A sensory experience
— Irmgard Frank
Design shapes our awareness. How does the architectural space that surrounds us influence our perception? Forms, materials, sounds and smells impress themselves on our senses, and in so doing, also determine the mental and associative space in which creative processes take place.
We perceive our environment through our physical senses or sensory organs, and also the interplay of the senses in the form of sensations. Our individual and collective memory also plays a role.
The unreflected memory is all that is archetypical in the sense of C.J. Jung’s collective unconsciousness, which is anchored within us. I think of an image of a house, for example, like the ones in children’s drawings. A part of the reflected collective memory is the artistic and cultural heritage that also has an effect on our awareness levels. In our memory – our individual and collective memory – we store sensations and mental attitudes, which are subject to constant change, however. Conventions and traditions are created by being transformed into a pattern that can be understood by people at large. We perceive space, spatial contexts, buildings or our environment in a visual, haptical and olfactorial way – in other words, through our senses or sensory organs. We use adjectives to describe the sensations triggered by the sum total of our sensual impressions.
This approximation of sensations verbalised through adjectives is controlled by the cultural or social context in which we find ourselves. In other words, the adjectives that we generally use are aligned to the values with which we assign objects. For example, the term “beautiful” or also “aesthetic” have mutated repeatedly, or have taken on a different semantic context.
The word “aesthetic” has its origins in the Greek “aisthetos” and means “perceivable through the senses”. Plato regards the true, the good and the beautiful as being a single entity, with the beautiful most clearly expressing the sensory. In the philosophy of values, the aesthetic experience is regarded as being the experience of a value. This value is recognised and defined as such within a cultural context. In his habilitation treatise, “Abstraction and empathy” (“Abstraktion und Einfühlung”) written in 1909, Wilhelm Worringer describes aesthetic pleasure as objectified self-pleasure. In his paper of 1984, “Architecture and avant-garde” (“Architektur und Avantgarde”), Michael Müller suggests that the value perception assigned to the aesthetic form, and thus to the “sensual appearance of a different ideational necessity”, has removed the purely purpose-related, the useful from architecture, and in so doing, has set it apart from pure construction work. Finally, Venturi, Schott Brown and Izenour point out in “Learning from Las Vegas” that aesthetically high-quality architecture is no longer perceived and understood as such in the world of commodities by which it is surrounded. They refer to the trivial architecture of an “architecture of seduction”, an architecture that follows the commodity aesthetic utility value of consumer goods production. In the accompanying architectural sign language, which can generally be understood by everyone, they see a reconciliation with the reality of life, which is characterised by consumerist behaviour.
If, following this brief discussion of the way in which the term “aesthetic” has altered, we return to its original meaning, sensual perception is a subjective sensation absorbed via the senses, which is overlaid with objective criteria by the cultural and social context. Our sensual organs enable us to perceive the different realities of the world, but at the same time, these senses can also mislead us. Architecture – and to me, this is the key factor – is located precisely in this field of tension between sensory experience and sensory illusion. The individual sensory organs differ in their level of importance with regard to our perception of architecture, although it is only through the complex interplay between the senses that space and spatial contexts can be experienced as a whole in their specific architectural quality. At this point, it is constructive to consider the individual sensory perceptions in order to recognise their role in the way in which we perceive space.
Olfactory sensory perception
In architecture, little or no meaning is given to the olfactory. However, smells in particular are of great importance to the way our memory works, and are often more strongly present there than spatial contexts. Smell can either be emitted directly from the space and its materials, or through the actions and interactions that take place in the space. Certain materials were and still are used on the basis of the smell that they give out. For example, stone pine is used to keep pests such as moths at bay due to its resinous smell. The recognition of the smell of a particular space can bring the space itself in its configuration back to life, as well as the personal memories and feelings that are associated with it. The space that is returned to memory and the event in this space merge to create a remembered atmosphere.
Acoustic sensory perception
The acoustics of a space usually reflect its constructed contour. Blind people can orient themselves in a space through acoustic feedback. The spatial acoustics support or counteract the atmosphere of a space. A stone floor in a public area such as a hotel lobby, a train station or an airport can emphasise urban hustle and bustle through the reverberation of sound when you walk through it. On the other hand, too many hard materials, such as in a restaurant, often generate reverberant noise that inhibits or hugely interferes with communication with your table partner. The almost exclusive use of hard materials in contemporary architecture leads to an unpleasant spatial acoustic, which only becomes acoustically acceptable when soft materials such as textiles are also used.
Haptical sensory perception
Touching things enables us to grasp them. We perceive surfaces and also physical forms by feeling them. Surfaces can feel cool or warm, rough or smooth, uneven or even, hard or soft, sharpedged or round. The haptics of materials are ultimately also perceived through visual information. We are constantly making this connection by visually recognising the quality of surfaces without having touched them. One inevitable haptical experience is the floor, however. We receive feedback via the soles of our feet, and adapt our behaviour in the space accordingly.
Visual sensory perception
There is no doubt that space and spatial contexts are primarily perceived visually. Our sense of sight is a remote sense and provides an overview. The narrower the distance between the eye and the object, the more we block out from our environment, and the overview becomes a detailed view. Visually, we experience space through its physical presence and materiality, and through the immateriality of light. Light enables us to visually experience space in the first place. Without light, we cannot visually perceive space. In this case, we use our sense of touch and acoustic feedback in order to create an image of the space. However, light can also produce particular sensory perceptions. With light, space can be perceived as altered in its constructed contour, whereby attention hierarchies are generated, spatial volumes are brought to the fore and others recede into the background.
Under closer observation, we realise that each space has atmosphere and has an impact on us. We particularly experience our being-in-the-space atmospherically through sensual impressions. In the strict sense, atmosphere is only created where space enables more than just the pure absorption of structural actualities of geometrically definable facts and functions. It is this “more” that we take in by means of our senses, but also by means of our sensitised intellectuality. Architecture is created where a field of tension builds up between the physical space in its structural materiality and the space that we experience through our senses.
Irmgard Frank, born in Vienna, studied architecture and interior architecture and industrial design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Since 1992, she is an officially authorised architect in Vienna. She teaches at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH), at the University of Applied Arts and the University of Art and Design (Hochschule für Künstlerische und industrielle Gestaltung) in Linz. From 1997 to 2001 she was chairwoman of the board of the ÖGFA, the Austrian association for architecture.
Since 1998, she has been professor ordinaria for interior design and design at Graz University of Technology. Focal research areas: “Spatial perception and spatial imagination as parameters in architecture”, “Light as a design element and immaterial component in the perception of space”
Wilhelm Worringer: Abstraktion und Einführung. München: Piper 1908. Michael Müller: Architektur und Avantgarde. Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat 1984. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour: Learning from Las Vegas. The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge: MA:MIT Press 1977.