The Visual Image
In an increasingly digitalised world, architecture is influenced by the visual and the virtual image. When we see buildings on the internet, we see two dimensional visual representations of what a building is or what the building is supposed to become. We even see buildings that do not exist in reality.
Thanks to more visual techniques and more media attention to architecture, architecture itself is adapting to this new situation. Architects are putting even more appealing images on the screen. Whereas in the past you could only judge a finished building ‘in situ’, it is now possible to write your comment on many blogs with the click on the mouse button. That does no do justice to contemporary architecture. Since more criticism relates to the visual aspect of architecture, people look at the visual representation only, instead of seeing the object in real life. This new phenomenon means that architecture has already been judged, based on the digital representation of the object.
As architects anticipate this new kind of criticism, architecture – instead of being an object with different layers of experience – is reduced to the single layer of vision. According to Juhani Pallasmaa, “Instead of an existentially grounded plastic and spatial experience, architecture has adopted the psychological strategy of advertising and instant persuasion; buildings have turned into image products detached from existential depth and sincerity”[i]. As Pallasmaa further explains, we have become spectators instead of participators in our surroundings, looking at a visual image projected on our retina.[ii] As a consequence we feel detached from our surroundings and that could explain why we feel alienated in many contemporary urban environments.
In order to stop the alienation of architecture, we must strive towards a higher awareness of multi-sensory perception in contemporary architecture.
Perception of Architecture
Take for example the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy. When you visit this square, you will notice that the space is described by the architecture surrounding it. Moreover, San Marco Square has a certain atmosphere. You will recognize the surroundings as architecture, but it is not only architecture itself that defines the atmosphere of San Marco Square. That atmosphere is also generated by the sound of the tourists and the birds, the feeling of the paving stones, the warmth of the sun and the smell of the sea.
Norberg-Schultz states that a place cannot be considered by its visual appearance alone. If we want to define the whole ‘atmosphere’ of place we must, according to Christian Norberg-Schultz, ask ourselves the following questions,: “How is the ground on which we walk, how is the sky above our heads, or in general: how are the boundaries which define the place.”[iii]
The surroundings communicate with the human body as you move through the space, feel the texture of the walls with your hands, hear the footsteps echoing through the hallway, feel a cold breeze in your neck or walk towards the light.
As you experience a scene like this, it is not only the eye which creates the experience. It is the combination of all the senses together, which creates the ‘atmosphere’ or character of the space.
It is difficult to predict how we will perceive the surroundings, because it is related to our emotions and senses. That is why perception is often seen as something irrational. Empirical research on perception has revealed many theories on how we perceive and experience space. Unlike the applied sciences, there is as yet no general theory about perception.
According to Kamiel van Kreij’s thesis, perception of architecture consists of three major concepts: hapticity, kinesthesia and syneasthesia.[iv] Even though they have different names, it is important to see these three concepts together, because they constitute how we perceive our surroundings, but also tell us that none of these three concepts stand alone.
I will briefly explain these concepts, because they define a more constructive view on how we ‘as humans’ perceive architecture.
Haptic experience refers to experience through touch, but whereas touch has often a two-dimensional character, haptic experience becomes three-dimensional. Or as Gibson clarifies: “ […] the haptic system can yield information about solid objects in three dimensions, whereas touch, in the narrow sense of cutaneous impressions, has been supposed to be capable of yielding information only about patterns on the skin in two dimensions”.[v] Often the haptic experience is created through active exploration of the environment using your body. Because movement is involved in this active exploration, a connection exists with kinesthesia.
Gibson describes haptic experience as a very complex matter: “The sense of touch in the everyday meaning of the term turns out to be an extremely elaborate and powerful perceptual system but not a sense in either the physiological or the introspective meaning of the term. Nor is it a clearly definable group of senses with just so many nerves and corresponding qualities of sensation”.[vi]
Because of this, haptic experience is not explainable in a simple way: you always have to define the hapticity further when discussing haptic experience in design.
According to Juhani Pallasmaa, touch is the most primary experience in architecture because the senses of the skin are the mediator between the skin and the world. Also according to Hegel, touch is the only sense which can give us a feeling of depth, “touch senses weight, resistance, and three-dimensional shape of material bodies and thus makes us aware that things extend away from us in all directions”[vii].
You can say that hapticity confirms our impression of depth, which we see through our eyes.
Kinesthesia is the exploration of our environment through movement; this can be movement with the eyes, or with our body. Diana Agrest explains Kinesthesia in a broader context: “ Other senses beyond the limits of the visual and the spatial, such as audition and metonymically the entire body through time, rhythm, movement, and speed become relevant as part of representation. Speed, a dimension inseparable now from space-time, is perceived with the entire body and in particular through the vestibular, a sixth sense that, named after the inner ear, accounts for balance, motion sickness, dizziness and vertigo”.[viii] Kinesthesia is not a direct interpretation of our surroundings by the senses, which makes it somewhat difficult to explain. Even though everybody understands it as something with which they are born. Also by active exploration of the environment, a direct relation with touch and movement exists and therefore with hapticity as well. This makes it very important for architecture, because moving through space with the body, or just moving with the eyes makes us experience architecture in a less static way. A good example of kinesthesia in the urban environment is parkour.[ix] This street sport uses the urban environment as its domain. The goal is to get as quickly as possible from one point in the city to another overcoming urban obstacles. If kinesthesia is taken into account in the design process, it is possible to generate architecture, as well as urbanism, as a more multi-layered experience. Like a walk through the forest, stimulating movement of the body.
Syneasthesia implies a phenomenon that transfers sensory information from one sense to the other. A good example of this concept the way in which we refer to the colour blue as being cold.
Syneasthesia is often seen as a combination of all the input from the senses in the mind. Even though it cannot be fully explained by natural science, its existence is not questioned.[x] Charles E. Osgood defines syneasthesia as follows: “the use of descriptions from one sense modality for sensations from a different one”.[xi] Aristotle saw syneasthesia as the device connecting all the senses together, to create a coherent representation. This device was later known as the ‘sensus communis’.[xii] According to Wolfflin, this association within the mind in relation to sense and sensation, can be seen as, for example, the way you experience lines in woodwork as warm lines and steel engraving as cold lines. Because of earlier experiences with the sensory properties of the material, your memory relates to those properties again by seeing, without touching the object. According to Kamiel van Kreij, in this way the object you perceive does not remain a distant object but enters our physical realm. According to this phenomenon there is a connection possible between phenomenological views on perception and syneasthesia.
This is because “the phenomenology of architecture is thus ‘looking at’ architecture from within the consciousness experiencing it”.[xiii]
The concepts hapticity, kinesthesia and syneasthesia each explain a certain area of theories about sensory perception. Combined, these concepts are the embodiment of a person’s perception what is human in his/her surroundings. However, perception is not a static phenomenon when kinaesthesia is deployed, but also, as we learn from earlier experiences, it shows that perception is dynamic and can even change over time. “ The eyes and ears are not fixed capacity instruments, like cameras and microphones, with which the brain can see and hear. Looking and listening continue to improve with experience. Higher-order variables can still be discovered, even in old age.”[xiv] So in a certain way you can say that we are already influenced by our environment. This is important to know, because in the future the visual might become so important that people lose contact with the real architecture, because of the deprivation of the other senses.
Towards Multi-sensory Architecture
As a result of the dominance of the visual, architects are less concerned about the other senses when creating architecture. The loss of the ‘sensuous’ in architecture, or sensory deprivation, creates an environment for the future user that seems to be turning increasingly into a non-existent area. How often do we wonder why historic city centres appeal more to us than most contemporary urban areas?
If architecture is to be less alienating and autistic, it must become a more sensuous environment for people. “ In memorable experiences of architecture, space, matter and time fuse into one singular dimension, into the basic substance of being, that penetrates our consciousness. We identify ourselves with this space, this place, this moment, and these dimensions become ingredients of our very existence. Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.“ [xv]
If architecture played more on the senses, architecture would become less of a flat visual image, as it is today. If we succeed in enticing the senses, people can participate again in their surroundings and regain their identity in the contemporary world.
Towards a multi-sensory perception in Architecture appeared in the INDESEM 2009 PRE-PUBLICATION which was a supplement to VOLUME #19 published by Archis.
[i] Pallasmaa, Juhani (2005), An Architecture of Visual images: The Eyes of the skin, p. 30, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
[ii] Pallasmaa, Juhani (2005), An Architecture of Visual images: The Eyes of the skin, p. 30, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
[iii] Norberg Schulz,Christian (1996) The Phenomenon of Place in Kate Nessbit, Theorizing a new agenda for architecture: an anthology of architectural theory 1965-1995, p. 420, New York:Princeton Architectural Press.
[iv] van Kreij,Kamiel,(2008) Sensory intensification in Architecture, p. 25
[v] Gibson,James J.(1968) The senses considered as perceptual systems, p. 102, London: Allen and Unwin.
[vi]Gibson,James J.(1968) The senses considered as perceptual systems, p. 135, London: Allen and Unwin.
[vii] As quoted in Pallasmaa, Juhani (2005) Multisensory experience: The eyes of the skin, p.42 , Chichester: John Wiley & Sons,
[viii] Agrest, Diana (2000) Representation as articulation between theory and practice in Stan Allen, Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation, Amsterdam: G + B Arts International
[x] Bohme, Gernot (????) on Syneashtesia in Daidalos 41, pp26-36 p.31
[xi]Canter, David (1974) Psychology for Architects , p. 76, New York: John Wiley and Sons,
[xii] Aristotle, De Anima, II, 1-2
[xiii] Pallasmaa, Juhani (1996) The Geometry of Feeling: A look at the Phenomenology of Architecture in Kate Nessbitt, Theorizing a new agenda for architecture: an anthology of architectural theory 1965-1995 , p. 450, New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
[xiv] Gibson,James J. (1968) The Senses considered as Perceptual Systems, p.269 ,London: Allen and Unwin.
[xv] Pallasmaa, Juhani (2005) The Task of Architecture: The eyes of the skin, p. 72 , Chichester: John Wiley & Sons,