Make ‘Sense’ of….: Sensory Realm in Architecture

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Introduction

Sensory design is an approach that revolves around our senses and perception of design. All our lives we’ve known effects as they’re all on account of a unique blend of sights, smells, sounds, sounds, taste’ and textures. 

Our senses are greatly linked with our recollections. From nonage we engage in innumerous settings doing colorful conditioning to understand this world we were born to discover. The brain processes the data and forges pathways. Therefore, meaning and memory take form. And our senses are what made this possible. 

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Photo by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka from Sensory Design, University of Minnesota Press

Senses in Spaces

Senses guide us through space, settings, and situations. Our sense organs are connected to a head that turns, arms that reach, and bodies that wander and seek. Our body seeks knowledge when exposed to colorful spaces and sensations. The senses help acquaint this body and mind. Multi-sensory guests and encouragement hits us from all the directions. 

In a world of modern art where art is beyond what’s static and solid, the creators are widening their minds for the coming times. 

Absence of Multi-Sensory Experience in Architecture

Architectural design responds more often to just one sense, the visual one; the other senses are unfortunately frequently neglected. According to Juhani Pallasmaa (2005), the dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tend to push us into detachment and solitude in the technological world of today. The inhumanity of contemporary architecture and cities can be understood as the consequence of the negligence of the body and the senses, and an imbalance of our sensory system.

“It is evident that life-enhancing architecture has to address all the senses simultaneously and fuse our image of self with our experience of the world.” (Pallasmaa 2005) We don’t evaluate or remember a place using only our eyes and shut off the other senses; we automatically notice the smell of the place while breathing, we are affected by noises we hear from the users in the place. 

No Sense without the ‘Sense’

The materials used in furnishing the space have a more important value that affects all senses besides the visual one. The choice of flooring, for example, is not all about choosing a nice pattern (which is important as well if done for a certain purpose, like directing people towards a certain orientation) In choosing flooring, the material’s qualities are considered; how slippery, shiny, or hard, for example. If the material is warm or cool, if the material produces an echo or absorbs noise, etc. which results in a multi-layered sensory experience of the architectural space.

Many educators stress on the importance of teaching architectural students how to be sensitive to the sensory experience of space. “As designers, they (students) need to develop an intimate relationship not with the world of the page or screen, nor even the forms and surfaces portrayed on them, but with the potential corporeal and multi-sensory experience of the emerging spaces.”(McCann 2005)

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Photo by Heba Sherif Mourad from An Approach Towards A More User-Centered Architectural Design Using Human Senses, Mind & Emotions

Architectural Design for Individual Senses

The senses can be subjectively categorized into two categories namely, the distant (Eyes, ears & nose) and the immediate (Touch & taste) receptors.

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Photo by Hulya Yavas from Architecture and Interdisciplinary Studies ‘17

The Look of Architecture

The first impression of architecture relies primarily on vision and the first glance we take of the architecture. But still we use all our senses in the perception process.

Le Corbusier considers that as we call the container in which we put water in a ‘glass’, we should consider ‘architecture’ the container of light. As the water fills the shape of glass, light fills the shape of architecture; therefore, for him architecture is a receptor of light. So through vision, the architect can take the user’s attention and integrate his other senses.

There are many determinants for the visual experience, such as light, proportions, hierarchy, order, rhythm, etc. but light is considered one of the most important factors for the visual experience. It exposes oneself to the whole new and open dimension of a specific space which helps enhance the experience.

Designing For “The Eyes of the Skin”

The sense of touch is more trusted by vision; we may assume or be introduced to something new but not know for sure all the information about it until we touch it, then we collect the missing information about the object. Being the distant receptors, both vision and touch complete each other. The sense of vision reveals what the sense of touch already knows, therefore the sense of touch can be considered as the unconscious side of the sense of vision.

In the words of Merleau-Ponty, “We see the depth, the smoothness, the softness, the hardness of the objects” (Ponty, 1994) Therefore, the sense of touch is related to the sense of vision in a way. Tactile dimensions can be included in a space through a multitude of textures, patterns, and materials. According to Pallasmaa, the eyes of the skin i.e. touch integrates the experiences of oneself and the world. 

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Thermal Baths, Swiss Pavilion; Photo by Hulya Yavas from Architecture and Interdisciplinary Studies ‘17

The Aural Architecture

Sounds are the indicators of the void. The sound helps us form a picture of a certain space through the certain simultaneously ongoing dynamics. Sound has various layers call it silence, compositions, vibrations, resonance, embellishments, aesthetics, anything! And when employed to its full potential through a well-composed combination, it can enrich any space. Not only experience, it aids in navigation, direction and perception in a case of visually impaired people.

Instances have been noted when sounds help them read a room based on how loud, distant, peaked, far-fetched it sounds. The same gives us an idea about the form, materials, directions, fenestrations, and the textures. As Pallasmaa says, unlike vision, sounds are omni directional. A space is understood through its echoes, softness, and harshness. 

On The Olfactory Dimension

Olfaction holds its importance in the perception of a certain space. It arouses our emotional responses and activates cognitive perception. As its been known since ages that the smells at different times in a day differ in terms of certain measures in the similar way the smells in a space can navigate, arouse cognition and make us aware of a particular space in terms of purity, ventilation, freshness, pollution, humidity, saturation, etc. The typical thermal comfort can also be directly linked with the air and olfactory parameters associated with that space. 

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Multi-Sensory Experience in Jewish Museum; Photo by Hulya Yavas from Architecture and Interdisciplinary Studies ‘17

The Gustatory Edifice

Our cognition doesn’t work single-mindedly. Our cognition is a multi-sensory perception of where we have been, how we have been, and what we have been through. Therefore, to truly enrich the architectural experience of a space, all senses need to be checked beyond the ocular-centric design.

The role of taste in multi-sensory architecture is not directly linked, though it has its connections. We do not literally taste the walls for the feel or the texture or lick the furnishings to know how it is going to enhance the space taste-wise but a distinct scent in a room, the texture of a material or a color projected onto the skin can intensify the experience to such an extent that it is as if the taste bud of the tongue has been penetrated.

Designing for the Multisensory Mind: Architectural Design for All the Senses

Sensory Congruence

Have you ever noticed that we mention these five senses and state them as five different units? But after recognition, it’s been proven that it isn’t how it seems at all. Senses coexist subjectively with respect to specific spaces and settings. For case how we recall the taste of orange delicacy as soon as we spot one or smell the rotten eggs that might just not be indeed in our close propinquity, know what a bell sounds like when we see one or anticipate the peddler to roar as soon as we get a trace of sweet corn nearby. This is how our mind works.

Sensory congruence is a layered phenomenon. Regardless of whether the atmospheric cues are integrated or not, one general response bolstering our response to multisensory combinations of environmental cues is that those combinations of stimulants that are ‘harmonious’ will be processed more easily and vice versa. 

Our potent nature is one of the biggest examples one could ever give of multi-sensory consonance. As Pallasmaa notes, “A walk through a forest is invigorating and healing due to the constant interaction of all sense modalities; they speak of ‘the polyphony of the senses”. The eye collaborates with the body and the other senses. One’s sense of reality is strengthened and articulated by this constant interaction.

Architecture is basically an extension of nature into the man-made realm” And no wonder green and live architecture has been gaining similar word in the moment’s trends. They’ve proved largely effective to enrich a spatial experience over time. Thus, there’s a stark deficit of exploration that studies the applicability and need of multi-sensory consonance and the absence of well-blended sensory stimuli leading to incongruence and perceptual errors.

Sensory Dominance

One common feature of configurations of multisensory stimuli that are in some sense incongruent is sensory dominance. More often than not, this tends to be the vision which dominates. Our vision tends to guide our subconscious more than compared to the rest of the senses. Sensory conflicts lead to the gradational dominance by the vision on account of it being comparatively more dependable.

In Mies Van Der Rohe’s work, for example, the sense of vision is clearly dominant, but he enriches the experience of his buildings by integrating the other senses as well. “In Mies van der Rohe’s architecture a frontal perspectival perception predominates, but his sense of order, structure, weight, detail and craft decisively enriches the visual paradigm.” (Pallasmaa, 2005)

However, that doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of certain other senses taking over your vision, too. For instance, you wouldn’t want to go into a hall that echoes with bantering noises even if your vision guides you to it, nor would you want to go into a funky smelling space decorated with the prettiest lighting. 

There are many ongoing debates as to people claiming that architecture has always been predominantly visual. Instead of being evaluated at various layers of experience, it has been reduced only to the visual. With the dominance of vision over the other senses, our perception of the world relies so predominantly on an image that our built environment has become sensually bland. The sensualities and essence have been missing from the built environment.

Therefore, as complex as this sounds, for any space to be tranquil, the senses need to interact in suitable configurations so as to not waver from the equilibrium.

Cross Modal Correspondences

The senses trigger and amplify other senses. Music can play in color, while letters can conjure sounds or textures. For instance, in the case of people with synaesthesia, the brain makes cross-connections between the senses. Well, according to Cytowic, “Inwardly, we are all synesthetes” however, we don’t notice how our senses interact. We do link tastes and colors, sounds, and spaces on a daily basis. 

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Photo by David Genco from Synesthetic Calculus (stills)

The fundamental conclusion here is to base one’s design decisions on the sometimes surprising connections between the senses that we all share, such as, for example, between high-pitched sounds and small, light, fast-moving objects.

Lately, Ba and Kang (2019) proved cross modal relations between ambient sound and smell in a laboratory study that was designed to capture the sensitive cues that might be encountered in a typical civic terrain. These researchers decided to pair the sounds of birds, conversation, and traffic, with the smells of flowers (lilac, osmanthus), coffee, or bread, at one of three levels (low, medium, or high) in each modality.

While Ba and Kang’s results defy any simple synopsis, given the complex pattern of results reported, their findings nevertheless clearly suggest that sound and scent interact in terms of influencing people’s evaluation of urban design. There is, though, always a very real danger of sensory overload if the combined multisensory input becomes too stimulating.

On The Benefits of Multisensory Design: Bringing It All Together

Kroner, Stark- Martin, and Willemain (1992), these investigators examined the impact of an office makeover when a company moved to a new office building. The workers in the new office were given individual control of the temperature, lighting, air quality, and aural conditions where they were working. Productivity increased by roughly 15 in the new edifice. When the individual control of the ambient multisensory atmosphere was impaired in the new edifice, performance fell by around 2.

Trying to balance the influence of each of the senses is one of the ideals of Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, whose name we’ve come across at several points formerly in this textbook. As Steven Hall notes in the prelude to Pallasmaa’s ‘The eyes of the skin’ “I’ve experienced the works of Juhani Pallasmaa, The way spaces feel, the sound and smell of these places, has equal weight to the way things look.”(Pallasmaa)

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Photo by Charles Spence from Senses of place: architectural design for the multisensory mind

Conclusion

The quality and aspects of the world around us, including matter, space and scale, are measured by our bodies and bear the use of all our senses to produce an experience.

Stephen Halls points out that while a picture or a film might give us some idea of a space “Only the actual building allows the eye to roam freely among incentive details: only architecture itself offers the tactile sensations of textured stone surfaces and polished wooden pews, the experience of light changing with movement, the smell and resonant sounds of space; The bodily relations of scale and proportion. All these sensations combine within one complex experience, which becomes articulate and specific. Some may say that the building speaks through the silence of its perceptual phenomena.”

Experiencing architecture has less to do with what the structure looks like but rather to do with how it engages with all of our senses. People witness a space with their entire body, through movement, memory, and imagination. It’s about the dialogue between a person and architecture. Memorable architecture involves an embodied experience, which is determined by the reach and grasp of our hand, the touch of our fingers, the feeling of heat and cold on our skin, the sound of our footsteps, the stance we have taken and the position of our eye.

As we enter a space, we grasp the space through our senses and we measure and explore it with our bodies and movements. Sensual architecture deals not only with the structure, but rather with how it engages with our bodies in different ways, and at different times. The experience of an arbitrary structure is forgotten within its first visit, still, a structure which incorporates experiential qualities can be visited numerous times. This type of design pays attention to how its spaces are ordered to house its activities, how it is built, how it is structured, and what materials are used. All of these factors affect how a building is going to be experienced by those who inhabit it.

Precedents, Practices and Preaching Over Time

Space and material, light and shadow, sound and texture, are all combined in our everyday experiences. The surroundings communicate with you as one moves through each space. In his book Atmospheres, Peter Zumthor writes, In his book Atmospheres, Peter Zumthor writes, “When your touch and feel the texture of the walls, bear the footsteps dang thorough long balloons, and feel a cold breeze on your neck As you experience scene like these, it is the combination of all the senses together, which create the atmosphere’ or character of the space.” These structures which offer an experience are those that give us further than an image but offer spaces which engage each and every one of our senses.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French phenomenological philosopher, emphasizes the relationship between experience and sensory interaction when he stated: “My perception is therefore not a sum of visual, tactile, and audible givens: I perceive in a total way of my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique may of being, which speaks to all my senses at once.” Architecture only exists, when it’s endured. Its effect on us doesn’t lie in the structure or in its form, but rather with its hassle with the body.

As an experience, architecture can be intimate and deeply engaging towards the end of the eighteenth century when French engineers began exploring with an adding reference to sensation and its cognitive effect. Some presume that the preface of the attention to perception into architectural proposition took attention down from the visual, which concentrated on physical proportions to the entire body, which emphasized the significance of light and shade, shells and smells.

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Photo by April Lipatan from The Human Senses: Designing Beyond Intuition

Nicholas Le Camus de Mezieres (1721- 1789), a French mastermind and theoretician, believed in the idea that architecture should be pleasing to the senses and induce elevating prints on the heart and mind. He concentrated on the sensuous experience of architecture and believed that structures could evoke human sensations because it speaks to the mind and moves the soul.

He used the Dome of the Invalids as an illustration when he exclaimed, “Let us examine, for example, the Dome of the Invalids: what are our sensations! We are filled with astonishment and admiration; our souls are born aloft, caught up in a kind of ecstasy. It seems that we participate in the greatness of the God who is worshiped here. If we consider the outside of the dome, its pyramidal composition and the base from which it so majestically rises, we are at once more named by a sense of grandeur and magnificence.” 

He believed in architecture that could talk to you by invoking the Dome of the Invalides in Paris, which, according to Le Camus, “Lifted the soul onto thoughts of God”, and brought passions of astonishment and admiration. He believed this beauty was grounded on the harmony between architecture and the body and argued that sensory architecture could hoist the heart and mind.

Imagine a space with a sensory overload-tight room, bright lights, loud sounds, rough shells, pungent smells. This can beget extreme discomfort. Hence there needs to be a balance to produce a distinctive space and mindfulness towards different sensory channels, pivotal to user behaviour and spatial experiences. 

In conclusion, design needs to be interactive between the space and the users. A space needs to be suitable to communicate back to all the senses. As responsible designers we should take on the responsibility for a design to be human-centric; understanding the studies, passions and conduct of users. Human interaction should allow communication with spaces through sensory grounded design.

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