Sensory architecture in silent vision
Maryam Asgari explores the world of architecture and design using all of the senses
One of the most important concepts in the world is quality of life. When a place affects a person’s quality of life, an architect must consider the effects of their design on the people who inhabit this space. This is especially true when it comes to elderly, disabled and visually impaired people who have experienced partial or complete loss of one sense. Such people do not necessarily achieve the same quality of life and often, public understanding does not lead to the creation of suitable conditions for their activities.
If you or I were to describe a building, our description would probably start with what it looks like. Considering how someone who is blind would begin to describe it and what their experience of the same building might be, takes us into the realm of sensory architecture.
About 314 million people worldwide are visually impaired; 45 million of these people are legally blind. These statistics provide all the more reason to create special architecture and urban spaces in our cities. Vision is the most common form of communication in architecture; however we benefit from incorporating other senses into this communication too. For example, hearing provides us with yet another sensory window into the world and if used skilfully can enhance our experience of architecture.
Our surroundings provide endless opportunities for communication with the human body. Moving through an architectural space, we may feel the texture of a wall with our hands, hear echoes reverberating around the building as we move, feel a cold breeze on our skin and walk towards something. By engaging all the senses, the form and function of a building can be more fully expressed so that people who move through it are able to experience deeper and more meaningful moments with their surroundings. When experiencing these scenes, it is not only the eye that creates the experience, it is a combination of all the senses together that creates the space and architecture comes to life.
Our sight-oriented world has influenced things in such a way that vision is almost the only approach we use to judge architecture. However, an emphasis on other senses in designing new architecture would produce more sensual and sensitive spaces for both visually impaired and sighted people, allowing them to communicate with others at a more intimate level.
Contemporary architecture must be reinvented. Award-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando believes that “architectural materials are not limited to wood or concrete, which have tangible forms, but go beyond to include light and wind which appeal to our senses.”
Do other senses contribute equally to the architectural design of projects? Consideration of sound itself and the way we listen to the space are an essential but undervalued part of the design process and how we experience architecture. Architecture should be explored as a body of resonance. ”It’s a vessel which produces sound, the focus is not just on mathematical quantification of sound and design, but also how a listener experiences space and is affected by it”( Federica Goffi).
In addition, other senses such as smell, touch and even taste can also enhance the experience of architecture, though they are perhaps less important than sound.
Architectural spaces have certain atmospheres that influence the emotional state of a person, affecting the interaction between the environment and its occupant.
“There was a time when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went to my aunt’s garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase; I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen, the only really brightly lit room in the house.” 1