Ghost 7
The Dance of Construction (Excerpt)
Juhani Pallasmaa

Orienting the building in relation to the sun, land and the winds, water and views, as well as breaking into the earth, collaborating with matter and gravity, balancing forces with structures and connections, constitute a primordial rite, the dance of construction. Construction is also a practice of alchemy that turns blocks of stone into a wall, a piece of wood into a pillar or beam, a hole in the wall into the eye of the window, an interval of the brickwork into a doorway, and a cavity in a masonry wall into a place for fire. Human will and the skill of the hand reorganize matter into a constructed thought; matter turns into an idea.

Building is not primarily about providing shelter; it implies re-organizing and domesticating the nameless and the measureless, creating a domicile, and giving it a name. The elements are re-configured through construction to create a place for occupation. An architectural structure puts us in an unforeseen and poeticized relation with the world. Just as the jar in Wallace Stevens´ poem “Anecdote of the Jar”2 magically tames the wilderness of Tennessee hills, architectural structures re-define and re-scale the landscape. A building marks the human presence in the landscape.

Every construction implies the projection of a silent theory and evaluation, and the built structure turns into a manifestation of the human condition. We know and understand our world and ourselves as cultural beings primarily through our constructions, both material and mental.

Building implies and evokes optimism; we are able to build only to the degree that we have confidence in the future. Construction also implies the projection of ideals. We can only build as far as we attempt to build a better and more humane world.

The primordial encounter of land and water, air and fire, at the Ghost site in Nova Scotia, combined with its thick sense of history and the feeling of shared purpose brought about by collective work, made the construction laboratory a memorable experience for all of us.

The rhythm of collective work is hypnotic; the sound of work turns physical labour into a shared performance, a dance, that carries itself forward without apparent effort; the work works on itself and completes itself. Diligence and the rhythm of work are contageous. The body and the hand of the maker fuse work and thought into a singular action. Construction work both fatigues and rejuvenates, humbles and makes one proud.

Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel laureate poet, makes the following comment on the role of craft in writing poetry: “No honest craftsman or maker knows in the process of working whether he is making or creating … The first, the second, and the last reality for him is the work itself, the very process of working. The process takes precedence over its result, if only because the latter is impossible without the former … In reality (in art and, I would think, science), experience and the accompanying expertise are the maker´s worst enemies.”5 In the architect´s and builder´s work, likewise, the process and the product, the idea and its materialization, the maker and the object are inseparably merged. We are always bound to build our self-portrait.

The closing party of the Ghost Workshop in the darkness of the Nova Scotian night, illuminated by the forceful campfir in the scale of a natural phenomenon, felt like an ancient rite of propitiating the Gods. We all floated and swam in the magical liquid of darkness and music, until the last flames of fire and notes of music died away in the silence beneath the immense firmament of Nova Scotia.

Thank you, Brian and all your friends and assistants, for these moments of magic and alchemy.

Juhani Pallasmaa, Architect, Professor