Published in 2/2024 - Matter and Intelligence


A Wise Body

Elina Koivisto

Photo: Elina Koivisto

What if a more sustainable way of building would be better perceived through the senses and emotions?

In the Research Spotlight series, architects and researchers share what they have been thinking recently.

I’m staring at a plastic box with some straw mush and white goo inside, trying to figure out if there’s significantly more goo there since last week. I’m waiting for the oyster mushroom to grow enough so that I would be able to make architecture together with its mycelium while at the same time thinking about our relationship with building materials. One day I’m laying bricks on the walls surrounding the plants and the next day, words in a research article. I feel the composition of the clay in my hands and at the same time I feel the new thoughts form in my mind. I meet researchers, builders and other human and non-human beings from different fields. I’m hoping that practice-based research will open up the opportunity for me to strive towards other ways of knowing and to expand the range of methods in qualitative research.

To reduce the environmental burden caused by our current construction methods, we must look for technical solutions, new materials and ways to reduce energy consumption. At the same time, we should also look to other dimensions of our existence in search of a new way to build a balanced future for ourselves and each other on this planet. The world is not a rational jigsaw puzzle from which we can separate ourselves, or that we can solve piece by piece, hoping that a complete, coherent picture will emerge. Our own actions are not only guided by logical thinking, but also by feelings, sensations and the complex and ever-changing community of various animate and inanimate beings and substances that accompany us, the working mechanisms of which we don’t even understand yet. To obtain a different kind of knowledge, we should also look at the way we form and organise information. Sensory, corporeal, and experiential knowledge, indigenous peoples’ knowledge, or non-human beings’ knowledge has not always been considered knowledge in the first place. As a skill and lore, perhaps, but not as reliable information that would have been used as a basis for decision-making in politics or, for example, construction.

To obtain a different kind of knowledge, we should also look at the way we form and organise information.

Juhani Pallasmaa and other phenomenologists have been talking about the importance of multisensory and bodily experience and action already for a long time. Neuroscience supports this thinking and, for example, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen has written about how observing the environment is a joint game between the mind, body and environment. In Asian philosophies and in the belief systems of indigenous peoples, there has never been a sharp division between intellect and bodily sensations, and recently we have begun to see parallel currents in Western thought as well. For example, at the level of microbiology, there is scientific evidence of how the microbiome of the human gut affects the functioning of the brain. By what or by whom is our intelligence and knowledge actually created?

Our body is constantly communicating things to us that we are not necessarily intellectually aware of. The skin gets goosebumps, the heart rate rises or the stomach clenches in connection with an overpowering experience. A strong spatial experience may bring tears to our eyes. Traditional builders know the correct composition of a material in their hands but are unable to provide a clear recipe for it. Once we have touched a certain material, the mere sight of it brings back to us its texture and temperature. Experience has become knowledge. 

Once we have touched a certain material, the mere sight of it brings back to us its texture and temperature.

Bodily knowing is always personal. My body is different from your body. My body is a different body today than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. Bodily information cannot therefore be generalised, but one can strive to advise and pass on ways of sharing and finding information to someone else. In that sense, bodily knowledge reflects the world. No place, experience or moment is the same as another. We can try to generalise information and standardise construction parts, but in the end, there are always differences.

Bodily experiencing and knowing is the collaboration between mind and body. It is also a collaboration between us and others. It is not yet known what exact effects the microbes and fungi in our body and environment have on our ability to perceive, or the nanoplastics accumulating in our tissues and the aerosols we breathe. Nor do we understand all the mechanisms of perception and knowing. For example, slime mould is capable of reasoning and weighing alternatives without a brain or central nervous system. It is hard to imagine that our own ability to reason could therefore be only dependent on our brains.

To learn to understand other forms of living and knowing and to be able to find our own place as part of that spectrum, we need to keep our minds (and bodies) open to diverse ways of research, learning and knowledge formation. Bodily knowledge is formed only through bodily activity and experiencing. To find new ways of building, one must be open to experimentation and speculation about what could be possible. ↙

ELINA KOIVISTO is an architect, university lecturer and doctoral researcher at Aalto University. In her practice-oriented research, she reflects on the relationships between people and materials from the perspective of care, agency and bodily knowledge.

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