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Pallasmaa On The Sublime

The emergence of digital and virtual technologies in the past decade has flourished exponentially giving academic environments and professional practices a newfound basis for collaboration between process and product. This essay proposes that we cannot lose sight of the underlying sources which drive a good process (whether digital, virtual, or manual) and lead to the opportunity for a great product.

In his paper for the 101st Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, New Constellations New Ecologies Conference entitled, Formations of Digital Craft Culture, Andrew Kudless observes in the work of his students, “The speed at which drawings, renderings, and models can be produced has accelerated at an ever-faster pace while the craft of the representations continues to decline” (Kudless, 2013). To help address this gap, Kudless asked students at the California College of the Arts “to stop all major design work six weeks prior to the end of the term and to focus on the production of only three representations” (Kudless, 2013). This insight allowed projects to reconnect the overwhelming potential of digital and virtual processes with the final product through refinement and production.

What is the relationship between process and product regardless of digital, virtual, or manual technologies? If one moves too fast, does the other need to catch up?  What are the sources and beginnings of processes to create great products? Does it matter how, why, or where each process begins?

In terms of writing as a creative endeavor, the 3rd Century critic Longinus offers a suggestion in his literary treatise On Great Writing (On the Sublime) expressing, “There are, we might say, five sources most productive of great writing; vigor of mental conception; strong and inspired emotion; adequate fashioning of figures; nobility of diction; and dignified and distinguished word-arrangement” (Longinus, 1957). While we could dive in to each source, dissect it and see how each might apply to the process and product of great design today, what is most interesting is the notion that there are ‘sources’ to produce great products. For Longinus, these five beginnings help identify a process that might yield a great product.

Five Sources Re-Interpreted

Juhani Pallasmaa (b. 1936) is one of the foremost architectural writers of the past forty years. As a practicing architect, professor, director, and scholar, he has established himself as one of the leading observers and contributors of architectural thought, in large part, through the publication of numerous papers, essays, and books. Pallasmaa’s writing absorbs readers into each essay’s subject matter through connecting individuals with the sensual, emotional, empathetic, and humanistic sides of art and architecture.

What elevates Pallasmaa’s writing? Why is it successful?  What is his process to create a great product? What are the beginnings of his process?

In a conversation with Donald Bates at the Melbourne School of Architecture in 2016, Pallasmaa acknowledges, “Until about 25 years ago, writing was really painful for me, whereas sketching has always been a pleasure. I then realized I had the wrong attitude when writing.  My attitude was that I have to have a theory which I prove to the reader by my writing, but when I sketch, I don’t have a theory. I’m not proving anyone anything. I’m just going through the joy of discovery with the pencil and paper. Why can’t I write in the same way?” (Pallasmaa & Bates, 2016). This illustration reveals the negative potential preconceived notions can have on a process which in turn, often signals the demise of joy, adventure, journey, and discovery for a final product. Longinus recognizes a similar fate in proclaiming, “Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself” (Longinus, 1957). In other words, great creative work does not exist to prove a theory; it startles, amazes, and confronts the viewer, reader, or inhabitant to acknowledge their personal relationship with time and space.

Fig. 1 Cotton-grass, Vänö Island, Finland, 1972 (Pallasmaa, 1991).

Following Longinus’ lead, I would like to propose five sources as a beginning for any process worthy of a great creative work: Self-Identity, Observation, Discovery, Clarity, and Continuity. Each of these can be identified in interviews with Pallasmaa and his writing. While they do not constitute products in and of themselves, they offer the foundation for a successful process and opportunity for a great product.


“’There is no such thing as was,’ Faulkner remarked in answer to a student’s question as to why he wrote long sentences. ‘To me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing really as was, because the past is. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment. And so a man, a character in a story at any moment in action, is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him; and the long sentence,’ he adds, ‘is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something…’” (Welty, 2002). The 20th-Century writer, Eudora Welty shares this anecdote of William Faulkner in an essay originally published in 1973 entitled Some Notes on Time in Fiction. Faulkner implores us to consider the importance of imbedding what makes a person who they are into the creative work itself.

Similar in tone, the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and Pallasmaa discussed identity for the ‘New Nordic – Architecture & Identity’ exhibition in 2012 at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Pallasmaa expresses, “[Identity] has to do with your personal history and your family history and the history of your wider world. We are not only here and now, we are here as products of time in many ways. But that tends to be forgotten, particularly in today’s world, which is increasingly a world of ‘now-ness’” (Pallasmaa & Zumthor, 2012). Pallasmaa echoes this sentiment with Peter MacKeith in the opening interview for the anthology Encounters I: Architectural Essays published in 2012, “All artistic work is fundamentally existential, I believe, and it revolves around the core of one’s self-identity. The understanding of identity, the prerequisite for creative work, comes through a tolerance for – actually an engagement with – silence, solitude, even boredom…and uncertainty” (Pallasmaa, 2012).

Pallasmaa is assured with his self-identity. Later in his interview with MacKeith, Pallasmaa shares, “As a young boy during the war years of 1939-45, I lived with my mother and my five sisters on my grandfather’s small farm in Central Finland…Farm life, and my farmer grandfather, shaped me in essential ways, I think; certainly the sincerity, the necessary economy, and the direct causality of farm life were impressed upon me. I learned that everything in life is fully integrated and that one should attempt to do everything as well as one can, that the pride and joy of work is not in its position on the scale of social importance, but in one’s personal respect for the work” (Pallasmaa, 2012).

To walk down the open road of a productive process, one must know who they are, where they are, and where they are from. The self-confidence needed in this environment is not arrogant, but humble and addresses the unknown with optimism. A practicing architect must know who they are to produce a creative work that embodies the voice of a specific place, time, and culture. A teacher needs to understand their own self-identity as a basis for developing the voice of each student, whether in studio, lecture, or seminar.

Evidence of this understanding can be found throughout Pallasmaa’s writings. In one passage from his essay Six Themes for the Next Millennium, he expresses the importance of authenticity as a theme necessary to strengthen architecture, writing, “In [Italo] Calvino’s ‘rainfall’ of placeless and timeless information, our existential experience loses its coherence; we become detached from traditional sources of identity. Architecture provides a horizon on which to understand ourselves. Authentic architecture builds confidence in our comprehension of time’s duration and human nature; it provides the ground for individual identity” (Pallasmaa, 2012).


In Ernest Hemingway’s book By-Line, the theoretical aspiring writer, Mice, asks Your Correspondent (Y.C.), “How can a writer train himself?” Y.C. responds, “Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice” (Hemingway, 1974).

Pallasmaa acknowledges the importance of observation as a primary source for his work in a 2015 interview with the publication Indian Architect & Builder expressing, “My writing always arises from my personal observations and thoughts” (Pallasmaa, 2015).  As writers, designers, architects, and producers of creative work, a keen awareness of one’s surroundings and of each situation’s atmosphere is a vital beginning for any process. At times the role of observation plays a primary role from the onset of a process, while at other times observation reveals itself in the weaving of memories within and through the development of a work. Returning briefly to Faulkner, “Memory believes before knowing remembers” (Faulkner, 1932). Memories are the treasure troves of observations.

From an architectural perspective, we see this in the work of Aldo Rossi. In A Scientific Autobiography, he shares with the reader, “In April of 1971, on the road to Istanbul between Belgrade and Zagreb, I was involved in a serious auto accident.  Perhaps as a result of this incident, the project for the cemetery in Modena was born in the little hospital of Slawonski Brod…During the following summer, in my study for the project, perhaps only this image and the pain in my bones remained with me: I saw the skeletal structure of the body as a series of fractures to be reassembled…In the end the building [San Cataldo Cemetery] became an abandoned one, a place where life stops, work is suspended, and the institution itself becomes uncertain…This house of the dead, constructed according to the rhythm of urban mortality itself, has a tempo linked to life, as all structures ultimately do” (Rossi, 1981). Here we see the importance of personal observation and experience have as a source for the design process.

Fig. 2 Sketch, Il portico di Modena, 1977 (Rossi, 1981).

In chorus with Rossi, Pallasmaa’s consideration of observation and experience is not simply limited to our dominant sense of vision. In his essay Hapticity and Time, he shares that “every single experience of architecture is multi-sensory; qualities of matter, space, and scale are measured by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton, and muscle” (Pallasmaa, 2000). Later in the essay, he embeds his own observations of architecture and identifies a receptive framework of experience, expressing, “Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea is, of course, an early masterpiece of the episodic architecture of fragile formal structure; it is made from a sequence of architectural parts or acts in the same way as a theatrical play consists of acts and a piece of music of movements. The composition aims at a specific ambience, a receptive emotional state, rather than the authority of form. This architecture obscures the categories of foreground and background, object and context, and evokes a liberated sense of natural duration. An architecture of courtesy and attention, it invites us to be humble, receptive, and patient observers. This philosophy of compliance aspires to fulfil the humane reconciliatory task of the art of architecture” (Pallasmaa, 2000). Designers, writers, and makers of creative artifacts must ground process in the holistic sense of observation to produce work that intentionally responds to and acknowledges its time and place. 


In discussing his writing process with Donald Bates, Pallasmaa shares, “I write every piece about ten rounds, pre-read it and add ideas, and the most interesting point is after about the fourth or fifth writing, when I’m not writing any more, when the text is writing itself; [it] gives me new ideas that I never believed I would have. So, I’m giving this as another example of where the joy and discovery really lies” (Pallasmaa & Bates, 2016). This passage offers a window to the iterative process Pallasmaa utilizes to discover the voice of each essay. It requires a rejection of pre-conceived ideas and an openness to confronting uncertainty. As he shares with MacKeith, “…the joy does not arise from doing things you know, but from discovering things you have never considered” (Pallasmaa, 2012).

In Eudora Welty’s 1955 essay entitled, Writing and Analyzing a Story, this sense of discovery is echoed with, “Each story, it seems to me, thrives in the course of being written only as long as it seems to have a life of its own” (Welty, 2002). Through iteration, each work discovers its own voice and although joy is found throughout the process, it is an arduous path consistently beginning again and again, round after round.

Looking to the realm of architecture, the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt expressed to Sean Godsell in an interview for the 2012 El Croquis publication of his work, “I don’t think we ever really invent anything. What I think we do is discover. So, I think our role is that of a discoverer. Not an inventor. We can only change one form to another. Inventing implies that you’ve done something out of nothing, and we don’t do something out of nothing. We do something out of something. Therefore, I love the idea of the path of discovery, which is the way we go about architecture. The discovery is the creative process. So, it’s not about creativity as such. It’s about a process through which we pass as a method of discovery” (Godsell, 2012).

Fig. 3 Process Sketch for House in Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, Australia, 2003 (Murcutt, 2012).

In the context of design teaching, it can be difficult to convey to students the importance of discovery and iteration; e.g. making not one study model or three study models, but many study models. Likewise, in drawing and representation, it is not enough to pin up a single iteration of a final plan, section, or elevation. Only after beginning again and again, can joy and discovery be given the opportunity to reveal the full potential an idea has to offer.


“If a writer is not driven by a desire for the most demanding verbal precision, the true ambiguity of events escapes him,” writes John Berger in his essay, Lost Off Cape Wrath. “One does not look through writing on to reality – as through a clean or dirty window-pane. Words are never transparent. They create their own space, the space of experience, not that of existence. Clarity of the written word has little to do with style as such. A baroque text can be clear; a simple one can be dim. Clarity, in my view, is the gift of the way the space, created by words in a given text, is arranged” (Berger, 1991).

Great creative works give an attention to detail that allow space to be experienced. In architecture, this clarity of arrangement provides inhabitants access to a deeper understanding of their relationship with time and place. In writing, the space given by the arrangement of words allows for the connection and reinforcement of events, moments, and ideas.

Pallasmaa discusses his relationship with the detail of building and writing in an interview with Indian Architect & Builder. “Details ultimately articulate and define the idea. A sense of tactile intimacy is important for me, and I attempt to detail my buildings and objects so that they are inviting in a tactile sense. The same applies to writing; an essay can be too straight forward, rationalized and forcefully persuasive. I like my thoughts to meander instead of being too logical. I wish my writings to have an unexpectedness and non-linearity, that could bring somewhat surprising views into focus” (Pallasmaa, 2015). Here we see Pallasmaa’s consideration for the ‘space’ between words.


Returning to Berger, in 1995 he was interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs for an episode of BBC’s Face to Face. Their conversation opens with the following dialogue:

Isaacs: “You wrote once that most artists in their lifetime have only one or two underlying themes, though they may work on other subjects. What are your underlying themes?”

Berger: “Of course, it’s easier to see it in the work of others, than in one’s own, but I would think that the first underlying theme, from which I can’t get away, because it’s not something you choose, it is a kind of obligation, a kind of compulsion; I think the first one is probably to do with the experience of immigration, but in the very broadest sense of the term.  People being displaced if you wish, either voluntarily or forcibly.”

Isaacs: “How can immigration, displacement become a compulsion for you? What can be the origin of that for you? That seems to me a sort of conceptual way of looking at the world. Do you feel compelled to keep writing about it?”

Berger: “No. No, no. That’s the problem with questions because you often put the coat on inside out. It’s not that I say to myself that I’m going to write about immigration. On the contrary, for example, at this moment, I’m planning in my head a new book which might be called Pizza Hut. And it might be about a boy who delivers them [pizzas] on little motor scooters. That’s all I know, but probably when it’s finished, I will see that in this book there is yet another aspect of this experience of displacement. It’s not something that I choose” (Berger & Isaacs, 1995).

Likewise in architecture, Zumthor writes in his opening essay entitled, “What I Do,” of his monograph Peter Zumthor 1985-2013, “When I look back at my unbuilt designs, I realize that once an architectural thought has been conceived and converted into a stringent and coherent form, it does not simply vanish out of sight and out of mind; it reappears in other designs. Certain fundamental ideas keep coming back in new contexts and they seem to acquire ever more depth the more often they rise to the surface” (Zumthor, 2014).

Reflecting on the design and construction of the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Zumthor explains later in the monograph, “The germ cell of the design for the Bruder Klaus Chapel can be found in the “poetry houses” (individual structures designed to relate to a specific poem) I had worked on two years before in the context of the Poetic Landscape project. I was actually unaware of this connection while working on the chapel. It was only later, after the chapel was built, that Brigitte Labs-Ehlert, the author of the Poetic Landscape Project, pointed out the similarity of the spatial innovations in both projects” (Zumthor, 2014).

Working from the bottom up, both Berger and Zumthor identify a process of observation and discovery in exploring specific situations rather than employing preconceived themes. Through the refinement of new ideas, each is able to reveal new notions and perspectives in the continuity of their work. As Robert Morris aptly writes in his seminal book, Continuous Project Altered Daily, that “All quality work is simply a continuous project altered daily,” (Morris, 1994).

For nearly five decades, Juhani Pallasmaa has been exploring the discourse of art and architecture through writing. With each essay and paper, knowledge and insight gleamed from previous explorations provide a starting point and trailhead for the next leg of the journey. Allowing each new work the opportunity to build upon the discoveries and lessons of previous work, a collective identity emerges in the overall body of work and feeds back, recursively, into his self-identity.

As Pallasmaa shares with MacKeith, “Writing for me has essentially and in fact been simply a continuous internal monologue – a form of continuing education; it is for me an extension of this desire to understand my situation, my identity. I do not write to have an audience or a readership, I write instead to clarify my own position and because of the joy of discovery. All work, in my view, is a form of reinforcing one’s sense of self. As you start a design project or a writing project, you never know where you will end; this is the rewarding aspect of the essential uncertainty in the creative endeavor” (Pallasmaa, 2012).

Fig. 4 Poetic Landscape Watercolor, Bad Salzuflen, Germany, 1998 (Zumthor, 2014).
Fig. 5 Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Wachendorf, Germany, 2007 (Zumthor, 2014).


In many ways, the five sources proposed in this essay are interconnected and difficult to entirely separate from one another. Self-Identity offers a standpoint for Observation. Observation in turn, provides a framework for Discovery. Clarity is revealed through an iterative process of Discovery and recursively, Continuity strengthens Self-Identity. Furthermore, while these five proposed sources allow for a dialogue in the beginning of an endeavor, identifying strategies and attitudes to implement a successful process, their lasting influence is revealed in their re-visitation throughout the design process as mediators for the final product.

Looking toward a basis of design teaching, these five sources can act as a foundation in establishing, enacting, and assessing goals for student learning. As Kudless recognized the need for Clarity within the unbridled context of Discovery in his design studio, these sources provide a framework of checks and balances in developing processes that lead to the opportunity for a great product.

Pallasmaa shares with Indian Architect & Builder, “In my view, everything is related with everything else, and as an architect you can nourish your mind through philosophy, poetry, art and the sciences. The important thing is that your mind keeps seeking for new things and their interrelationships” (Pallasmaa, 2015). In an age when process can be leapfrogged using technology to make a wide range of products, we cannot lose sight of a process that allows the product to find its own voice through Self-Identity, Observation, Discovery, Clarity, and Continuity.


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