Steven Holl's Kiasma Kiasma the Essay

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Rather than rejecting the natural variability experience everywhere but in most man-made structures, Kiasma embraces this variability.

Returning to the name Kiasma further demonstrates the design's emphasis on the human experience of perception, and the meaning imbued through this synthesis of sensory information and personal experience, because the architectural details of the building are structured in such a way as to provide the ideal space for the meeting of perception and conception, a meeting that arguably transforms visual stimuli into art. In particular, "the scaling in Kiasma is based on the dimensions of the human body," with special attention to a limit of "165 centimeters, the viewing height" (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011). While the average visitor would likely not notice this feature, it serves to make the building the ideal space for reflection, because precisely by not noticing such elements as the height of certain artworks, the visitor is able to engage more directly with those works.

This reliance on the human body as the basis from which the design flows extends to every detail of the building, because "the height and width of the doors, the square pattern on the sliding doors and the scaling of spaces are based on the golden section," the linear representation of the ratio found throughout nature (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011). While the simplicity of phenomenology has sometimes been taken as a rejection of the "organic," in reality one may consider it as an interpretation of the simplicity found in nature, because it simply chooses to focus on the common underlying structures by which organic life is organized, rather than the myriad combinations of those constituent parts which produce the variety of flourish seen in nature. The idea is not to imitate, and thus diminish nature, but rather to engage in the same structural standards by which natural beauty is formed and subsequently experienced by human beings.

Thus, the simple shapes of Kiasma do not reject the biological in the same cold, sterile way as the International style, but rather embrace an ostensibly simple geometry as a means of celebrating the fractal simplicity found in the world as a result of human biology and thought. "Every touching experience of architecture is multi-sensory," because "qualities of space measured equally by the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and muscles," even though the centrality of vision leads one to assume that sight alone is the measure of experience, and Kiasma is designed to specifically engage most of these senses while allowing visitors to nonetheless focus almost exclusively on the sight of the structure and the art contained within (Pallasmaa 1994). The building accomplishes this by maintaining clean, smooth lines of plaster and concrete due to the fact that "all services, from security and ventilation to exhibition technology, are concealed within the wall structures," allowing the building to appear as a single, unififed structure without the jarring functional features which would otherwise be visible out of neccesity (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011).

Thus, the design once again takes its cue from the human body by hiding the functional processes away in arteries which serve to maintain the simplicity of appearance through its complexity of design. In this way, Kiasma manages not only to embody phenomenology, but also serves a kind of rebuttal to simplistic interpretations of the theory which equate the simple appearance of a design with a perceived simplicity in the critical (in the sense of argumentative) work present in the design itself. The building is undeniably biological, not in the sense of the terrifying arabesque seen in the work of artists like H.R. Giger, but rather because the building uses the outward simplicity of the human body coupled with its inward complexity as a guidepost for a way to successfully bridge the gap between the personal experience of art and the public space of the museum.

The details of Holl's design function to structure the space of the museum in such a way as to encourage personal reflection and receptivity. Because "the design is based on ideas about the golden section, Zen-like peace, a human scale," the building recedes from the foreground of the visitor's perception even while structuring that perception (Kiasma Info: Architecture 2011). Even the fact that "the walls of some galleries are curved or positioned obliquely" serves to diminish the centrality of the building itself in favor of the space contained within, because while non-perpendicular walls might stand out in an otherwise rectangular building, their presence in Kiasma represents a natural outgrowth of the overall aesthetic. The interior of the museum is thus like an idealized interior of the mind, free-flowing and unfettered by ideological structure and completely receptive to the personal experience of the individual visitor. In this way, Kiasma embodies the personal ideal of phenomenology by marking itself as a space of reflection and conception, which helps to explain why the design and even the name were deemed so perfect for a contemporary art museum.

Steven Holl's Kiasma is a testament to the applicability and adaptability of phenomenological architecture, because it manages to integrate itself into the city of Helsinki and its rich architectural history while nevertheless bringing something new to its context. Kiasma embraces the phenomenological ideals of simplicity and the personal experience of time and space by presenting an ostensibly simple combination of two shapes whose complexity increases the closer one investigates. Every detail of the building serves to centralize the human body and humanity's experience of reality, and the name itself highlights the design's goal of acting as the ideal location for the creation of meaning out of the convergence of sensory information.


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