Saturday, May 17, 2008


What does it mean for architecture to be authentic? That authenticity is a virtue and necessary for making good architecture seemed reasonable to me when I first considered the subject. After all, how could being authentic be considered an undesirable trait? Once I got started, however, I quickly realized that the concept is slippery and decided to learn as much as I could about it before coming to a conclusion. In so doing, I learned that notions of authenticity have been examined by a lot of people from widely divergent perspectives.

Authenticity has most frequently been associated with existentialist philosophy, which defines the term as the degree to which a person is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite the pressures of external influences. Existentialist writers (including Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre) believed that authenticity is essential to “the good life” and fundamentally difficult to achieve because of social pressures to live inauthentically. Authenticity has also been commonly cited in the visual and performing arts, where it is associated with the perception of a work of art as a true expression of the artist’s unique values and beliefs, rather than as conforming to external values such as historical tradition or commercial worth. Authenticity has even recently been enlisted as a marketing strategy. Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, by James Gilmore and Joseph Pine, is a best-selling guidebook for companies seeking to identify themselves with their customers’ self-images and desires.1

The influential art critic Clement Greenberg argued that “high art” is more authentic and authoritative than the low art of kitsch, even though kitsch sometimes produces work that possesses an authentic folk flavor. Greenberg regarded avant-garde art, such as the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, as more authentic because it was new, whereas he criticized kitsch because it did not aspire to break any new ground and because it was a product of commercial culture. This kind of moral absolutism has obvious parallels in architecture—“cutting-edge” design is exalted whereas derivative work is panned—but is it appropriate to a discussion about what should be considered authentic? In my opinion, creating an architecture that is simply opposed to cultural norms is an imperfect path toward the goal of authenticity.

Jackson Pollock: Number 8, 1949

Authenticity has its paradoxical components. Sartre acknowledged the conflict between seeing the self as unique and different from the world, because the self is embedded in a world that clearly contains other similar beings. Architecture is likewise rooted in that world, where it is impossible not to engage and be influenced by external influences.2 If we logically extend the existentialist ethos, successful architecture is by definition largely inauthentic because it has to come to terms with the material world.

Juhani Pallasmaa is a Finnish architect and writer who has emerged as the leading voice of a loosely affiliated group of architects whose theories are derived from the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology.3 The group shares an interest in architecture that is highly personal, inward looking, and concerned with one’s physical engagement with the world. Their focus on human constants—the way that our minds and bodies respond to tactile and aural cues, space, light, texture, and color—informs their architecture. In an essay published in The Architectural Review in 1994, Pallasmaa identified authenticity as one of his six themes for architecture in the new millennium.4 He regards architecture as a means to defend the authenticity of human experience:

“As our existential experience loses its coherence through the mosaic of placeless and timeless information, we become detached from traditional sources of identity. It is the task of architecture to provide a horizon of understanding our being in the world and, finally, of ourselves. Authenticity of architectural works supports a confidence in time and human nature; it provides the ground for individual identity.

Architecture is a conservative art. It is conservative in the sense that it materializes and preserves the history of culture. Buildings and cities trace the continuum of culture in which we place ourselves and by which we can recognize our identities. The way I see the essence of architecture's conservatism does not exclude radicality (sic); on the contrary, architecture must reinforce our existential experience in a radical manner against the forces of alienation and detachment. Architecture, as all art, makes us experience our own being with extraordinary weight and intensity. It enables us to dwell with dignity.”

I included this quotation because it is as succinct and eloquent a statement that I have come across about what an authentic architecture should be. It rings true even though I could not personally articulate what I believed authenticity in architecture to be prior to discovering Pallasmaa’s essay. He acknowledges that authenticity is commonly associated with the ideas of artistic autonomy and originality. On the other hand, he also counters Greenberg’s claim that only “new” or autonomous work is truly authentic. Rather than being inauthentic, Pallasmaa asserts that an architecture that is socially and culturally representative is indispensable to the autonomy of the emotional response and is therefore necessary to leading an authentic life. To think otherwise is to suggest that there is no room for an authentic architecture in a social context.

I do think that authentic architecture has the power to alter an individual’s relationship with and perception of the environment. However, a work of architecture is only authentic if it is fully experienced; it cannot be as real or meaningful if only regarded through drawings or photographs. What I haven’t gleaned yet is a ready prescription for achieving architecture that is immediately understood to be authentic. Perhaps I should read Juhani Pallasmaa’s other writings, including The Eyes of the Skin - Architecture and the Senses and Encounters: Architectural Essays. For now, I am convinced that it is a self-evident proposition that good architecture is authentic.

1. Ironically, the authors’ apparent formula for “appealing to the real” is for companies to suppress their innate character in favor of a superficial, rendered veneer of authenticity.

2. Peter Eisenman’s work of the 1960s and 1970s comes closest in my mind to being an architecture that is completely disengaged from external influences. Eisenman sought to liberate his architecture from all meaning, such that it was purely self-referential and autonomous.

3. Steven Holl and Peter Zumthor are two of the better known architects that are counted amongst the members of this group. Another like-minded architectural theorist was Christian Norberg-Schulz, whose writings about genius loci and its corollary, the phenomenology of architecture, prompted my seeking what constitutes an authentic architecture.

4. Pallasmaa’s six themes are: 1) Slowness, 2) Plasticity, 3) Sensuousness, 4) Authenticity, 5) Idealization, and 6) Silence.

5. Juhani Pallasmaa, Six Themes for the Next Millennium - Architecture for Improving Humanity, The Architectural Review: July 1994; retrieved May 17, 2008, from


simondroog said...

Interesting post, thanks! I'm also exploring human interaction with its environment. I've read Pallasmaa's The Eyes of the Skin and I can really recommend it.

Have you ever looked into environmental psychology to learn more about how people interact with their environment? I've heard good things about it.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...


I read Pallasmaa's Eyes of the Skin shortly after writing this post and concur with your recommendation.

Yes, I have looked into environmental psychology. My graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles back in the 80's primarily focused upon how perceptions of architecture are impacted by sociological factors: the behavior of individuals in a societal context and the influence of social structures.

I look forward to reading your blog, Experiencing Architecture, on a regular basis.

simondroog said...

Your studies on sociological factors that influence the perception of architecture sound very interesting.

Do you have any material that I could read? (I'll send you an email so you can contact me)

And I'll definitely keep an eye on your blog.

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