Be warned: for a person who has the use of all his senses, the experience of architecture is primarily visual and kinaesthetic (using the sense of movement of the parts of the body). The main part of the book is devoted to this. That does not mean that you are allowed to be deaf and insensitive to smell and touch. That would be to deny oneself the fullness of sensations. Isn’t it sometimes a failure on a single one of these points which are deemed to be of secondary importance which destroys all visual qualities? Aesthetic experiencing of the environment is a matter of all our senses and there are even some situations where hearing, smell and tactility are more important than vision; they are experienced with extraordinary intensity. As designers we must never forget that! Let us try to imagine the echo in the spaces that we are designing, the smells that will be given off by the materials or the activities that will take place there, the tactile experience that they will arouse. Let the five ‘images’ which follow serve as a reminder
Hearing is not only involved in areas of entertainment where its demands are well known; it also has a role to play in the paving of streets, in the materials for staircases, in the ceilings and floors for a work place, etc. A school classroom, however large, well laid-out, well lit, or of splendid spatial composition, becomes a place of suffering if echoing exceeds certain limits, whether caused by the materials or by excessive height. An acoustically ‘dead’ church loses its religious character. A gravel path leading to a house announces the visitor’s steps, whereas if it is asphalted (for the purpose of tidiness) it no longer delivers its message. If sometimes we close our eyes to remove the dominance of the visual world in order to listen more intently, that is real proof of the sheer pleasure of auditory experience. Think of the sound of a footstep!
Smell – perfumes of gardens, the smells of wood, of concrete, smells of cooking, the smell of soot, steam from laundries, incense in church, the dryness of granaries, dust, damp smells of cellars (which we experience even in the engravings of Piranesi) – small identifies places and moments for a lifetime. Perhaps it is the relative rarity of these experiences which makes them all the stronger. We can pick out their preciseness and detail and we can recall them throughout the whole of our lives; the smell of grandmother’s house can be so firmly rooted in our memory that the simple fact of encountering it again in a completely different context twenty years later is sufficient to conjure up images of the old house with amazing precision.
Tactility occupies a special place in architecture for two reasons: on one hand it is inevitable because of gravity, and on the other it is anticipated by our ability to see forms and textures. A person’s standing or walking are in permanent tactile contact with the ground – smooth or rough, hard or soft, flat or sloping. When we are permitted to choose, it is often that which is most convenient which triumphs. And our hands? It is well known that it is not enough just to look at beautiful objects on display: we want to touch them, examine the weight and the textural quality of the surface and its form. Smooth vertical elements, sculptures, tiles, columns etc., invite us to caress them.
And the buttocks? They too feel drawn by certain formal layouts of steps, plinths, benches and seats, the eye and sometimes the hand making a prior examination, judging their sensuality. And the skin? Cold, hot, unpleasant or refreshing draughts, stuffiness or freshness of the air offer just as many concerns for architectural design. Study Frank Lloyd Wright!
The movement of the body, if it is not itself one of our five senses, provides us, nevertheless, with a measure for things and space. Passing through, visiting, dancing, gesture – all allow us to appreciate the splendour and exploration of that which is hidden: to move closer, move away, go round, go up, go down, go into, escape, are all actions which invite us to organize for ourselves what we want to see, hear, feel, smell and touch in a given environment. Architecture is image only in a drawing or photograph. As soon as it is built it becomes the scene and sometimes the scenario of comings and goings, of gestures, even of a succession of sensations.
The sense of hearing (listening), smell (perfume) and the tactile sensation (caress), like vision and the kinaesthetic sense, are not only simple physiological functions, but also skills that can be learnt. The ear, the nose and the skin are no more ‘innocent’ than our eyes. Our intellectual faculties, out capacity to learn and to memorize turn them into sensing devices linked to our own experience, our culture and our time. The smells, noises and tunes of the nineteenth century are not experienced in the same way in the twentieth.
Let us conclude this brief evocation of the senses by repeating that they almost never act in isolation; they help each other, mix with each other and sometimes contradict each other, or, to conclude with the particularly relevant words of Michel Serres: . . nobody h a s ever smelt and only smelt the unique perfume of one rose. Hearing perhaps, the tongue without doubt, practises this isolation or selectiveness. The body smells a rose and a thousand smells around it at the same time as it touches wool, looks at a varied landscape, trembles at sound waves, at the same time as it rejects this flood of sensations in order to take time to imagine, muse abstractedly or go into ecstasy, work actively or interpret in ten different ways its state without ceasing to experience it.