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A Break for Critical Thinking.
Physical Confinement and Freedom of Imagination

by Juhani Pallasmaa

The Covid-19 pandemic suddenly silenced and halted the obsessive rush of the techno-economic world; most of us can hear the silence of our cities in the confined privacy of our rooms. We have become spectators of a dramatic global reality show in which we are simultaneously passive spectators and helpless participants. All our institutions, industries, entertainments, routines and daily practices were thrown off their normal course. The situation emerged unexpectedly, regardless of the fact that a global pandemic has been one of the most popular dystopian scenarios, along with nuclear catastrophe or some other misuse of science, such as genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence or, most recently, climate change. History, too, offers us plenty of precedents, from the plague to tuberculosis, polio to SARS and AIDS to Ebola. The current pandemic has also reminded us of the danger of concentrating too much power in too few hands. The digital worldwide panopticon that has unnoticeably developed around us now threatens to have severe consequences. Paradoxically, while confined to forced privacy, we are in danger of losing our privacy and control of our lives. It is evident that the pandemic can teach us important lessons.

Didn’t we know about the global threat arising in China—quite symbolically, from the ancient Chinese custom of eating wild animals, such as bats and rats—a full two months before the virus entered the Western world? But our societies, equipped with all imaginable instruments, knowledge and information did not understand to be able to react in time. Does this mental inertia also apply to the threats of the future? One of the most reluctant nations to react was the United States, and now the country is paying an inhuman price for the ignorant and irresponsible passivity and denial of its leaders. The pandemic has closed our view of the future, as nobody can tell how and when the world will come out of this reality test of nature for human systems, beliefs and values. One of the most disturbing observations is the realization how narrow the focus of the information society truly is; in focusing on the pandemic, we have totally lost track of the other, simultaneous human tragedies in Syria, Yemen, Turkey and elsewhere. It is evident that all scenarios—economic, technological, cultural, educational, social and individual—need to be reconsidered in the near future. This is also our chance.

Future and the ultimate human fate have historically been ecclesiastic and literary themes, while a romantic interest—the aesthetics of the future—also emerged in Futurist art, cinema and literature of the 1920s. However, a serious interest in the future was evoked in the 1960s by concurrent scientific and technological perspectives, as well as the emergence of the new ”science” of futurology and the public interest in utopias, science fiction and alternative future scenarios. Man’s first journey to the moon in July 1969 strengthened the view of our technological and scientific omnipotence, and it seemed that we could shape our own future. These ideas and images were projections of the present into the future as if development would follow human logic. On the other hand, today’s dreams are products of fancy and apparently limitless digital techniques for creating fictitious and alternative worlds, or “augmented realities”. For me, manipulated realities are highly questionable, as the deepest problem in our culture is the loss of our sense of reality. The lack of biological, existential, ethical and moral concerns in today’s digital fantasies is truly alarming. It is our evolutionary sense of reality that is now being seriously tested. Even the task of architecture is not to create fantasy worlds but to sensitize our experience of the real and provide it with existential meaning. Human life has been losing its value and often turned into mere entertainment; consumer ideology has made us nonchalant consumers of our very lives.

Over the last few weeks, billions of machines, wheels, systems, processes and projects have stopped, yet our souls tend to continue their adapted inner drive. Our minds are still rushing in the standstill world. This is a source of serious disorientation and mental alienation, as experiential space tends to separate from experiential time. These alterations in the mental relations of space and time were identified as fundamental changes in the postmodern consciousness decades before the pandemic. The inertness of the material world used to slow down human dreaming, whereas our mental speed now conflicts with violently halted and “primitivized” reality. This conflict creates a feeling of alienation, loss of energy and weakening of motivation. Time disappears and stands still, at the same time.

It is our evolutionary sense of reality that is now being seriously tested. Even the task of architecture is not to create fantasy worlds but to sensitize our experience of the real and provide it with existential meaning.

“The most important product of industrial societies is speed”, wrote the urbanist-philosopher Paul Virilio in the mid-nineties. (1) The writer seems to refer to both physical and mental time. Don’t we measure the advance of modernity, progress and prosperity by the ever accelerating mobility of materials and products, energy and information, power and money, ideas and our own physical bodies? In addition to the non-material atmospheric layer of digital and electronic information, the information sphere, we have also created a sphere of constantly circulating materials, products and human flesh. In addition to physical mobility, our experiential reality and time have also constantly accelerated. As a consequence, the world has entered an era of displacement and dissociation, to the point that displacement has become a measure of progress. We support displacement on all levels of our material and mental existence. Instead of living in place, which is our evolutionary biological need and mental necessity – ”Nothing is, that is not placed”, Plato and Aristotle already knew. (2) But, instead of place, we find ourselves in a flux of continuous change.

Historians tell us that ancient Greeks faced the past and had their backs turned towards the future. Modern humankind has turned around; we experience the past becoming distant behind our back while looking towards the future. Curiously, we are looking into the future, but do not visualize it. We are increasingly living in a placeless and timeless, simultaneous and instantaneous world. Everything, including ourselves, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. “But not there, there is no there, there…”, was Gertrud Stein’s memorable and prophetic observation. (3)

Accelerating speed has also an impact on our capacity to remember, not to mention the experiencing and understanding of time itself. Milan Kundera associates slowness with remembering and speed with forgetting. “The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory, the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting”, the writer reasons. (4)

Indeed, the current forced stoppage offers us the opportunity to recall, remember, rethink and recover what we have forgotten and lost sight of in our blind belief in our biological specificity and invincibility. We should agree that man was not made in the image of God but as a participant in the continuous evolutionary system and its countless processes. Moreover, evolution is not history, but an ongoing process. The most crucial thing for us, citizens of post-industrial consumer culture, is to grasp and accept our fundamental relationship to and participation in the utterly complex processes of biological life. This is the theme of Edward O. Wilson’s significant books, such as Biophilia: the Human Bond with Other Species of 1984. “Our greatest problem arises from the fact that we do not know what we are, and we do not agree on what we want to become”, the biologist argues. (5) Wilson defines biophilia as “the science and ethics of life”. That is surely the perspective that we need most in the near future.

The current global confinement has abruptly halted our blind and aimless rush, built into our irrational, materialistic culture. One of the fundamental misconceptions of post-industrial consumer culture is the belief that our thinking, ideals, aims and acts are rational, when they are mostly based on blind beliefs and self-deceptions. Further, the suppressed horrors of history are still with us and are once again gaining strength. Do human societies have a capacity to learn? There could hardly be a more irrational goal than that of endless growth, or seeing maximization of economic benefit as the goal of human existence. Or regarding globalization and cultural uniformity as positive goals rather than a threat. We simply forget that, in the biological world, uniformity, narrow specialization, monocultures and loss of adaptive capacities have always implied extinction. In fact, we are living in the age of the fastest extinction of life forms, human cultures, languages and traditional ways of life.

In our rush, steered by the naive belief in constantly growing production and economy, we have lost our understanding of entities, contextualities, feedbacks, interactions and interdependences. We have largely lost the wisdom of contextual thinking. While losing our broad visions and views, we have also lost our visionaries and dreamers, our responsible and farsighted ideological and political leaders. Within the few last decades, human vision and attention have become too narrow, focused and specialized as our peripheral, unfocused and general observation has impoverished.

In our rush, we have lost our understanding of entities, contextualities, feedbacks, interactions and interdependences. We have largely lost the wisdom of contextual thinking.

Architecture, too, has been losing its humane and existential ideals and directions. Instead of possessing sufficient ethical, cultural and artistic autonomy to create culturally and existentially meaningful environments, the practice of architecture has turned into a professionalist service in the interests of political, cultural, corporate and commercial clients and investors. Instead of mediating human relationships—material and mental—with the world, architecture is expected to raise the commercial and publicity image and monetary value of projects. As it turns into a self-centred, aestheticized practice, architecture is relinquishing its fundamental existentially mediating task. At the same time, architectural projects are increasingly guided by regulations, processes, standards and bureaucratic practices; administrators have taken the role of the visionary and empathic artist-designer.

In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium of 1993, Italo Calvino makes a significant comment on the future of literature: “My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.” (6) The writer continues his reasoning: “In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogenous surface, the function of literature is communicating between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting, but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.” (7) We can read Calvino’s message equally in the context of architecture. The task of architecture is, similarly, to maintain the experientially and existentially qualitative articulation of place and space. Instead of participating in the process of further accelerating our experience of the world, architecture has to slow down human experience, and persistently defend that innate human slowness, rootedness, silence and existential meaning. Instead of supporting the status quo of the consumer world, the craft of architecture needs to strengthen the human meanings in life and the environments of life.

Now that we have suddenly found ourselves confined in our homes, we are also granted the opportunity to re-learn the art of dwelling. To dwell is a fundamental human skill, which, however, modern man has lost, as Martin Heidegger argued in his essay “Building dwelling thinking” of 1954. (8) We are now invited to think contextually, responsibly and in a perspective of experiential time, instead of the “quartals” of today’s accelerated economies. In our personal pandemic confinement, we may realize that imagination is our most precious and human quality, as even ethical behaviour calls for imagination. Simply, there is no ethical judgement without the capability of imagining the consequences of one’s alternative choices. The global pandemic has concretized the crucial call for alternative values, and ways of thinking and acting. The current confinement is teaching us that imagination is our ultimate gift and mode of freedom.

(1)

Paul Virilio, Katoamisen estetiikka (The Aesthetics of Disappearance) (Tampere: Gaudeamus, 1994)

(2)

See Aristotle, Physics IV, 208a30. The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). The argument also appears in a different formulation in Plato, Timaeus, 52b in Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairms (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 1178-1179

(3)

Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (New York: RandomHouse, 1937), 289. The writer describes her feeling when visiting the farm house outside of Oakland, California, where she had grown up, but the environment had been altered so violently that she could not identify her former home farm.

(4)

Milan Kundera, Slowness (New York: Harper Collins Publishers,1966), 39

(5)

Edward O Wilson, Biophilia: The human bond with other species (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 20

(6)

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 1

(7)

Ibid., 45

(8)

Martin Heidegger, ”Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, Basic Writings (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)

Posted
14.May.2020 2311 views
Author
Juhani Pallasmaa Juhani Pallasmaa

Juhani Pallasmaa (1936). Architect, designer, writer, professor emeritus. Design practice in collaboration with other architects since 1962 and in 1983-2012 through his office in Helsinki. He has held positions as Rector of the Institute of Industrial Design, Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Professor and Dean of the School of Architecture, Helsinki University of Technology, and several visiting professorships in the US. He has taught and lectured in numerous universities in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury 2008-2014. He has published 60 books and over 400 essays, articles and prefaces, and his writings have been translated into 35 languages. His widely known books include: The Embodied Image, The Thinking Hand, The Architecture of Image: existential space in cinema, and The Eyes of the Skin. He is Honorary member of SAFA, AIA and RIBA, Academician of the International Academy of Architecture, and has received numerous Finnish and international awards and five Honorary Doctorates.

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

TRANSFER NEXT aims to invite shared reflections on the new scene that coronavirus will probably usher in.

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