It is an undeniable fact that the built constitutes an important part of our environment and plays a crucial role in shaping our experiences and memories. We had begun experiencing architecture even before we heard, or knew, how to speak the word: by touching, licking, smelling, walking,crawling or moving through spaces. Our bodies are the centre of our experience of this world, and in that body, our senses are rooted.
The human body possesses five sense, namely – Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing and Taste, out of which the most well developed is the sense of sight and the least developed is that of taste. These senses constantly observe things around them, informing our body of the world, thus shaping our memories and perception, and consequently, our imagination. Through our eye, we experience the geometry, form, colour,size, while through touch, we experience the texture and shape; through our ears we hear sounds that give us an idea of the size of the space, and so on.
Clearly, it is through all our senses that we ‘perceive’ a space, and we can safely assume that it is the physicality of the space that brings about the experience. Amongst the senses, as mentioned before, the sense of sight or vision is the most well developed. As crucial as vision is in understanding and experiencing the world around us, a stage has come where all importance is given to the visual. Within the field of architecture, there exists this visual hegemony: a bias that regards sight as the jewel in the crown of our senses.
For some reason, down the ages, user experience has taken a step back to allow form and function to gain importance. Rapid globalization and the need to ‘mass produce’ buildings has ventured away from providing the user with a holistic experience that caters to all the senses. Instead, providing the perfect visual aesthetic has become the main concern. The Western ideas of ocular centrism has reduced our spatial understanding. A lot of the architecture that we see today is, simply, a ‘feast for the eye’ and nothing else. During the design process, architects’ sensibilities have been overshadowed because of the great amount of attention given to the visual aspect.
While designing concert halls, special attention would be paid to the acoustics of it, or while designing spaces for the disabled, importance is given to the other senses. When the function is very specific, the other senses are taken into account, but this response is lacking when it comes to the design of ordinary buildings. Renowned Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has very correctly observed – ‘Instead of experiencing our being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the surface of the retina.’ (Pallasmaa, 2005) But, architecture does have the potential to serve a deeper function than being just a ‘visual art’.
In fact,studies and experiments have shown that one of the most effective ways to drive a human being insane is by putting him/her in a stark white box-like room with identical (and absolutely blank) walls,floor and ceiling,that is, an environment devoid of sensory stimulation. Imagine if the world itself were to be reduced to such a white box condition, lacking in sensory stimuli. This is where the importance of realizing what role the senses and stimuli play in our daily life,lies.
Taking all the senses into account while designing does not mean we would be compromising on the visual aspect of it. It means designing for all the senses, so that experience of each sense can be used to enrich and magnify the perception of a space as a whole. An architectural approach that is conscious of all the senses is not limited by the visual appearances of the built. This idea is observable in Tadao Ando’s philosophy to architecture; “I wish to build an architecture which would appeal not only to the eyes of viewers but to all the five senses of men.” (Ando 1990) Architecture, thus, is much more than “what meets the eye”.
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