Silence: from start to Finnish

side view

Juhani Pallasmaa

What is the opposite of newness, noise, speed, spectacle, entertainment, uniqueness, consumerism, shock?  In Juhani Pallasmaa‘s world, it’s silence.  He opened his presentation at the Villa Aurelia in Rome with the following quote:  “Only in complete silence one starts to hear; only when language resigns, one starts to see.” Carthusian Monks, Grand Chartreuse.

The name Juhani Pallasmaa meant nothing to me. I was in the minority. He was the speaker at an event jointly sponsored by the American Academy in Rome and The Finnish Institute of Rome.

Pantheon, Rome Copyright Peter Mauss

Pantheon, Rome
Copyright Peter Mauss

white draperyPalasmaa runs his own architectural office in Helsinki: he is a visiting Professor at a number of universities: he has written hundreds of articles and many books on architectural theory.  I can understand why he is not a celebrity.  Everything he said last night was about a lack of self-consciousness.


Giorgio Morandi

In an effort to avoid being boring, we’ve become frightened of silence“.  As I listened to Pallasmaa, I kept trying to think of a better word than silence.  I think of silence as the absence of sound, as a kind of emptiness.  Silence was the best of just not words to describe what Palasmaa was talking about.  He suggested that “silence” is full of richness:  bursting with the vitality of life.  Silence is dynamic. Every silence has a sound: the silence of a Piero della Francesca or a Vermeer or Turner.  “Art must give a sensation of breathing” Brancusi


The Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor

For Pallasmaa light is the mental core of architecture.  For example, The Pantheon in Rome is a the drama of tranquility.  A Greek statue is a white island of silence.  The zen gardens of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto are the  alchemy of architecture.  For Nordic people, the forest provides a healing silence.

Pallasmaa ended with a poem by Bo Carpelan.

‘There are still houses with low roofs,

window bays where children climb

and crouch, chins pressed to their knees,

watching the damp snow falling peacefully

into the dark, crowded yard.

There are still rooms that tell of life,

cupboards full of clean linen, passed down.

There are quiet kitchens where someone sits

and reads, book propped against the loaf.

Light has the sound of white curtains.

Shut your eyes, and see

that you await the morn, even impatiently,

that its warmth mixes with the warmth herein

and that each falling snowflake

is a sign of homecoming.’

Pallasmaa finished his talk and we walked 15 minutes down the road, to the Finnish Institute of Rome, for a glass of Prosecco and a lot of over-stimulating, entertaining talk.  On the way home  (American Academy) for dinner; the weather had turned.  It was the first blustery day in Rome.  It felt like a snowflake might fall.

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