In the 1950s a sensory deprivation experiment was conducted in the CIA by removing the natural environment and introducing a monotonous daily routine. The participants were seen to suffer both mentally and physically. The experiment concluded that the absence of stimulation of senses can slowly change the plasticity of our brain and cause it to shrink. On a lighter note, our senses help us in experiencing the physical world. Stimulating the senses creates memories we cherish. However, this stimulation must also be varied to be effective. Hence, a varying sensory stimulation, known as alliesthesia is required for a positive experience.
The natural world is an exemplar of alliesthesia. When dissecting the case of a walk through a forest, the ‘good’ experience is a result of the little changes in light, shadow, air, smell, etc. Again, taking the case of sunlight, it is observed that the color of light is never the same at any time of the day. The blue light stimulates our senses to work, whereas, the evening light produces melatonin that helps us sleep. Therefore, it is not drastic variations but slight oscillations in the stimulation that is desired.
Now, the discipline that is responsible for intervening in our environment – architecture comes to the limelight. Historically, the built environment had favored the sense of sight more than the rest. It was philosophers like Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten who illustrated the importance of all senses and contributed to the science of it. In most of his works, Baumgarten argued that sensual cognition is important for beautiful thinking. Further concluding that sensory stimulation, more importantly, a varied one helps in logical tasks.
Beautiful thinking is a requisite for learning. Therefore, the relevance of architecture in sensory stimulation is even more apparent in pedagogy. As aforementioned, it is evident from experiments and research that connecting with the natural environment heightens our experience and consequent performance. This evidence is also demonstrated by the Noble Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s experiments at Shantiniketan.
The Shantiniketan is reputed for its open classes that are blended with nature. This is because Tagore ideated learning to be connected with the surrounding environment. The dwellings were designed to be in harmony with nature. The sensual experiences of rain, the sky, and the trees were enhanced by introducing semi-outdoor spaces like terraces and balconies. Ideology implemented in Shantiniketan was to be in sync with nature, never dominate it. Even though all dwellings embodied the character of harmony, each was a little different from the other. One mimicked a cave, while the next was inspired by the rural Bengali hut, another had a roofless porch, and then was a house on stilts. The diverse list goes on. Although the interventions were in a similar setting of tree groves, their experience would be changed due to slight alterations in architectural character. The diversity in spatial character ultimately produced creativity.
These experiments would later inspire Nisha’s Play School in Goa, India. It is a school for children aged 3-10. Stimulating learning experiences are essential in these developing years of a child. The school’s design embodies Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas. The concept had evolved from the need to optimize natural ventilation and lighting. From Tagore’s experiments at Shantiniketan, it was learned that this connection with nature provides the best stimulation. However, this stimulation too must be varied throughout the day to be beneficial. The need for variety is again fulfilled by design. The scale of classrooms is varied with the age group it hosts. Spatial experiences are enriched by introducing elements of different shapes, colors, and textures. It is further enhanced by the diverse reception of light – skylight, light shelves, large windows, and small openings. At the intersection of all variation is a playful environment. This playful space offers a range of sensual experiences to each child, irrespective of personality type, to find their own space. It allows the child to explore oneself by experimenting with elements of nature.
The experimentation helps stimulate the senses. Our interaction and the consequent experiences we have with the physical world are determined by our senses. Therefore, all physical interventions are required to be respectful to them. Time and time again, it has been proved that architecture in coherence with the natural world is responsible for a positive sensorial experience.
As large populous migrate to cities, and more lands are urbanized, the world is slowly losing its natural environments that provide the best stimulation to our senses.
With a pandemic in our hands, we are left reminiscing our memories with nature. The effect on an extreme end is the rise in mental health issues across the world. As our learning environments have evolved to artificially blue-lit screens, we have been devoid of beautiful thinking. Being confined longer than ever, our homes have become the only environment to interact with. The homes facilitating natural ventilation and lighting have become the best examples of a healthful environment for both the mind and body.
However, even the ‘best’ homes have failed to offer alliesthesia. Following the same routine repeatedly has taken a toll on our mental health. This crisis has demonstrated how important the integration of nature with the built world is. The blend generates a diversity of experiences desired for a positive sensorial experience.
NOWSHIN SHREOSHI MATIN
Growing up adjacent to a River, water life and man’s relationship with it always intrigued me. People and their stories interest me the most. Embarking on tertiary education, Architecture has allowed me to explore the lives of various people and their relationships with the natural and built environment. Through my journeys I have come to understand –Architecture is not just about design, but people in design. Since then, my research and interests have pivoted around communities, namely their social construct and relationship with the natural environment, also, how our regional practice philosophies must evolve to be relevant in this spectrum. I have been involved with workshops on Slum Upgradations. It helped in broadening my spectrum on how diverse a community can be. The on-field experiences changed my perspective on the real-life problems that I used to witness from afar.
The German Aesthetic Tradition, Kai Hammermeister, Cambridge University Press, 2002
Dwelling in Shantiniketan, Amita Sinha, Siddharth Menon and Akhila Kosaraju, Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Symposium, 2019
Santiniketan Then and Now: A Comparative Study of the Educational Philosophy and Teaching Methods of Rabindranath Tagore and their Continuing Utilization at Visva-Bharati, Peggy Sorrell, International Studies 597, Independent Research Project, Spring 1999