ARCHITECTURE AND THE SENSES

“The hand wants to see, the eyes want to caress.”
~J.W. von Goethe

Typically considered as separate entities acting individually, the senses tend to work in synergy to inform each other of a cohesive experience. The distinguished contribution of each sense resulting in holistic immersion is a concept known as Phenomenology. Sensory cues induce emotive characteristics in a space. These can be visual, auditory, olfactory, environmental or haptic cues of any nature. An architecture which reacts to this often neglected sensory palette is capable of restoring an experience ground in existence, an affect. The term has been used to describe the instinctual response evoked by the play of architectural elements such as form, material, scale and proportion, light and shadow, color, methods of construction, etc. The contribution of each sense is equal in power, yet unique in character.

The perception of sound in architecture is complex; every building has one. Upon entering a quiet library, the sound of turning pages is amplified; in a chapel, whispered prayers are captured gracefully. Sound can help mold a space with the help of materials and textures which tend to reflect, modify, absorb, channel, or amplify sound — depending on its characteristics of course. This omnidirectional bodily phenomenon is not constrained, unlike vision; its horizonless fluid nature allows it to meander about unrestricted.

In The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa notes the significance of sound in historical cities as opposed to the contemporary city, in which buildings fail to return sound anymore. The streets no longer resonate with yelling merchants, playful children, or conversing pedestrians; it is all lost today in the absorbent fabric of the city that abridges echoes.

The implications of the haptic realm have been discovered by researchers to be psychological. Texture, temperature, as well as the weight of materials tend to have an effect on our emotions and behavior. This explains why we deem concrete as a brutal material, unlike wood, which evokes feelings of warmth and comfort. This phenomenon has been meagerly experimented with in the past, and mostly neglected in the design of the built environment today. Its potential to impact perception of space remains powerful, however.

The tactile realm is simultaneously admired for its ability to preserve impressions of the past. Pallasmaa identifies its potential as a strong connection to time, tradition, and vestige.

“…through impressions of touch, we shake the hands of countless generations.”
~ Juhani Pallasmaa

The sense of smell is universally understood; however, the emotions it evokes and the memories it restores vary on an individual basis. The nose is known to be the most powerful generator of memories, bridging the past and present with a slight sniff. Certain smells are imbedded in our memories, and are hard to recollect upon discretion — they often require a trigger. This recollection typically floods the mind with visual images associated with the specific smell; visuals that would otherwise be inaccessible.

“…unlike the other senses, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation.”
~Diane Ackerman

The eye, infamous as a ‘gullible’ sense, is considered to be the prime vehicle for spatial perception. For centuries our built environment has been shaped to address the visual sense — ornamentation, symmetry, rigid proportions, rhythm, patterns — are principles catering solely to the visual realm. Making aesthetics the chief priority concludes in soulless buildings where choice of material is justified exclusively against aesthetic criterion and fails to engage the auditory, haptic, or olfactory realms. Captivating design that caters to all senses is experienced on levels far superior than simply the visual.

“Every touching experience…is multi- sensory; qualities of matter, space, and scale are measured equally by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton, and muscle.”
~Juhani Pallasmaa

Rushika H.P. is a licensed architect and principal of Hólos Architecture + Design in Florida. She focuses on pure, functional, and beautiful architectural & interior design solutions for the modern home and is passionate about furniture design, graphic design, photography and travel. For more design tips and trends, subscribe here!