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Innate sensory beings

Interior views of Mosque Hassan 2’s opening ceiling in Casablanca.

Architecture is all visual? There is more to it than meets the eye! One cannot remember specifically the design of his or her childhood house but do remember the coldness of its door handle, the warmth of the sun shining through its patio, family members’ intertwined voices echoing through the courtyard and the unique smell of home experienced every time the door is opened. All humans can relate to this remembrance since all of us naturally engage in a multi-sensory experience. Architecture is the primary instrument in interacting with the world. It impacts the body , it frames the memory, shapes the behaviour, and manifestly heightens human experience.

Every memorable encounter with architecture is multi-sensory , one that engages a dialogue with the individual making him or her a participant rather than a mere observer. This engagement needs to stimulate the body as well as the mind: perception and cognition. Humans receive information through senses, generating awareness (perception). The information is then processed into one’s understanding (cognition), which in turn defines the individual’s reality. Humans experience three different kinds of sensory response: involuntary immediate physical response, a response conditioned through prior knowledge of its source, and a remembered sensation, which can reconstruct a past response.[1] The more senses triggered, the more a person is tied to a space. Jinsop Lee ,an innovative designer, illustrates this in his Ted Talk. He presents The Five Senses Graph. According to his understanding of the senses, the epitome experience is one that sparks all senses on a maximum range. However, as Lee describes, the escalation of one of the senses can bring a refreshing intensity to the occurrence. The thrilling escapade one can have in the Hassan 2 mosque[2] showcases how triggering multiple senses heightens human experience. Giving that it’s built almost completely over the ocean, the visitor can enjoy the refreshing smell of the sea and feel the heat of the sun shining past its retractable ceiling. caress its luxurious carpets, and wander through its monumental walls granting the eyes a voyage over time.

Our minds constantly crave stimulation. An architecture that provides variations of senses can truly give a marvelous sensory experience. One that can ease the users’ anxiety and stress levels, thus engaging refreshing and restorative emotions. When enough senses are triggered, a highly beneficial experience is created.

As stated above, sensory design can influence how individuals feel , behave and ultimately shapes their sense of self. The main question here is how can this be attained positively?

Interior views of the Hazelwood school in Glasgow. Photographed by Courtesy of Alan Dunlop Architect.

Sight , the dominant sense? It is clearly stated by the icon of modern architecture, Le Corbusier: I exist in life only if I can see[3]. So, how does someone without sight or with a visual impairment experience space? This realm alone is unable to form a holistic spatial awareness, understanding and engagement. A prominent example of a positive sensory architecture is reflected by the Hazelwood school designed by Alan Dunlop Architect Limited. The project is geared for children who have a degree of cognitive impairment. As such, the architects sought to create interactive spaces rather than objects, for instance, the sensory cork wall. Thus allowing the users to have a positive experimental value.

Installation view of The Art of the Scent exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. Photo © Brad Farwell.

The olfaction realm, combined with other senses can trigger captivating emotions (through memory), creating a pleasurable architectural experience, hence engaging the user. For instance, The Art of the Scent (1889-2012), Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition, is a project that invites the individual into a complete sensory adventure. It embraces the ephemeral purity of olfactory art itself [4]. The architects designed three walls excavated like almost organic “dimples.” Each dimple is proportioned to take in one visitor, who upon inclining his or her head into that space, is met with an eruption of fragrance released by a hidden diffusion machine.

Interior view-sculpture: Sound Of Light at the Urban Lights Ruhr in Hamm. Photo© Marco Canevacci, Simone Serlenga.

Acoustic experience is what creates real connection to a space, despite the fact that it is mostly an unconscious act. A room’s ambience can be heard through its sound reverberations, and breeze of the air. Jacques Lusseyran describes his new-found perception of the ocean after going blind: It was evening, and there was nothing there but the sea and its voice. It formed a mass which was so heavy and limpid that I could have leaned against it like a wall. ... I didn’t need to be told about the things that eyes can see. [5] The Sound of Light, by Marco Barotti and Marco Canevacci, is a synesthetic sculpture which interprets and lively transcribes sunlight into audio frequencies. This sensory design is composed of six coloured columns, hanging from the ceiling; they are intended to receive frequencies and transform them from ocular to audible sensory event.

The gustatory sense may not be as easy to incorporate in sensory design, as the other senses. Nevertheless, taste is strongly related to spaces. Visual perception transfers to gustatory experience over the usage of colors. Certain associations evoke tastes which brings depth and character to the environment .

Since sensory architecture revives our senses, it indisputably affects our memory. Humans naturally memorize and imagine places. Hence the multi-sensory combinations that form in our brain grant individuals the creation of meaning and memory. Memorable experiences of architecture, enhance our experience of self. Our domicile becomes integrated with our self-identity; it becomes part of our own body and being.[6]

Moving the occupants physiologically, emotionally, intellectually and behaviorally is the essence of a responsive sensory architecture. Engaging certain spatial stimuli connections generates a life-enhancing experience, that proactively guides its users to function and feel better. By aiming to stimulate the senses, the design positively frames occupants' thoughts thus emotions.




Chaïmae is a fourth year architecture student, from Morocco. Fascinated by the interrelation between architecture and celestial landscape (fiery clouds, dazzling moon, rosy sunrises and flaming sunsets…). Further, dancing grants her inspiration to generate architectural design concepts.



[1] Malnar and Vodvarka, Sensory Design, 21

[2] Michel Pinceau, the largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 7th largest in the world, opened in 1993

[3] Le Corbusier, “Je n’existe dans la vie qu’à condition de voir,” in Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme, Paris: Crès, 1930, 8.

[4] Jimmy Stamp, Smithsonian Magazine,January 2013

[5] Devlieger, Patrick. Blindness and the Multi-Sensorial City, 31

[6] Pallasmaa, The Eyes of The Skin, 72


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