‘The hands want to see; the eyes want to caress.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
All our senses work together to perceive our daily worldly instincts which result in experiences. We experience by what we see, what we hear, smell, taste, and touch. In absence of the sensory perception, there would be no lasting experiences in our lives. Let’s walk through some widely known episodes which involve ultra-sensory narratives and experiences.
‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ said St Thomas when first told of Jesus’ return beyond the grave. Yet in a week, Jesus appeared in front of him and said “Reach here your finger, and behold my hands; and reach here your hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” What do we incur from this episode depicted in Italian Baroque master Caravaggio’s painting- ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’? The Doubting Thomas who refuses to trust just his sight until his touch gives him an assurance to Jesus' wounds. Thomas’s sense of touch affirms the existence of the divine in the corporeal world.
Now, dive into any one of the frames painted by the very famous French impressionist artist -Claude Monet’ and experience the truth and real meaning of nature. Smell the water lilies, feel the cool breeze caressing your face, hear the music of the fallen leaves as you walk on them, embrace the sight of being surrounded by nature, assuring you of this extremely sensual narration. Here and now, question yourself what could be the one ultimate explanation of this profound moving experience every time you are close to nature.
These visceral and embodied experiences in both of the examples above direct us to the multi-sensory experience of human beings in daily worldly situations. Such sensory encounters create meaningful memorable experiences touching us emotionally, behaviorally, physiologically, and even spiritually. Indistinguishably, Architecture, as with all art, is fundamentally confronted with questions of human existence in space and time, it expresses and relates man’s being in the world. An architecture that proactively helps its occupants to attain tranquility and comfort.
However, in the wake of the hegemony of the vision and ocular-centric culture, modern architecture has forsaken all the other senses. Modernists like Le Corbusier decisively enrich the visual paradigm in architecture. Statements by Le Corbusier as quoted in the Juhani Pallasamaa’s book- Eyes of the Skin: ‘I exist in life only if I can see’. ‘I am and I remain an impenitent visual- everything is in the visual’. One needs to see clearly in order to understand’; ‘… I urge you to open your eyes. Do you open your eyes? Are you trained to open your eyes? Do you know how to open your eyes, do you open them often, always, well?’ Architecture is a plastic thing. I mean by “plastic” what is seen and measured by the eyes.’These statements are clearly a celebration of the perception of architecture through the dominance of the eye. Whether it is the picture-perfect architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or promenade architecture of Le Corbusier and Richard Meier all points towards ocularcentrism and retinal architecture. In addition to this, globalization has led us to create homogeneity in architecture. In fetish of the new and the shiny, the cultural sensibility in designing a building or a public space is long lost. The proclivity towards pure functional architecture and the International Style (less is more) has infiltrated our traditions and has provoked cultural polarities. Henceforth, architecture without sensory experiences is passive and degenerative.
As a countercurrent against the so-called contemporary architecture, we require a poetic leap that enables human beings to establish an emotional and memorable connection to the space they inhabit. One walks through space every day, it is what surrounds and inhabits us, but do we question what makes a space memorable? What converts space into a place to be? What is the most fundamental question for an architect to design a space? The simple answer is to create and sculpt spaces that leave a long-lasting memorable impact, helping the users to reconstruct reality and build reality through sensory experiences. Seminal works of architects like Peter Zumthor, Alvar Alto, and Frank Llyod Wright profoundly express a heightened sensory experience. Zumthor rightly conveys- “In order to design buildings with a sensuous connection to life, one must think in a way that goes far beyond form and construction.” The materiality, the play of light and shade, the ultimate sensorial experience that these architects capture in their spaces is transcending. We look out for architecture that creates a total symphonic environment surrounding its users, yielding optimum tranquility and comfort. Furthermore, it should vividly stimulate an environment that encourages creativity and nurtures innovation.
Conclusively, we need an architecture that promote our senses to create an emotional response to the space we inhabit, creating a sensory memory that largely tribute to a long-lasting meaningful experience. What really is the task of architecture? ‘Its timeless task is to enable us to perceive and understand the permanence and change, to settle ourselves in the world, and to place ourselves in the continuum of culture and time’.‘Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.’
An architect by profession and a designer by passion. I lately graduated with Masters in Architecture, Built Environment and Interiors from Politecnico di Milano, Italy. Currently exploring my interest in architectural journalism to influence critical thinking and awaiting to venture out in the practical field to diminish the gap between art, architecture, and design.
1. Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin.Wiley-Academy, a division of John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005
2. Zumthor, Peter. Peter Zumthor Thinking Architecture. Birkhäuser. Basel, Switzerland, second edition-1999