The pleasure of looking at, listening to, feeling, touching and moving through architecture. Note to the reader… For a person having all his senses at his disposal, the experience of architecture is above all visual and kinesthetic (involving movement of body parts) and it is essentially to this notion that this book is devoted. That doesn’t mean we are deaf, insensitive to smell or indifferent to touch, for such would be to deny ourselves the fullness of sensations, and all the more so given that a building’s failure on any one of these points deemed to be of secondary importance might very well diminish a work’s visual qualities.
The aesthetic experience of an environment is an all-embracing affair, and there are certain situations where hearing, smell and touch are engaged even more intensely than sight.
Let us therefore try to imagine the echo in spaces we design, the smells given off by materials used, the activities likely to take place in them, and the tactile experiences they will be producing. To this end, the five “tableaux” that follow are intended as aides-memoires. (figs. 1-5) Hearing has a role to play even outside spaces devoted to the performing arts where its demands are a given; it figures into the paving of streets and the materials chosen for a stairway or a workplace. No matter how large, well lit, or admirably rendered its spatial composition, a classroom becomes a place of suffering once vocal resonance exceeds certain limits, whether this be the fault of materials used or, as is most often the case, excessive ceiling height. On the other hand, an acoustically “dead” church loses its devotional overtones. A gravel path leading to a house announces a visitor’s steps, but once paved it no longer delivers this message. The fact that we sometimes close our eyes in order to escape the visual world and listen more intently says something about the sheer pleasure of auditory experience. Think of the sound of footsteps!
Smell – garden perfumes, smells of wood and of concrete, smells of cooking, of soot, steam from a laundry, incense in a church, the dryness of granaries, dust, damp odors in cellars (which we can even “see” in the engravings of Piranesi)… Smell identifies places and times of our lives. Perhaps it is the relative rarity of these experiences that makes them all the stronger; we recall them in precise detail for as long as we live: the smell of a grandmother’s house can be so firmly rooted in our memory that simply coming across it again in a completely different context twenty years later is enough to conjure up remarkably precise images of that house again.
Touch occupies a special place in architecture and there are two reasons for this: on the one hand, the force of gravity simply makes it inevitable, and on the other, it can be anticipated by our ability to see forms and textures. A person standing or walking is in continuous contact with the ground – smooth or rough, hard or soft, flat or sloping – and when we have a choice, it’s often ease and convenience that dictate our path.
And our hands? We all know it’s never enough just to look at beautiful objects on display: we want to touch them, to feel the weight and the textural quality of the surface. In architecture, it’s above all the smooth vertical elements, sculptures, veneers, columns etc. that invite our caress. And our backsides? They too are drawn to certain formal layouts – steps, plinths, benches and seats – with an eye and sometimes a hand making a first pass in order to gauge quality and cleanliness. And our skin? Cold, hot, unpleasant or refreshing drafts, oppressively stuffy or agreeably airy… these are all of concern in any architectural project. See Frank Lloyd Wright!
Body movement, while not itself one of the five senses, provides us nevertheless with a measure of things and space. A walk-through, visit, dance, reach… all allow us to better appreciate dimensions and explore that which is hidden. Move closer, move away, go around, go up, go down, go inside, escape… all these actions invite us to organize for ourselves what we want to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in a given environment.
In drawing and photography, architecture is nothing but image, but once built, it becomes the scene of, and sometimes the scenario for, assorted experiences and movements and maybe even a succession of sensations. Hearing (listening), smell (scent) and the tactile sensation (touch), like vision and the kinesthetic sense, are not only simple physiological functions, but also skills that can be learned. The ear, the nose and skin are no more “innocent” than our eyes; our intellectual faculties, our capacity to learn and to memorize make of them sensing devices linked to our specific experiences, culture and time. The smells, noises and melodies of the nineteenth century are not experienced in the same way in the twenty-first.
Our sensing devices almost never act in isolation; they help each other out, join together and sometimes contradict each other, or, in the words of Michel Serres: “… nobody has ever smelt and only smelt the unique perfume of one rose. Hearing perhaps, the tongue without doubt, practices 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.”
Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Besançon Theater
“Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse…
“Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage…
“It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of Zemrude its form. If you go by whistling, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from below: window sills flapping curtains, fountains. If you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held on the ground, in the gutters, the manhole covers, the fish scales, wastepaper. You cannot say that one aspect of the city is truer than the other…
“Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.” Italo Calvino, The Invisible Cities
Epidaurus, aerial view
“It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.” ltalo Calvino, The Invisible Cities
“… I listen. My ear grown to the size of an amphitheatre, an auricle of marble. Hearing laid on the ground, vertically, which tries to hear the harmony of the world…” Michel Serres, The Five Senses
Incense; Russian Baptism
“Smell appears to be the sense of the singular. Shapes return to the same position, constant or modified, harmonies are transformed, stable despite variations, perfume indicates the specific. Eyes closed, ears blocked, feet and fists bound, lips tight, we choose between a thousand things, years later, such and such a forest at that season at sunset, before the rain… a rare sense of the singular smell slips from knowledge to memory and from space to time…” Michel Serres, The Five Senses
Bare feet on a textured floor; detail of a caryatid in the Acropolis of Athens
“The skin can explore surrounding areas, limits, adhesions, lumps and bumps…
“Many philosophies refer to the visual; few to the auditory; still fewer put their trust in tactility … “Some look, contemplate, see; others caress the world or let themselves be caressed by it, throw themselves into it, roll in it, bathe in it, dive into it and, sometimes, are beaten by it. The former do not know the weight of things, smooth and flat skin in which large eyes are set, the others surrender themselves under that weight. Their epidermis takes the pressure, over different parts of the body, like a bombardment, their skin is tattooed, striped like a zebra, like a tiger, matched, pearled, studded and sown chaotically with tones and shades, sores or swellings.
“The skin sees… It shivers, speaks, breathes, listens, sees, loves and is loved, receives, refuses, retreats, bristles in horror, is covered in cracks, blotches, wounds of the soul.” Michel Serres, The Five Senses
Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaustreppe, 1932
The body in motion
“The spirit sees, language sees … the body visits. It always transcends its location by virtue of its movement…
“Movements made in order to see make use of roads, crossroads, interchanges, so that the examination will either become more detailed or will become a general synopsis: change of dimension, of sense and direction. The visit explores and enumerates all the senses of feeling… “The body does not act as a simple, passive receiver … it exercises, trains, almost of its own accord, loves movement, becomes willingly involved in it, is happy to spring into action, jumps, runs or dances, is only aware of itself, instantly and without speech, in and through its involvement, discovers its existence in the burning of its muscles, out of breath, at the limits of fatigue.” Michel Serres, The Five Senses
Extract from Elements of Architecture: from Form to Place By Pierre von Meiss Published by the Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes