Designing for the Senses
“Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world,
and this mediation takes place through the senses”
- Juhani Pallasmaa
As architects and designers, we make decisions based upon a multitude of pressures and instigators. These pressures include coming in on-time and under budget, exceeding client expectations, and growth of the firm. In conjunction with these considerations, the instigators are those factors that are driving the architectural world as a whole - such as design trends, new technologies, and socio-political events. When a new work of architecture is finished, it is the embodiment of that moment in time, in that part of the world. Nevertheless, a work of architecture is more than a three dimensional snapshot of history, it is something different to everyone that engages with it. From the occupants that live or work in the building every day, to the passersby, it affects people differently. How occupants and passersby engage with the architecture is dependent upon their senses. While sight is the most obvious connection a person has, it is not the only way. One of the main drivers of the success of a building comes from how it stimulates all of the senses.
Wyandot Lodge - Columbus, OH: daylighting and material selection are integral to the experience of this space.
Beginning with the obvious, the sense of sight, allows people to navigate their way through a building. They can see the differences in materials, the changes in light and color, and the relationship of that building to its surroundings. The architectural profession as a whole is focused a lot on this sense. From the hyper-realistic renderings, to the wayfinding techniques and material choices, a lot of the decisions we make are grounded in aesthetics.
Georgian Heights Elementary School - Columbus, OH: use of color, daylight, and material changes engage multiple senses at once.
When touch becomes a part of the experience, architecture becomes connected to a person’s memory. Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect known for his architectural theory book The Eyes of the Skin, believes that “all senses are an extension of touch…vision reveals what touch already knows.”2 While sight is an important sense in architecture, one cannot underestimate the impact of touch on the human experience. Through this sense, people can elevate their experience within a space, utilizing the ability to feel the cold temperature of concrete and the smooth grain of the wood. They can feel the warmth of sunlight through the windows and the material change underneath their feet. Whether it’s a moment of wonder or a calming comfort, people remember how buildings make them feel.
2610 Vine Street/Dive Bar - Cincinnati, OH: daylighting and materials help to define the space. Occupants can feel the warm sun, touch the cold metal, and feel the smooth wood under foot.
There are various ways to engage occupants through the sense of touch. Material selection can be crucial. The experience of the material, or materiality, is different from the mere selection of materials1. While concrete and wood have different effects in a space, it is how people interact with the two materials that defines materiality. Concepts such as tectonics (the poetics of construction)3 and stereotomics (being of the earth)3 can enhance materiality as they portray feelings of lightness or heaviness. In our technology-centric society, we often get consumed by the things happening on a screen. Therefore, by incorporating materiality and concepts like biophilic design into space we can encourage visitors to interact with buildings in a way they cannot through a screen.
Big Lots Corporate Headquarters - Columbus, OH: the undulating elevator wall encourages visitors to touch and engage with the space.
The next two senses, sound and smell, have foundations in nostalgia. These senses have the ability to transport occupants to specific moments in their lives, even to other parts of the world.
Sound can have a profound impact on a person’s experience within and around a building. We have all been in places with poor acoustics - often it can be the first thing people remember when describing the place to others. While there are regulations and standards for noise control, good architecture goes beyond the bare minimum. It is important to know how to control and enhance the impact of sound. While acoustics is carefully considered in projects such as theaters and auditoriums, it should be given similar respect in all other project typologies. For example, we could consider how the sound of water initiates relaxation, and how purposeful white noise can allow for better concentration through sound mitigation.Schoedinger Funeral Home - Upper Arlington, OH : the sound of the water in this project inspires a sense of calm.
The sense of smell can also be a powerful tool. Unfortunately, in a lot of architecture, the smell associated with it comes from off-gassing of the materials, adhesives, paints, and more. These volatile organic compounds can negatively affect occupant health in many ways, but it can also leave them with a poor experience and memory of the project. However, there can be positive smells associated with a building that come from restaurants, markets, or coffee bars. Also, by incorporating living features, such as plants, toxins can be removed from the air and generate pleasant smells, which allow occupants to positively relate to the space.
Taste is the most obscure sense when it come to architecture unless you are designing a restaurant, kitchen, or food market. Since the sense of taste is very reliant upon the sense of smell, it can be deduced that the smell of a building can affect the “taste” of it.
As Juhani Pallasmaa stated, “architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses”2 - we experience architecture as a combination of all the senses. Only when we consider this relationship can we turn a space into a place that people want to be and that they will deeply remember. By taking advantage of multi-sensory design we can unlock innovative spaces that are attuned to the needs and wants of the user. By holistically engaging the senses, we can truly enrich lives through innovative design.
Sources: Chicago Style:
- Frampton, Kenneth, and John Cava. Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. Chicago, IL: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, 2007.
- Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
- Semper, Gottfried, and Harry Francis. Mallgrave. The Four Elements of Architecture: And Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1851.
Sustainability Coordinator, Project Coordinator
Jessica is a 2018 graduate of the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Cincinnati where she was awarded the AIA's Henry Adams Medal. Although young, she already has considerable experience with design around the world having studied in Italy and worked at various architectural firms in Beijing, San Francisco, Charlottesville, VA, Houston and Cincinnati. A Living Building Challenge Ambassador, Jessica has a passion for sustainable design. She loves her two rescue dogs, Kailo and Lupin, who bring such joy and craziness to her home.