The Eyes of the Skin


Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin (Chichester: Wiley, 2008)


All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility.


Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised parts of our enveloping membrane.


Touch is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves. Even visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body remembers who I am and where I am located in the world.


A remarkable factor in the experience of enveloping spatiality, interiority and hapticity is the deliberate suppression of sharp focussed vision. This issue has hardly entered the theoretical discourse of architecture as architectural theorising continues to be interested in focused vision, conscious intentionality and perspectival representation.

A forest context, and richly moulded architectural space, provides ample stimuli for peripheral vision, and these settings centre us in the very space. The preconscious perceptual realm, which is experienced outside the sphere of focused vision, seems to be just as important existentially as the focused image.

The defensive and unfocused gaze of our time, burdened by sensory overload, may eventually open up new realms of vision and thought, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power. The loss of focus can liberate the eye from its historical patriarchal domain.


In Western culture, sight has historically been regarded as the noblest of the senses, and thinking itself thought of in terms of seeing. Already in classical Greek thought, certainty was based on vision and visibility.


The invention of perspectival representation made the eye the centre point of the perceptual world as well as of the concept of the self. Perspectival representation itself turned the world into a symbolic form, one which not only describes but also conditions perception.

There is no doubt that our technological culture has ordered and separated the sense even more distinctly. Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered as archaic sensory remnants with a merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.


The inhumanity of contemporary architecture and cities can be understood as a consequence of the negligence of the body and the senses, and an imbalance in our sensory system.


The growing experiences of alienation, detachment and solitude in the technological world today, for instance, may be related with a certain pathology of the senses.

The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority.

The fact that the modernist idiom has not generally been able to penetrate the surface of popular taste and values seems to be sue to its one-sided intellectual and visual emphasis; modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.

[Ocularcentrism was not without its critics, including Nietsche, Bergson, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan and Derrida etc]


But man has not always been dominated by vision. In fact, a primordial dominance of hearing has only gradually been replaced by that of vision. Anthropological literature describes numerous cultures in which our private senses of smell, taste and touch continue to have collective importance in behaviour and communication.


Ong analyses the changes that the shift from the primordial oral culture to the culture of the written (and eventually the printed) word has caused on human consciousness, memory and understanding of space. He argues that as hearing dominance has yielded to sight-dominance, situational thinking has been replaced by abstract thinking.


The gradual growing hegemony of the eye seem to be in parallel with the development of Western ego-consciousness and the gradually increasing separation of the self and the world; vision separates us from the world whereas the other senses unite us with it.

Artistic expression is engaged with pre-verbal meanings of the world, meanings that are incorporated and lived rather than simply intellectually understood.


Natural materials express their age and history, as well as the story of their origins and human use.

Buildings of this technological age usually deliberately aim at ageless perfection, and do not incorporate the dimension of time, or the unavoidable and mentally significant processes of aging. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.


The ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.

The eye itself has not, of course, remained in the monocular, fixed construction defined by Renaissance theories of perspective. The hegemonic eye has conquered new ground for visual perception and expression.


Perhaps, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power, it is precisely the unfocused vision of our time that is again capable of opening up new realms of vision and thought. The loss of focus brought about by the stream of images may emancipate the eye from it patriarchal domination and give rise to a participatory and empathetic gaze.


The haptic experience seems to be penetrating the ocular regime again through the tactile presence of modern visual imagery. [cites the music video and the inability to stop and analyse the flow of images]

Although the new technologies have  strengthened the hegemony of vision, they may also help to re-balance the realm of the senses. In Walter Ong’s view, ‘with telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us into the age of “secondary orality”.


The perception of sight as our most important sense is well-grounded in physiological, perceptual and psychological facts. The problems arise from the isolation of the eye outside its natural interaction with other sense modalities, and from the elimination and suppression of other senses, which increasingly reduce and restrict the experience of the world into the sphere of vision. This separation and reduction fragments the innate complexity, comprehensiveness and plasticity of the perceptual system, reinforcing a sense of detachment and alienation.


I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.


Vision reveals what the touch already knows. We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision. Our eyes stroke distant surfaces, contours and edges, and the unconscious tactile sensation determines the agreeableness or unpleasantness of the experience.

The eye is the organ of distance and separation, whereas touch is the sense of nearness, intimacy and affection. The eye surveys, controls and investigates, whereas touch approaches and caresses. During overpowering emotional experiences, we tend to close off the distancing sense of vision; we close the eyes when dreaming, listening to music, or caressing our beloved ones. Deep shadows and darkness are essential, because they dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance ambiguous, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy.

The imagination and daydreaming are stimulated by dim light and shadow. In order the think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze.


The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand.

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