Sensory architecture, or architecture specially crafted to stimulate our senses, can be something of a double bind; at once these spaces allow us to see and experience novel concepts but at the same time, they can stop our ability to notice. Through sensory architecture, we tease with the danger of reducing interaction to a spectacle. We are captured in a time of every increasing stimulus, of excitement and growth; sensory overload causes a dopamine dependency – a need for more! With our head in the clouds, we are unable to see the beauty within the everyday, even in the mundane, we run the risk of limiting our memories only to extravagance.
Sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell are the five senses we employ to collect information about our environment, and how our brains compute where our bodies stand. These inputs act as anchors to commit time and space to memory, subsequently we form an emotional response based on how these sensory inputs make us feel. It is the emotional response that then becomes the shining star that allows us to recall these memories back. The five senses provide us with the gift to read our landscapes like the pages of a book, our everyday experiences are then written as a story of emotional recollections – the smell of a certain meal reminds us not of the taste of the food but of the family members we are used to enjoying it with.
I remember running the length of the wooden pier as a child, it felt as though it stretched out forever; compared to my childish size the pier was enormous, a great bridge across the sea. My gaze flits between the gulls arcing across the azure sky to staring straight down through the gaps in the wooden slats. The swell of the waves far below pushing me off balance as I tried to run against them, the resounding echo growing deeper and deeper as my bare feet struck the coarse timber. The reason why this memory is etched so vividly in my mind is because I also remember sitting for hours, tears pearled in the corners of my eyes whilst my dad plucked the splinters from my bruised feet. The key here is that the ease to recall the memory is not linked to the spectacle of the bridge across the sea, or the clear blue sky or the forceful waves, but to the emotional connection of sitting for hours with my father whilst he tended to my wounded little soles.
It has been suggested that touch is the first sense, the first sense in which as babies we first develop, perhaps in the form of a smack on the bum or the closing of our fingers around another much larger finger. You may now use your elbow to measure the temperature of bathwater or press your face warmly against someone else’s. It is important to recognize that touch is not solely sensed through the fingertips, but every patch of our bodily envelopes.
In a forest close to my home, I walk in an attempt to retreat from the towering city which numbs the senses. Shuffling through the bushes and the trees I frequently mistake soiled tissues, pacifiers and spent whipped cream charger canisters for flowers, mushrooms and insects. The forest is not still, the hum of the nearby city is vibrating up through the roots of the trees and into the leaves and upper canopy. The ‘thwack-thwack-thwack’ of the circling helicopter, drone of the prop plane and roar of the motorbikes as they scorch the nearby tarmac, all are out of sight, but I am acutely aware of their proximity. I touch the aching trees; the bark feels like knives against my softened touchscreen fingers. The trunk bares the markings of an old gang, “R + A 4 eva” enveloped by a love heart, followed by “I.B, H.B, J.S, 1977”. I ponder if R and A are still happily together; this snapshot from fifty years ago feels very melancholy, like a message from an alien species.
The built environment acts as an incubator for emotional experience and memory, we are all integral parts of the environments we inhabit, we push and pull at them, build up and dismantle them – the way we move through them and interact with them contains intricate details which can be personal, cultural or spiritual to name a few. It is our job, as sculptors of our habitats to nurture them so has to continue to harbor our beloved memories as well as ensure we can create new ones.
My most prized memory of bricks and mortar is of a windowsill with a palm-sized dimple, the paint worn smooth to expose bare sandstone from where keys have been tossed time and time again at the end of a long day. This windowsill was part of my every day, and became a point of reflection, a familiar friend. The daily erosion of material created an anchor, linked to the emotional comfort of home, and is now an everlasting memory – an archi-story.
Lawrence lives and works in London as a Designer and Producer within the architecture and design industry. His work focuses on place and space-making, with particular interest in the public realm, focusing on ideas of how we read and experience our built and natural environments. He collaborates with artists, architects, engineers and technologists to name a few. Currently working as a Production Manager for the installation artist Jason Bruges, Lawrence has worked with public and private clients worldwide to create engaging, educational and reflective artworks – his ethos focuses on collaborative practice and creating a level playing field on which projects can grow.