The other day, I accidentally erased all the photos on my hard-drive, which stretched back to photos taken in the previous century. That is to say, to another life. I say “accidentally” but I do not rule out the possibility of an unconscious death-drive compelling my manifest actions, especially given that it was my birthday when the photos were formatted. After all, becoming overly attached to photographic images carries with it a gradual removal from the content itself, so that what appears in the photo is simply that – an object. At any rate, now that the photos of previous places, people, and scenes have been digitally eroded, I am forced to rethink the appearance of the past. This means being obliged to think beyond and around the photos, which, until now, acted as signs to the pre-formed past. Without the photos, it is tempting to think that past itself was reduced to nothingness. In evidential terms, there is perhaps some truth to this. After their erasure, there is nothing to say that such a past occurred, other than having it confirmed by other people, most of whom I am no longer in contact with. Stuck, then, with the transition from image to memory, the same past seized as an object now emerges without the visual glare, now decomposed as a scene comprised from the kinesthetic remnants of a blurred image.
The touch replaces the eye. I do not remember, but my body does. With that shift, a horizon of undiscovered experience is undiscovered. During last week’s Architecture and Phenomenology conference in Haifa, architect Juhani Pallasmaa spoke on the singularity of the body as a receiver of architectural experience. As he writes in The Eyes of the Skin: “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.” (p. 11). As with Bachelard, there is a seduction to this peripheral account of place and memory, a scene of plenitude and continuity. At the same time, however, there is also a recognition of what is absent in the “defensive and unfocused gaze of our time” (p. 13). Because of this, Pallasmaa’s argument for the depth of architecture derives from a singular notion of the human interacting with his or her environment. The benevolence of this vision is clear enough in Pallasmaa’s account of the sacredness of silence, a silence experienced as revealing the unity of appearances, and confirmed by Pallasmaa’s claim that “the real measure of the qualities of a city is whether once can imagine falling in love in it.”
Of course, on the one hand, all experience of architecture is fundamentally delimited by a human exchange, so forms a relational whole. On the other hand, unless this relational whole retains a dynamic instability, then the danger grows of pre-forming an experience of place in advance. Note, for instance, that the same benevolent silence which Pallasmaa experiences in place is experienced in Levinas as an anonymous, rather than human, presence: “The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric destiny, a plenitude of the void, of the murmur of silence” (Levinas, 1987, p. 46). Later in his lecture, Pallasmaa hinted at this dynamism through a consideration of fragments and ruins. In particular, Pallasmaa touched upon the discursive and vague formation of memory, whereby “my body remembers” what is otherwise forgotten. Such a line of thought would seem to have great promise, insofar as the experience of place, especially liminal places, makes us aware of our bodily and kinesthetic immersion in the world precisely through disrupting a habitual dwelling pattern.
Yet neither habitual bodily practices nor those which displace us from those patterns are complete in themselves. Both the familiar and unfamiliar, and the inside and outside must co-exist in order to form a whole. Pallasmaa is clearly engaged with this co-existence, yet there is an overriding sense in which those dualities constitute a normative understanding of place. So, when Pallasmaa speaks how “the city dwells in me, as I dwell in the city,” the impression of a “horizon of emancipation and imagination” coincides with a definite image on what constitutes architectural plenitude. Such a disjunction between experience and value suggests a (creative) tension between phenomenology and architecture. Yet if architectural design and experience is to retain "a fidelity to appearances," then questions concerning what architecture embodies, how personal identity is formed, and to what extent is memory a confluence between imagination and place, must all be open to the absorption of otherness, temporally and spatially.