The Sensuous City. Reflections on the Poetics of Urban Experience

Juhani Pallasmaa

“In the fusion of place and soul, the soul is as much of a container of place as place is a container of soul, and both are susceptible to the same forces of destruction.”[1] Robert Pogue Harrison

City as a Mental Instrument


We tend to think of cities merely as material and utilitarian structures. Yet, the city, even more than the house, is also an instrument of existential and metaphysical significance, an intricate device that structures hierarchy and action, mobility and exchange, societal organization and cultural symbolization, identity and memory. Undoubtedly, the most significant and complex of human artifacts, it controls and entices, symbolizes and represents, expresses and conceals. Cities and settlements are the most significant witnesses of the course of cultural evolution. Human settlements are inhabited excavations of the archeology of culture, and they expose the dense fabric of societal and individual life, both past and present. A city always contains more than can be described. It is an endless generator of images and experiences, situations and encounters, harmonies and discords. Simultaneously a maze of clarity and opacity, the city exhausts the capacity of human description and imagination: disorder plays against order, accidental against the regular, and surprise against the anticipated. Activities and functions interpenetrate and rub against each other creating contradictions, paradoxes, and an excitement of an erotic nature.

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[1] Robert Pogue Harrison, “Sympathetic Miracles”, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, p. 130.
[2] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Pan Book Ltd., London, 1979, pp. 16-17.
[3] Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin Books, New York, 1986, p. 24.
[4] Sontag, ibid., pp. 11 and 16.
[5] As quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969, p. 137.