Architecture and Symbolic Life

written by Juhani Pallasmaa

In the modern era and especially in our culture of mindless materialism and consumption, we tend to think that architecture was born of necessity and utility, from the need for physical shelter. This view misses the true origins and earliest history of architecture as well as the essential mental and unconscious dimensions of buildings. Regardless of its later utilitarian purposes, architecture has been guided by the desire to give meaning to human mortality. Form is nothing else but a concentrated wish for everlasting life on earth, the young Alvar Aalto maintained.  Diminishment and death are inescapable constituents of life, although we tend to suppress or deny the forces of transitoriness and entropy. We are even turning away from the essential temporal experience, and becoming inhabitants of mere space. The rejection of time arises from our unconscious fear of time, its simultaneous transitoriness and endlessness. T.S. Eliot points out a curious new cultural phenomenon the provincialism of time: [A] provincialism, not of space, but of time: one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares.  Indeed, we are increasingly living in the present tense, in an ever-vanishing nowness, without an echo of the past, and this flattening of time has decisively escalated since the days of Eliot. The poet sees experiential time as an endless loop, a Moebius strip of sorts:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in the time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. 
(T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets,1944.)