In his numerous literary accounts, Günter Grass would mention the time of his childhood spent in the pre-war Danzig, searching for the tracks of his identity in the post-war Gdansk using his senses. Walking through the city with Grass’s protagonists or Grass himself, we hear the call of approaching seagulls, a clatter of a passing tram, a religious song or whispered prayer coming from inside of thick gothic church walls, chimes from the town-hall tower, the splashing of sea waves. Particular places or situations trigger specific sensual memories, such as the taste of fizz powder on a tongue, repeatedly evoked by Grass as a the symbol of his childhood. The mustiness of Gdansk basements, the smell of the Radunia canal flowing both over and underground, the scent of parsley, mushrooms and flowers sold at the market, the floating dust of church floors, the heat of old bricks scorched by numerous fires, the touch of a piece of amber in which all memories and legends of all time are contained - these all form a multi-sensual experience of both the history and the present of the place we live in.
A renowned Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa in his inspiring books, “The Eyes of the Skin” and “The Thinking Hand” devotes much of his attention to the sensual reception of the city. His reflections are centred around the physical experiences of the environment, conducive to re-integration of all five senses, separated from each other largely by the current culture of technology. Taste is associated with returning to the archaic beginnings of the universe. Smells are able to evoke even the most distant memories. Touch connects us with time and tradition; after all, how many generations have touched the very same door handle entering, for example, St. Mary’s Church in Gdansk? The human body is linked to the city – legs measure distances, skin feels the texture and temperature of the surface of buildings surrounding us. Sounds define the space in which we are found. Pallasmaa not only encourages the reader to take pleasure in all these stimuli encountered during the stroll through the city, he also emphasises that those sensations, as the dominant value of reception of the reality, bind the human body to the tissue of the city, reducing the feeling of alienation and loneliness. ‘I live in a city and the city dwells in me,’ Pallasmaa writes, proving that it is the architecture and art that activate and integrate sensual experiences linking man with the outside world, organizing his existence. This intimate and direct multi-sensual interaction between man and the city, experienced through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and muscles seems to be the essence of human existence, coded in the surrounding buildings by the work of generations of predecessors. Therein are written the memory and history we are all rooted in and on the foundation of which we build our collective and individual identity. The city is the guarantor of the continuity of history and culture. Thus, with the ‘eyes at the fingertips’ (as the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala used to say) and with the memory of the taste of fizz powder on our tongues, we enter the city to experience, understand, feel, absorb and learn it anew.
photos by: Izabela Uhlenberg