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Places for feeling

HOW IS IT that sensory experiences hold a unique power to plunge us so immediately into the reservoirs of the past? Consider a young boy pushing open the door to his grandfather's farmhouse: a simple action performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the course of a childhood. Looking back as an adult, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa summons the memory and admits he cannot recall the outward appearance of the door. Yet, he writes, 'I do remember the resistance of its weight and the patina of its wood surface scarred by decades of use, and I recall especially vividly the scent of home that hit my face as an invisible wall behind the door. Every dwelling has its individual smell of home.'

This recollection is drawn from Pallasmaa's seminal essay 'The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture of the Senses',first published in 1996 and in focus once again in light of his talk at the National Architecture Conference, 'Natural Artifice,' in Melbourne this April. Here, the author's attention to his inability to recall the look of this humble door is intentional. Architects are visual creatures; however, even for a long-serving professional in the field, it's not so much the visual impression of a building that makes a deep and lasting imprint on the mind but how a space is felt, sensed and experienced through the body. It's this type of observation that informs Pallasmaa's challenge to the 'hegemony of vision' and his call for a renewed appreciation of the sensual experience of space. For too long, he argues, architecture has 'housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories and dreams, homeless'.

Fifteen years after Pallasmaa's candid survey of the pitfalls of privileging sight over the alternate senses, are we any closer to embracing its possibilities? If anything, given the increased proliferation of screen-based technologies – digital, televisual, cinematic – our culture is more vision-focused than ever. But on the printed page, at least, stories of the neglected senses have been recuperated in a plethora of histories, from probes into the medieval sensory imagination to the sociological approach of Mark Smith's Sensory History (Berg, 2007) and an urban perspective in Sense of the City (Lars Müller, 2005), edited by the architect and author Mirko Zardini. The 'real world' of built work and design has been slower to embrace a multi-sensory approach, yet recent instalments suggest a shift is underway.

The 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale had an unusually strong emphasis on the senses. Curated for the first time by a woman, Japan's Kazuyo Sejima, architects presented exhibits alongside visual artists in response to Sejima's theme, 'People Meet in Architecture', and many of the most lauded were sensual. Ever dreamed of touching the clouds? Air became architecture in a much-blogged-about vaporous installation of 'cloudscapes', which ingeniously combined layers of hot and cold air to envelop visitors in a dense fog. At the Hungarian Pavilion, 30,000 coloured pencils collected from schools as mementos were suspended from the ceiling by fine threads while a video played footage of architects drawing. It was rich experiences like these that led Justin McGuirk, writing about the Biennale for the UK Guardian, to proclaim: 'inspiring places are full of spatial and sensory drama.'

Cynics might argue these are mere experiments with little bearing on the reality of built work. Yet an imaginative fit-out at the NAB building in Melbourne's Docklands, which has attracted tens of thousands of visitors since opening to the public in July 2009, reveals that even the corporate sector can be willing to embrace multi-sensory design when a clear benefit to people is identified. Here, NAB, along with BVN Architecture, enlisted the multimedia designers ENESS to create a 'transformatory' environment. The response was a 'Parallel Wilderness': a 'virtual forest' comprised of vistas of Australian landscapes with native flora and fauna, it uses real-time 3D and digital projections to create a sense that the forest is alive within the building.

'The learning centre, the academy, is not just about training but also about self-development and your own personal sense of self,' the ENESS designer Nimrod Weis says. 'We wanted to create a space that could change your perceptions and break down barriers to learning.'

Rejecting the mundane fluorescent lights and whiteboards that typically furnish corporate training rooms, the virtual forest seeks to mimic the atmospheric shifts of nature, with subtle changes in light and weather conditions throughout the day. Motion-sensing cameras detect visitors, triggering the fluttering of butterflies and the movement of birds and animals, while the sense of immersion is enhanced by a responsive soundscape, resulting in a kaleidoscope of sensual delights.

'It could easily have just been images but the idea was to create a parallel world within the space, a virtual entity that co-exists within it and is also affected by the behaviour of the users of the space – it's about activation,' Weis explains. 'We went to these lengths to create a sense that users could affect the space, which means the more they engage with it, the more the parallel world reacts to them.'

NAB's academy is a novel case of applied multi-sensory design, but concerns for human health more generally, both psychological and physical, could be a driver of innovation in this area in the future. In the mid-1970s, the American architects Charles Moore and Richard Oliver were challenged to draw upon an array of haptic – recognised by touch – features when commissioned to design a home for a client who had lost his sight. In many ways, their pragmatic design pre-empted a growing awareness of the benefits of sensory stimulation in both the home and office. A UTS-led study completed in February 2010, Greening the Great Indoors for Human Health and Wellbeing, for example, found that placing plants in workplaces could significantly reduce depression, anxiety, fatigue and stress. In a similar vein, the sensual delight offered by vertical gardens – spectacular self-watering wall installations of lush, densely matted plant vegetation – has seen them rise in popularity. Their eccentric creator, the French botanist Patrick Blanc, sums up their appeal in one word: 'optimistic'.

 

WE ARE SEEING an engagement with the senses asserting itself at the margins of the design world, but are these shifts merely incremental – does it matter if we continue to prefer the 'hygiene of the optical', in the words of the Bauhaus great Moholy-Nagy, to the messier reality of those more unruly senses of smell, touch, sound and taste? If it were simply a matter of preferences, of individuals exercising choices, perhaps it wouldn't be of great concern. But most of us aren't in a position to commission the design of the spaces we inhabit and which affect our psyche over the long-term. Consider the prevailing ocular-centric approach of contemporary architecture and design alongside increasingly sensory-suppressive modes of urban design and planning and the question becomes a far more political one.

As early as the 1950s, the artists of the Situationist International began spontaneous provocations that revealed a distrust of the hierarchy of the senses they saw manifested in the contemporary city. Led by Guy Debord, the Situationists' approach took the guise of games, cut-and-paste collages rearranging maps of Paris into more sensuous routes, random strolls through dilapidated suburbs, experimental films looped from footage of city life – but there was a message behind the madness. As Brandon LaBelle argues in Site of Sound (Errant Bodies, 1999), the Situationists rebelled against the homogenisation of urban space and the sterility of its architecture, seeking an alternative in 'a psycho-geographic displacement – to disrupt one's own organisation of the senses in order to re-imagine the very nature of constructed reality.'

The moment of the Situationist International may have passed but something of its anarchic spirit remains among today's artists working with urban space and sensory engagement. As part of Melbourne's inaugural Seven Thousand Oaks: Festival of Art and Sustainability, in June 2010, a one-day sound-art program took place in the Heide Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Park. Taking as its theme 'Touch at a Distance', it focused on the 'importance of listening and its role in developing a more sustainable approach to our presence in the environment'. The Melbourne-based landscape architect and acoustic ecologist Anthony Magen has walked and cycled the grounds of Heide many times. For this event, Magen was invited to devise a 'soundwalk' around the site, which he drew up as a map and distributed in zines; the walks were conducted hourly by various co-ordinators on the day.

For Magen, the Heide soundwalk is a recent instalment in an exercise he has led for several years. Gathering small groups of people to walk through the city streets in silence, a soundwalk pauses at various stops along the way for participants to take in the ambient soundscapes. According to Magen, this quiet attention to the act of listening 'allows you to place yourself within the landscape. Even if it's the sound of cars, it doesn't matter what the sound is because it's information that's being transmitted and it helps to locate yourself. Sound is wonderful at placing you within the landscape so you don't grasp at it, you receive it.'

 

WHILE THE SOUNDWALKS have garnered something of a following, Magen, as a practising landscape architect, discerns a tension between what it is possible to achieve through small-scale actions and the more formulaic attitudes to sound that inform the planning of public spaces. 'There's a gaping hole between the ears and the brain,' he says emphatically. 'These grassroots activities are really valuable but in the bigger scheme of things, with regards to urban design, architecture...there's no legislation coming from the top that supports a similar kind of sophistication or subtlety of thinking.'

We have absorbed much of the ideology of sensory suppression without really questioning it. In the name of safety and comfort, soundproofing and noise reduction, security gates and CCTV surveillance, air-conditioning and climate control, deodorised and non-odorous spaces have all become so normal as to appear almost natural. Yet perhaps at a subconscious level we are also inclined to seek out their sensorial other, those broken-down, dilapidated and demolished pockets of the city. Among the construction sites, abandoned buildings and industrial zones, for example, haphazard mixes of materials, discarded objects and faintly toxic smells combine in a chaotic mess. Amid the rubble, there is a strange force of attraction arising from a sense of risk, freedom and possibility.

Ignasi de Solà-Morales describes these voids as the 'terrain vague' in his 1995 essay of the same name. Here, he argues, 'filmmakers, sculptors of instantaneous performances, and photographers seek refuge in the margins of the city precisely when the city offers them an abusive identity, a crushing homogeneity, a freedom under control.' Contemporary photographers appear particularly fascinated by urban ruins. At Melbourne's 2010 State of Design Festival Sonia Mangiapane presented Memoire, a series of images capturing transitional spaces and buildings throughout the inner city. The Sydney photographer Tamara Dean explored that city's wastelands in This Too Shall Pass (2010), reflecting in an artist's statement on how such sites are 'the last wild vestiges where there is space to roam'. And the 2010 Biennale of Sydney drew record numbers of visitors to its post-industrial Cockatoo Island venue, attributable in some measure to the free ferry rides but also to the island itself, where the charismatic architectural shells of the derelict former shipyard and convict prison have become their own attraction.

It is telling that both Solà-Morales and Pallasmaa wrote their reflections on the stifling of tactile and sensory engagement in the mid-1990s. Facing a digital revolution and already feeling the pressures that rapid globalisation exerts on the individual, designers and general readers alike were receptive to these idiosyncratic voices telling us to pay attention to the particular, the tangible and the real in ways that might encourage a more embodied experience of space. These ideas are now highly influential among writers, critics, historians, artists and even urban activists, but the degree of their impact on practising architects and designers is more contentious. Today, architecture and design that consciously seeks to stir the senses undoubtedly represents some of the most avant-garde work being produced, but is it enough to make a difference?

In late 2009, Pallasmaa curated a symposium in London on the topic 'Sustaining Identity' in which he called for an 'architecture of resistance'. He was particularly critical of the architectural hubris that continues to breed visually astonishing structures that win awards but show little concern for the effects these buildings have on the psyches of their inhabitants.

More recently, he formulated these misgivings as 'an obsession with quantitative things, rather than qualitative things,' speaking with Australian architect Angelo Candalepas ahead of his presentation in Melbourne. Such outspoken critique suggests we are still a long way from the humane architecture of the senses proposed fifteen years earlier in 'The Eyes of the Skin'.

In interviews Pallasmaa frequently returns to the subject of his grandfather's farmhouse, where his interest in the 'phenomena of life and knowledge' first took hold. What we can take from this, in respect to the future of multi-sensory design, is that there is still much to be learned from the past. Not in a nostalgic sense, but simply from the knowledge that haptic design doesn't need to be invented; it has existed for thousands of years. Nurturing design that touches the senses requires an open mind and an innovative approach, certainly, but also more simply a recovery of trust in the age-old capacity of the body to guide us toward creating a world with a little more feeling.


From Griffith Review Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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