Architecture Beyond the Visual Sense

More than Meets the Eye

Architecture has so much to offer occupants, particularly when designing for all the senses — going beyond the visual.

As explained in the Alan Saunders’ radio show, “Beyond Appearances – Architecture and the Senses”, the general public has come to know many architectural works by way of photography and other similar medias. People think of most architecture predominantly with their visual sense, excluding many of the wonderful characteristics that make a building more whole and full of life. (1)

Yes, architecture is visual, but it is also a wonderful way to experience renewed haptic, audio, olfactory and even taste senses. In this article, we will take a closer look at just how architecture can make the most of these other senses — even tapping into some additional senses that occupants just need to have “turned on”.

More than Five Senses

The major five senses that you often hear about are not necessarily the only senses that architects need to keep in mind as they design. Rebecca Maxwell, a writer who lost her sight at the age of three, describes her experience of other senses when she interacts with architecture. Some other senses that she describes are:

  • sense of pressure (1)
  • sense of balance (1)
  • sense of rhythm (1)
  • sense of movement (1)
  • sense of life (1)
  • sense of warmth (1)
  • sense of self (1)

As an architect, you should be aware of such other senses as you design. For instance, I find it interesting when Rebecca Maxwell states that an “air-conditioned building feels dead”. (1)

Just imagine how many variables that go into your designs that could make all the difference in awaking your occupants as they experience a space. A building can exist as a finely tuned instrument that interacts with occupant senses at just the right moments in their experience.

The key is to understand what you can about how the human sensory system works, making you more aware about how your design gestures will truly impact your occupants — from all dimensions.

How Do You Design for the Sense of Taste?

Let’s start with this great quote by the Finnish architecture theorist Juhani Pallasmaa:

” There is a subtle transference between tactile and taste experiences. Vision becomes transferred to taste as well; certain colours and delicate details evoke oral sensations. A delicately coloured polished stone surface is subliminally sensed by the tongue. Our sensory experience of the world originates in the interior sensation of the mouth, and the world tends to return to its oral origins. The most archaic origin of architectural space is in the cavity of the mouth.” (2)

Here, Juhani Pallasmaa describes just how far we can go. And, believe it or not, we can go further.

Architecture really does have so many possibilities — many of which we simply ignore or don’t think about as we design. Keeping an understanding of how materials and their arrangements impact occupants will go far in making your designs that much stronger, particularly as we enter an era with evermore technology and heightened architectural interaction.

Architectural Technology and the Senses

Integrating more and more technology into architecture seems to heighten some senses and suppress others. Of course, it will still be important to design principle architectural elements paying attention to fundamental features for safety, aesthetics and function — but how will embedded computing technologies impact architectural design; and thus, occupant experience?

It is especially important that architects not ignore the sensory “side-effects” of such emerging technologies. When not integrated into your designs properly, varying sensory and experiential problems can surface; such as, cognitive overload, sensory deprivation and other forms of “painful” stimuli.

In order to integrate architectural technology in the best way, you should pay attention to things like glare, unwanted HVAC sound and meaningful opportunities for haptic interactions. (These are just a few)

Architectural technology will continue to provide many benefits for people experiencing our public buildings; however, it is important to make sure that such technologies don’t detract from a more profound and meaningful architectural experience — ultimately impacting overall aesthetics, safety and function.


(1) Saunders, Alan. Beyond Appearances – Architecture and the Senses. Aired (radio): November 2004.

(2) Pallasmaa, Juhani. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Wiley-Academy: Great Britain. (p. 59)

Image Credit: © Dreamstime


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