sound is informative as well as enjoyable. Even in the city.

A Monument for the Invisible’s music was composed by Mika Vainio, a world famous experimentalist in the field of electronic music. It could be said, that Vainio has (re)created the soundscape of urban environment. Without the traditional melody-harmony-rhythm-tempo structure, the music’s deeply suggestive, vibrating, looping sounds function as an essential component of a multi-sensory and mental, deeply emotional and aesthetic experience for the viewer as well as for Johanna, wandering in the city. The abstract sounds don’t symbolize but seem to mediate directly the acoustic chaos of urban surroundings. Vainio’s music contributes to the view that sounds are an essential part in our experience of the urban space.

Western culture is deeply engaged with vision in terms of culture in general and with the individual in particular; and probably will continue to be in the future as well. Until the most recent times, other senses of a human being have been regarded as secondary from the point of true and noble experience of life. Not reducing the visual from its importance, it is necessary to consider the potentiality of other senses as well. In terms of urban planning, it is necessary to enhance the versatility of public space, architecture being its main manifestation. Taking contemporary society as being more diverse as ever demands a broader approach when solving the questions concerning the design of urban environment. By trying to include as many viewpoints as possible, and by trying to consider the needs and habits; the likes and dislikes of every inhabitant, future town planning should aim for connecting the social with personal, structural with functional, materiality with sensority. Architects should try to consider the possibilities for the use of light, materials, sounds and even scents in a much broader way than they have been doing thus far. Anu Pennanen’s film A Monument for the Invisible and Juhani Pallasmaa’s essay The Eyes of the Skin are particular examples of the desire to rethink the experience of urban environment, and to look for potential solutions in order to restructure the ways of thought and types of activity practiced in the city.


Georgina Kleege, Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account, Journal of Visual Culture, Vol 4(2), 2005.
Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture of the Senses, Academy Editions, London, 1996.

Additional material

Anu Pennanen’s film A Monument For The Invisible (2003)
Discussion between Anu Pennanen and Carl-Dag Lige, 24.11.2005.

Carl-Dag Lige is an art-historian based in Tallinn, Estonia.