Silence in the deep mid-winter
During a recent trip to the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, we discovered an educational and cultural emphasis on voice and silence as offering opportunities for contemplation.
The Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, claimed that ‘Beauty is the harmony of purpose and form’. His influence is evident in the new Department of Education’s building at Jyväskylä, in which straight lines merge seamlessly with multiple curves to create spaces where students and staff may think both together and alone. The proportioned white modernist exterior has large windows that let what little light there is at this time of year into a large public atrium. Glass-fronted offices and seminar rooms are arranged around the edge of the atrium, but teaching and meetings spill out into the central area, where different configurations of space and seating allow for students and staff to work together while sitting, moving, standing, and kneeling around low tables. We also see a student lying across a table top during a seminar.
When giving a presentation and engaging in discussion with colleagues in the atrium, we do so alongside a nearby circle of students participating in a group activity, others doing something with large poles (what or why, is unclear!), and a one-year-old child wandering together with an adult. The circular arrangement of our meeting area keeps our attention, but still we wonder why background activity and sounds never seem to provoke irritable requests to ‘Shhh’.
Perhaps this has something to do with living in snow, which muffles distant sounds and attunes the senses to what is immediate. During our visit, we are delighted to glimpse a hare, silhouetted against the white landscape; it pauses, listening intently before crossing a wooded path. Our hosts tell us that Finns are also shy, as well as attentive and curious. They prefer to communicate efficiently without great elaboration, not wanting to stand out too much; they are also comfortable sitting together in silence. In an open society, where there are plenty of opportunities to talk and to be heard, it seems that silence is also highly valued as a form of contemplation and respectful togetherness. Silence is more than a technique to discipline bodies although, we are told, it is still possible to slip into conforming pedagogies and practices in these more democratic education spaces. (We have written about silence as discipline in English primary schools).
On our last day in Helsinki, we visit the Kampin Kappeli (Chapel of Silence), a cylindrical building, constructed in 2012 out of spruce, ash and alder. Situated in a busy shopping area, it offers a place of interior calm, like the eye of a tornado. Here we experience what Deleuze describes as the ‘relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing a rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying’. We take up the opportunity to explore the inner self; making sense of the many ideas, thoughts and emotions experienced on our trip; and becoming open to other ways of being. When a large group of tourists enter noisily out of the rain, we tune out the irritation and into the way rustling waterproof coats and squelching footsteps flood the chapel like a slowly ascending wave.
We wonder what cannot be spoken, and what it is not possible for us to hear, during our brief encounter with Finland. We hope to return before too long to collaborate further with our wonderful colleagues at the ‘OIVA’ Project, working on issues of equality and rights in Early Childhood Education and Care. Also, we wish to hear more about a silence that frames those things worth paying attention to.
Above painting: ‘Silence’, by Helene Schjerfbeck, currently exhibited at the Ateneum Gallery, Helsinki.
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Perpetua Kirby & Rebecca Webb