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Feel the design: what is architectural sensoriality and how to examine it

Fig.1 Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. (2018). The Senses Design Beyond Vision Both a Feat and a Feast

In 1970s, artists adopted senses as political devices and challenged the prevailing use of vision in art making (Bucknell, 2018). Series of artworks emerged in public space, including those of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramović which created happenings to weave a narrative between space and audience (Yoshimoto, 2005; Hallas, 2019). While nowadays, when people are asked about what sensory architecture is, an image might immediately pop up in many minds, followed by the imagined sound, smell, or temperature of an idealized space. The predominance of ocular-centric perception seems to have suppressed our imagination of environments fertilized with a wider spectrum of somesthetic stimulations. Simultaneously, due to the emerging virtual representations of built environments such as photos and videos, pseudo architectural sensoriality is at its most convenient time for pretenses. In such alarming context, this essay argues that true sensory architecture must activate a comprehensive range of bodily perceptions and withstand the scrutiny of authentic experience.

The exhibition entitled “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision”took on the idea that designing for the full spectrum of sensory experience can better connect us to the material world.

“Seeing Is Not Believing”: Sensoriality in Full Sense Spectrum

Sensory architecture should incorporate a thorough consideration of the experiences felt in embodied perception. Although architects and scientists have demonstrated an extensive focus on visual sense (e.g., Firestein, 2012), other sense modalities such as those of touch and smell have been neglected until recently (e.g., Ricciardi et al., 2014; Lacey and Sathian, 2015). In common English usage, seeing not only signifies an acquisition of visual information but also conveys the meaning of knowing (e.g., “seeing is believing”, “I see your point”). This customary expression suggests the dominance of vision over other methods of constructing knowledge, which results in the overemphasis upon visual perception within psychophysical and neuroscientific studies on architectural space (Papale et al., 2016). Such tyranny of vision precludes a more comprehensive and rigorous analysis of architectural sensoriality.

To underpin the importance of tactile senses for understanding space, Pallasmaa (1996) argues, “the very essence of the lived experience is moulded by hapticity and peripheral unfocused vision … All these senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense” (p. 10). Sensory architecture should not only provide ocular pleasure but also stimulate human senses from diverse aspects such as sound, smell, and touch. In 2018, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum presented an exhibition entitled ‘The Senses: Design Beyond Vision’ (Figure 1). This exhibition showcased 78 projects consciously designed for the full sensory spectrum, aiming to properly situate and immerse the audience in the material world, and forge a tighter connection to it (Bucknell, 2018). It condensed conceptual knowledge of spatial reality into fragmented design pieces that mobilized bodies and affected feelings, thus turning architecture into a sensorial spa. In this case, architectural sensoriality is created with stimulation of senses and is manifested through bodily responses.

Fig. 2, Chong-Art Photography. (2020). Steven Chilton Architects reveals visuals of silk-informed theatre in Guangzhou

This digital rendering of Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre designed by Steven Chilton Architects shows a embellished and idealised image of the building.

Authentic Experience as a Testing Device for True Sensory Architecture

“To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder,” Bernard Tschumi famously said (Tschumi, 1996. p. 100). He stressed the significance of events in the meaning of architecture which require human engagement. Sensoriality is a human-centered property of architecture, and thus spaces dedicated to sensational experience would not be complete without bodily participation which activates sense organs that obtain ‘sense-data’[1].

Fig. 3, Mingjie Li. (2020). 2020 China's top ten ugliest buildings, who won the prize?

Amateur photo of Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre reveals its formal in harmony with its context and its overly saturated red color.

The crucial distinction, however, is that holistic and multimodal bodily participation inherently differs from single-modal virtual inspections. Viewing architecture through a pictorial or videographed form reduces experience to a mere ocular and acoustic observation, therefore omitting other sensorial messages such as touch and smell, thereby resulting in a narrow and ‘myopic’ construction of ‘sense-data’. Such failed examination is often caught in the discrepancy between representation and reality (e.g., a deliberately embellished rendering of a building versus its actual mediocre presentation, see comparison between Figure 2 and Figure 3). In addition, physical presence does not guarantee authenticity. Curator Ellen Lupton gave an example: Appreciating an exhibited object in a museum would only give us visual information because intimate examinations of it such as touching are prohibited (Bucknell, 2018). Similarly, one must scrutinize architecture and enlist varied senses as instruments for examining its sensoriality. Since sensory architecture stimulates diverse sense spectrums, it should also withstand authentic bodily examination.


Although visual quality of a space contributes largely to the assessment of its sensoriality, pivotal here is that all somesthetic perceptions are equally weighted. Vision, auditory perception, tactility, olfaction and even gustation are all among the diverse selection of sensations that sensory architecture ought to stimulate. Besides, it is also crucial to test and verify architectural sensoriality through authentic bodily experience. No infatuation of sensoriality will benefit design if architects and critics are merely fantasized with a singular sensation and cease to examine sensoriality with intimate inspection.




Qiyu Chen graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2020 with a Bachelor's degree in Design (Architecture major). His interests span from phenomenology to the interdisciplinary study of architecture and moving images. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.



[1] ‘Sense-data’ is defined as “things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on” (Russell, 1912).

Bucknell, A. (2018). Architecture you can smell? A brief history of multisensory design. Metropolis.

Hallas, R (Ed.). (2019). Documenting the Visual Arts. Routledge.

Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lacey, S., and Sathian, K. (2015). Crossmodal and multisensory interactions between vision and touch. Scholarpedia 10:957. doi: 10.4249/scholarpedia.7957

Pallasmaa, J. (1996). The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. John Wiley & Sons.

Ricciardi, E., Bonino, D., Pellegrini, S., and Pietrini, P. (2014). Mind The blind brain to understand the sighted one! Is there a supramodal cortical functional architecture? Neurosci Biobehav. Rev. 41, 64–77. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.10.006

Russell, B. (1912). The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Tschumi, B. (1996). Architecture and Disjunction. MIT Press.

Yoshimoto, M. (2005). Into Performance: Japanese Woman Artists in New York. Rutgers University Press.

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