We are culturally inclined to assess spatial quality, and all the choices that contribute to it, solely from a visual point of view. As Pallasmaa rightly pointed out in his book “The eyes of the skin” (1), this tendency to favour sight over the other senses has a historical root, but also reasons that reside in essential physiological, perceptive and psychological factors.
The hegemony of the visual image is a cornerstone of Western thought, an evident trend in the architecture of the last century and a natural factor to take into account. However, problems arise when we make choices where the eye is isolated and deprived of its natural interaction with other sensory modes. A separation that fragments the complexity of the perceptive system, making the sense of detachment and alienation stronger.
It is essential to bring the body, as a whole, back to the center of the experiential and cognitive system. Educating him to measure the environment around us through sensory experiments, which integrate through the body and allow us to interact with places and build meanings.
“Any place can leave impressions, partly because it is unrepeatable, but also because it stimulated the body and generated associations that allowed us to welcome it into our personal world”. (2)
The perception of the body and the image of the world thus become a single continuous existential experience.
“There is no separate body from its domicile in space and there is no space except connected to the unconscious image of the perceiving self”. (1)
The collaboration between the eye and the other senses is indispensable to build our perception of reality, and every architectural experience is multisensiorial: the quality of space, matter and scale are measured at one time by the eye, ear, nose, by skin, tongue, skeleton and muscle.
“We see the depth, the velvet, the softness, the hardness of objects – Cézanne even says: their smell.” (3)
The measure of sight
Visual perception leads to the active experience of a space, to its discovery through the functions it suggests. The objects around us reflect the possible action on them. Pallasmaa suggests that “precisely this possibility of action that separates architecture from other forms of art”.
But going back to the concept of polyphony of the senses, any experience that becomes an architectural space can only involve a bodily reaction. Let’s think about how we experience our home. The domestic environment is visually structured to accommodate and define the different daily activities – cooking, eating, socializing, reading, sleeping – but we experience these activities through our body. The function of the visual dimension is therefore to direct and organize behavior and movement.
The measurement of hearing
“The island isolate, where sound incorporates, the view is directional, where sound is omnidirectional.” (1)
We are not usually aware of the importance of hearing in spatial experience, although sound often provides important information about how the environment is structured and articulated. The sound measures the space and makes its extension understandable. On the interaction between space and sound is significant this passage of the book by Pallasmaa:
“Anyone who has been enchanted to hear the sound of a drop of water in the darkness of a ruin can testify to the extraordinary ability of the ear to sculpt a volume in the void of darkness. The space traced by the ear in the darkness becomes a cavity carved directly into the interior of thought”. (1)
The measure of the skin
“The eye investigates, controls and investigates, touch approaches and caresses”. (1)
The skin reads the texture, the weight, the density and the temperature of the matter, is the line of separation between our inner self and the outside. According to Ashley Montagu (4), touch is the “father of all the senses”. Through the skin, we touch the world. This bodily encounter between us and architecture, between us and the space in which we are inserted is profound knowledge. “Touch is the sensory mode that integrates the experience we have of the world with that we have of ourselves.”(1)
The measure of taste
Stokes, in his book “Smooth and Rough”, writes of how the Veronese marble invites to be eaten and reports a letter by John Ruskin that says he wants to eat “Verona piece by piece”. There is a subtle interplay between visual, tactile and gustative experiences. Unconsciously, we continuously transfer images and tactile experiences to the gustatory memory.
The measurement of smell
“For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they couldn’t escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath.” (5)
What we remember most about space is the smell it has. Every house has its own smell that hits you in the face like an invisible wall behind the door. A particular smell unconsciously brings us back to a space that retinal memory had completely forgotten. The nose allows the eyes to remember. Our home is the refuge of our body, our memory and our identity. “I am my body”, says Gabriel Marcel, but “I am the space in which I am” says the poet Noel Arnaud.
(1) Pallasmaa, J. (2005), The eyes of the skin. Architecture and the Senses, John Wiley & Sons Ltd
(2) Bloomer, K.C. Moore, W. (1981), Corpo, memoria, architettura. Introduzione alla progettazione architettonica, Sansoni, Firenze
(3) Merleau-Ponty (nd), Senso e non senso
(4) Montagu, A. (1989), Il linguaggio della pelle, A. Vallardi, Milano
(5) Süskind, P. (2017), Profumo, Tea