Still from Jean Cocteau’s Orphee. In this famous scene, Jean Marais enters a new world by penetrating the surface of a mirror
It’s next time again.
If you come to this blog, you are undoubtedly intellectually curious and most likely enjoy the learning of a new word. Now maybe this is old news for you, but this word was new to me. The word of the day is HAPTIC. Any takers? Diane Davis Sikora, Interim Assistant Dean of Architecture at Kent State University, gets all the credit for turning me on to this new word and the writings of a new (for me) architectural genius who has done nothing short of changing my visually dominated life. This new guy is that good!
The guy is Juhani Pallasmaa, (no clue how to pronounce it) who teaches at the University of Helsinki. He writes about architecture with ravishing sensuality and “why-didn’t-I-ever-think-of-that-before?” insight. He even writes about architecture in Film! Be still my heart. You come here for new and fun ideas, don’t you? Just check this out!
Haptic means touch. It is from the Greek. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Greek haptikos ‘able to touch or grasp,’ from haptein ‘fasten.’
haptic |ˈhaptik| adjective technical – of, or relating to, the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.
Ahem, that proprioception up there? Sorry about that. Let me look it up for you, “stimuli that are produced and perceived within an organism.”
So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal for a guy like me who is constantly aroused by visual stimulation, is that you can actually look at seeing as an extension of the sense of touch. WOW! I never considered this before. Your retina is essentially really sensitive skin. What touches it is light. I find this concept totally hypnotic. What about the camera? Photosensitivity is the way in which light touches the film or, these days, the digital sensors. This is the lightest touch imaginable, yet the power of the reactions then generated fuels all of the visual arts. Juhani explains that, “Touch is the mother of all the senses.” So where does this leave us pretty picture addicts?
All this, for him, comes down to how you experience a building – or to put it more poetically – space. He feels that architecture is too focused upon the visual image and not enough on the sense of touch. (Yes – I chuckle manically – you can blame TV again, it truly is the root of all evil.) Juhani calls this culture wide visual emphasis an “ocular bias.” I would say more than a bias, it is an addiction, and I am so guilty of this. As a filmmaker I have to be concerned about appearances but I’m learning often those appearances are really determined by textures (and how you light them). What he points to with this new word haptic, is the sense of touch, the materiality, the way a building quite literally feels. This opens up a brave new world of ideas which applies not only to architecture but to art and filmmaking and so many other things as well. One obvious and tactile example is petting the nose or the flank of an actual horse. Looking at a picture of a horse, or even seeing a movie of a horse is certainly not the same thing. I remember once Philip Johnson was telling me about one the new buildings he put up on the estate of his famous Glass House. As he spoke he patted the building just like he was patting the flank of a horse. As he did this he winked behind the big lenses of those famous black glasses. Unforgettable.
Philip Johnson’s “Monsta”, the Frank Gehry-inspired gatehouse to the Glass House estate
This word suggests a new way of looking at the world. I’m reminded of the movie Orphee by the filmmaker-poet Jean Cocteau. In this film, Orphee, played by Jean Marais, is shocked to see death and her henchmen enter and leave the underworld through mirrors. In the riveting shot pictured above, they enter this world by donning a pair of special gloves and touching the surface of the mirror with their fingertips. As they do so, the surface ripples like water and they pass through into another dimension. See me now like a stunned Jean Marais in front of a once solid mirror, magically gloved by the power of this new word to unlock something new and dreamlike and at the same time déjà vu familiar. (If you care, the shot was done by turning the camera on it’s side and having the actors touch the surface of a pool of mercury with rubber-gloved hands. The film is available at this link from Netflix as part of a Trilogy – you want Disc 2.)
Let me shut up and Juhani explain,
“Bernard Berenson suggested that when experiencing an artistic work we imagine a genuine physical encounter through ‘ideated sensations’. The most important of these Berenson called ‘tactile values’. In his view, the work of authentic art stimulates our ideated sensations of touch, and this stimulation is life-enhancing. Genuine architectural works, in my view, also evoke similar ideated tactile sensations which enhance our experience of ourselves.”
Imagine the solidity of the materials in any ancient Roman building and compare that in your mind to some modern glass and concrete skyscraper or a log cabin. The materials feel differently – even in your mind. I think this is what he means by “ideated tactile sensations.” Even in the museum world of “do not touch”, the tactile qualities of great works of art certainly touch you.
So how do you experience architecture? Well, of course you do experience the materials, you always have. You appreciate the sound of high heels on the marble or wooden floor. You’ve always admired the expert or unexpected choices of richly grained wood and patterned stone and intricately carved textures. You feel the cool breeze on your cheek in a cloistered colonnade. You reach out to touch the metal skin of a Frank Gehry building. You can’t help but flip the brass doorknocker. But what this new word does for us is gift us with a new way to articulate and name those feelings. You can admire a building’s hapacity. Just knowing the word makes one all the more sensitive to this idea and you find yourself really noticing these things. It has expanded the mental vocabulary of my experience of architecture. I’m dying to know what you think. To get you started on comments, give us some of the best examples of how you have experienced hapacity? What buildings and surfaces and materials come to mind? Think about a great room or space you have visited and tell us about it haptic terms. The entire exercise has a dream like quality. Add the concept of time into the nature of the materials (as with old wood or ancient stone) and you’ve got something really fascinating. This also applies to what we were looking at in the Blog from February, applying hapacity to art is yet another reason art in the flesh is so different than reproduction. This should be a great Blog discussion! Please post your ideas.
If you are like me, one of the problems of learning a new word is how the heck you remember it. I offer a suggestion. Increasing the appreciation of the haptic in your life is one way to heighten your happiness.
Until next time I remain your,
Also two films on Fashion produced by Telos will be the opening films at the 2008 Ohio Independent Film Festival on Monday, May 5th at 7PM at the Cleveland Public Theatre 6405 Detroit Ave. Cleveland 44102
Theatre de la Mode is about a unique collection of Fashion dolls produced by the couture houses of Paris in 1946. The other film is about couture shoe designer Roger Vivier. Click on the links to see clips Check out the review/blog of this event from the Plain Dealer – “Anyone with a passion for design – whether in fashion, architecture or accessories, should make a point of finding a DVD of this film.”