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Building Living Bridges with Sensory Space: Crafting timeless connections through Architecture

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From our early years, we start to make sense of the world around us in fragments. As we recalibrate this understanding with every passing experience, there comes a need to enrich our experiences along the way. And so, voluntarily or involuntarily, we yearn to seek out meaningful ways to connect back to the world, to society, to nature, and to ourselves. In this journey of seeking, we stumble upon bridges that help us establish meaningful connections.


Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement makes an analogy of a bridge that connects our subjective experience to objective reality. The “subjective” side represents our perceptions of the world, our memories, thoughts and feelings, and the “objective” side of the bridge is the lived reality or the world as it exists, independent of our consciousness. The bridge itself is what symbolizes the processes through which our consciousness connects to the lived reality and helps us understand the world better with respect to our past experiences.

When we attempt to give this analogy tangible form, it makes perfect sense for us to perceive Architecture as that bridge, since within this realm is where life thrives in its entirety.


Can we then re-imagine Architecture and the design of the built environment as a Living Bridge that connects our inner selves to the infinite world around us in meaningful ways?


Sensory Dimensions- A Catalyst to Creating Architectural Atmospheres

For Architecture to become a powerful connector, it has to be able to evoke emotions. To that end, Sensory design can be a very effective approach in rendering spaces expressive. Barbara Erwine, author of Power of Sensory Space[1] says “The most evocative spaces encountered are the ones that have a strong relationship between the intangible sensory space and the tectonic tangible space”. Sensory Space, according to her, is an amorphous entity that is perceived more through the senses as a felt experience, as opposed to a purely visual encounter.

The beauty of Sensory spaces is that they are ephemeral, constantly moving and changing with time and context. The craftsperson or designer must understand the transient nature of Sensory space in order to sculpt an architecture that brings out its sublime beauty, thus injecting the potential for the space to arouse the visitor, the ability to seduce them into wanting to explore its layers. When Sensory space merges with tangible space in congenial ways, it creates rousing “Atmospheres” as Zumthor terms it.

This essay will attempt to bring out instances of sensory crescendos achieved when built space congenially intermingles with the 6 sensory dimensions put forth by Barbara Erwine- Light space, Thermal space, Acoustic/ Auditory space, Olfactory/ Smell space, Haptic / Tactile space, and a very important sixth sense- the Personal/ Cultural space. It will seek to unearth layers of the sensory world required to build evocative connections through Architecture.


Between Silence and Light

Light space is strongly influenced by the nature of the building envelope. In Western India, fenestrations were crafted to create light patterns through intricate traceries called Jaalis. The enchantment of luminosity is that it is constantly shifting in its tones with the movement of the sun. With an architecture that embraces the dynamism of light space, magic can be created.

The intricate traceries creating Light patterns in Sarkhej Roza Mosque, Gujarat, India Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka by architect Marina Tabassum[2] is a personification of ethereal light space. Natural light is used to instantly soften the stark geometrical form of the building. While the wall in the direction of the qibla[3] is bathed in sunlight, the devotees in front kneel on a floor dappled with sunlight streaming in through the skylights. It appears as though the stars have descended from the sky with light enabling the union of the sky and the earth, wrapping the devotees in a divine tapestry of lit constellations. Just as Light has the power to kindle emotions, so too does Shadow have the ability to stir.

Luminous Symphony of the Earth and Sky | Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka by Ar. Marina Tabassum Image Credit: Dezeen

In the book In Praise of Shadows, author Junichiro Tanizaki paints a captivating image of shadows[4]. He speaks about the Japanese discovering meditative beauty in shadows and how traditional architecture in Japan emerges out of obscurity. The roof with a deep overhang is mounted first and within its shadows, the house manifests. Interior walls are painted with muted tones, and when sunlight streams through the paper-panelled doors, it sinks into the walls with absolute repose. In a dissolving threshold of light, space fades into shadows.

In Praise of Shadows- A Japanese Room Image Credit: Rethinking the Future; Rikumo. (2019)

Comforting Thermalscapes

Thermal spaces, whether the cool shade of a magnanimous tree in the hot sun, or warm flames of fire in biting cold have the ability to breathe in a sense of comfort. Materiality plays an important role in moulding Thermal Space. In western India, dwellings are traditionally designed to protect from blazing summers. The circular Bhunga huts[5] in Kutch, Gujarat are built with thick adobe blocks, coated with mud plaster that insulate the interiors. The openings are small and roof overhangs deep, to prevent direct sunlight from penetrating the inside.

Thermal Spaces- Bhunga Huts, Gujarat, India Image Credit: The Better India

Conversely, in colder regions, fire- a source of heat can be vastly comforting. A bonfire produces thermal space around it that calls out to people to huddle and seek warmth. Fire can also bring tranquility with its crackling sounds. The aura of fire has been captured through a conical installation built by the Haugen/Zohar Arkitekter[6] for a kindergarten in Norway. Fire naturally kindles an ambience of socialising, storytelling and sharing. Using that as a cue, the architects built a cocoon with repurposed oak pieces to encompass a bonfire and create an intimate, cosy space for the children.

Cocooning Thermal Space | Fireplace for Children in Norway by Haugen/Zohar Arkitekter, Image Credit: ArchDaily

Image Credit: ArchDaily

Passive solar design strategies emerging from context also contribute to shaping thermalscapes. Courtyards are multifaceted spaces in the South Asian context that are a direct response to the climate. The open space typically within a dwelling, surrounded by built form, allows hot air to escape from the building and refreshing, cool winds to enter. They were conceptualised as spaces that promoted mental, physical and social well-being.

The Central Courtyard in Ena De Silva House, Sri Lanka, designed by Architect Geoffery Bawa Image Credit: ArchDaily
Plan indicating the central courtyard in Ena De Silva House, Sri Lanka Image Credit: Pinterest


The Sound of Space

Auditory space or Acoustic space has healing abilities. With innovation, Sound as a device can provide a stimulating experience. A unique area of the interactive soundscapes- a fusion of Architecture and Acoustic space was explored by French Musician and Architect, Iannis Xenakis, who worked with Le Corbusier’s Atelier. Xenakis invented the concept of polytopes[7] that presented to visitors, an immersive experience of sound, light, colour and space. The Polytope of Cluny was one of his compositions created in 1972. A large vaulted volume was earmarked within historic bathhouses for the installation. The light and sound show that took place within this experiential space created a riveting experience for visitors.

Polytope in Cluny- merging light, sound and space; By Iannis Xenakis Image Credit: socks-studio.com

Sounds can also be strong mnemonic devices that can trigger memories, and provide canvasses for contemplation on life and existentialism. The Teshima Art Museum, designed by Ryue Nishizawa[8] is a brilliant confluence of architecture and art. The gently curving concrete structure emulating a water droplet overlooks lush green paddy fields. 2 large elliptical cut-outs in the thin slab allow for a sensory exchange of natural elements. Within the womb-like structure, a curious installation, “Bokei”, designed by artist Rei Naito amazes visitors. Water droplets emerge from the ground in the form of mist from small apertures. The amoebic droplets that are directed by wind blowing through the elliptical oculi, move around as though of their own volition. The trickling sounds of the droplets in this magnetic auditory space make for the sensory architecture of the highest order, immersing the visitors and persuading them to sit and contemplate within and without.

The Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa- A Womb for Contemplation Image Credit: Pinterest


The Scent of Space

Urban and Architectural smellscapes can make spatial experiences compelling. Urban planner and olfactory advocate of urbanscapes, Victoria Henshaw, speaks about the necessity of embracing the delights that smell can offer to make for a multisensory experience[9]. She reinforces the fact that smells play a critical role in connecting us to the world around. But sadly, designers are eschewing the use of this potent sensory dimension in contemporary spatial environments. Henshaw illustrates the power of olfactory scapes with the example of the Moriyama & Teshima’s Multi-Faith Centre for Toronto University. The minimal space was designed to cherish and enhance the evocative power of smells during sacred rituals. The intelligently designed ventilation system allows for air to be still during rituals, for the fragrance of burning incense or sage to pervade and elevate the ceremony, and then allows the air to quickly clear up before the ceremonies of a different faith begin. This novel design acknowledged the unique smells that are associated with different cultures.

Smellscapes- Moriyama & Teshima’s Multi-Faith Centre for Toronto University Image Credit: Pinterest

The beauty of smells is that they vary drastically between regions. While walking past an Indian spice market, the aroma of roasted and ground spice wafts through the air and fills the senses, while around the patisseries of Italy, the rich olfaction of freshly baked bread lingers. Smells have the capability to produce strong neural reactions and etch themselves as memories associated with the context.


Tactile Thresholds

In her essay The Place of Place in Memory, Esther Da Costa Meyer says that “Our memories have been heavily edited, not only by fear and desire, habit and prejudice, but by the hegemony of sight, the most abstract of our senses.”[10]

Today as we absorb ourselves endlessly into digital screens, we get sucked into virtual rabbit holes and lose sight of our sense of touch- an asset that allows us to connect deeply with each other and the world. Visually impaired painter Esref Armagan sees the world through his skin. Born without sight, the Turkish artist taught himself about the world by feeling it[11]. He naturally then began expressing his learnings through paintings. Esref is also capable of drawing buildings in perfect scale and proportion, and with perspective, by experiencing the building through touch, and then imagining it in his mind before putting it to paper. Such is the power of Tactile space, that opens inconceivable gateways to imagination. If environments are designed with tactility, they are bound to become more expressive.

Juhani Pallasmaa in his book Eyes of the Skin speaks emphatically about the need for haptic environments and he cites examples of Finnish Architect Alvar Aalto’s work whose buildings he calls muscular and tactile. Aalto’s approach to the iconic Villa Mairea set a precedent for architects to translate contextual values of the past into contemporary styles. Like the surrounding birch forests inspired the tactile interiors of Villa Mairea, similarly, the Venice pavilion in 2016 designed by Swedish studios Kjellander + Sjöberg and Folkhem paid tribute to the forested foundations of Venice city. Wood as a material has an irresistible tactility because of the pleasures of texture, smell and temperature it offers. A latticed wood structure, the Venice pavilion[12] emulates a peaceful forest with filtered sunlight pouring in through the top, creating fleeting patterns. The structure's rhythmic progression was borrowed as a purposeful inversion of the Doge's Palace- a Venetian Gothic structure. This further connected the space with strong contextual associations from the past. Being within the pavilion is an intimate feeling of being cradled in nature with a soft lullaby.

Tactile Thresholds | Venice Pavilion 2016 Image Credit: Dezeen

Intimate Spaces | Venice Pavilion 2016, Image Credit: Dezeen

Sensory Memory- Evocative Power of Personal or Cultural Landscapes

Juhani Pallasmaa delves into the aspect of Cultural space when he says “Human constructions also have the task of preserving the past, enabling us to experience and grasp the continuum of culture and tradition. We do not only exist in a spatial and material reality, we also inhabit cultural, mental, and temporal realities” [13]

The 6th sensory dimension that Barbara Erwine speaks about is the Personal or Cultural Space. We find that often places with traditional space-making, the ones closer to cultural roots have an inherent atmosphere or ambience that renders them naturally evocative without planned orchestration.


Didi Contractor, an architect based in the hill town Dharamshala, in Himachal Pradesh, India, crafted Architecture that was rooted in context. Her buildings are in sync with nature and are built with local materials like mud, thatch and wood. She says, “I'm very interested in using landscape as a visual and emotional bridge between the built and the natural. Look at the old buildings, they are beautiful in the landscape, and the new ones are at war with it—they say something. One of the problems with contemporary life is losing our contact with the cycles of nature”.[14] Didi’s buildings are humble and close to the earth. In its nooks, the inhabitant feels nestled and one with the world.

Emerging from Earth | Spaces crafted by Architect Didi Contractor Image Credit: Architectural Digest India

The living roots bridges in Meghalaya[15] are natural connections across rivulets made by indigenous tribal folk living here for centuries. Grown over hundreds of years, the bridges are symbolic epitomes of the symbiotic connections between man and nature.

Architecture, like the living roots bridge, has to grow one with nature, embedding within its core- the sensory powers of the natural world; it must strive to become ephemeral and enmeshed with sensory dimensions; only then can it grow to become truly timeless.

The Living Roots Bridge in Meghalaya, India Image Credit: BBC

Author's Interview



 

AUTHOR


RAMA RAGHAVAN

Rama Raghavan is an Architectural Writer based in Pune, India. After working for several years in the Industry and Academia, she found her passion in Writing. She is also a trained musician and a self-taught artist who enjoys feeding her interests into projects through creative, out-of-the-box storyboarding. Rama strongly believes that multidisciplinary perspectives enrich design thinking and trigger critical discourses. She now works full-time as an Architectural Writer and several of her articles have been published on renowned platforms.


 

References:

[1] Erwine, B. (2016). Creating Sensory Spaces. Routledge. [2] Qibla: the direction oSf the Kaaba (the sacred building at Mecca) which Muslims face during prayer. [3] Bait Ur Rouf Mosque: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/03/05/bait-ur-rouf-mosque-dhaka-bangladesh-marina-tabassum-brick-aga-khan-award/ [4] Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. (2019). In praise of shadows. Vintage Digital. [5] Bhunga Huts of Kutch: https://sahasa.in/2020/09/03/bhunga-house-a-traditional-mud-house-of-kutch/ [6] Fireplace for children- https://www.archdaily.com/43809/fireplace-for-children-haugenzohar-arkitekter [7] Polytopes has Greek etymology- Poly: Many; topes- place. Polytopes designed by Iannis Xennakis used Cartesian coordinates to play music and light flashes from multiple points to create a dynamic experience. [8] Teshima Art Museum- https://findshikoku.com/articles/6LOWm [9] Power of Olfactory Space: https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/scents-of-place-the-power-of-the-olfactory [10] From the essay “The Place of Place in Memory” in the book Spatial recall: Memory in architecture and Landscape by Marc Treib. New York: Routledge. [11] Esref Armagan- https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/esref-armagan-a-blind-turkish-painter-who-sees-through-his-fingertips-53568 [12] Venice Pavilion 2016: https://www.dezeen.com/2016/05/29/forests-of-venice-pavilion-venice-architecture-biennale-2016-kjellander-sjoberg-folhem-wood/ [13] Quote by Juhani Pallasmaa in his essay “Space, Place, Memory, and Imagination: The Temporal Dimension of Existential Space” in the book Spatial recall: Memory in architecture and Landscape by Marc Treib. New York: Routledge. [14] Didi Contractor- https://www.architecturaldigest.in/content/meet-octogenarian-architect-speaks-language-mud-clay/ [15] Living roots bridges: https://www.meghalayatourism.in/experiences/living-root-bridges-2/

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