A JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE SENSES
The five senses represented in cast plaster (photo from npr.org and Shutterstock)
Whether a house, school or church, the most successful works of architecture go beyond merely what it looks like. With a restaurant for example, the design must surpass the exercise of picking things, such as the stone for the bar counter, tile pattern on the floor, or fabric of the banquette. As a comprehensive cohesive experience, architectural design is more than the materials you see and touch. Architecture is a journey through all the five senses.
Selecting colors and textures, finishes and furniture consumes most of a designer’s effort. What a visitor sees comprises the initial architectural character and yes, even the style of the project. Avocado green paint signals a Mid-Century Modern approach, whereas red clay roof tiles echo a Spanish Colonial Revival project.
But keep in mind other aspects that an occupant sees, such as the lighting for a retail store. No, not just the stylish light fixtures, but what about Kelvins to lumens, fluorescent vs. LED vs. tungsten, or the magical way the spotlight delivers a halo effect to the retail objects?
What one sees goes even further, such as environmental graphics and signage, or maybe uniform design for the staff at a museum. Point is: We see a lot.
After the eye sees, the hand will take in more information. The visitor will touch the brick, for example. The texture might be smooth or rough. Even the grout has a sandy surface that provides a physical sensation.
When sitting in a lounge chair, arms smooth over the walnut trim, the body relaxes against leather cushions, and fingertips notice zigzag stitching.
The body also feels temperature, such as the warmth of a carpeted living room contrasted to the cool tile of the kitchen. For a pop-up nightclub, Poon Design worked with the theme of Heaven-and-Hell. One club room was aggressively air conditioned at a brisk, cool and alert temperature—Heaven. The other room was intentionally made warm and humid, even hot and bothered—Hell.
At the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, beeswax coats the interior walls. Not only providing a lustrous plaster surface for the eye to see and the hand to touch, the walls provided a sweet and relaxing scent to smell.
I recall another Seattle project—a bagel shop that purposefully exhausted the oven’s appetizing aroma into the street. The enticing smell of freshly baked goods attracted customers. Architecture confronted one’s nose.
Think also of landscape design and its diversity of scents, such as the sweetness of a lemon tree alongside the vanilla honey smell of Heliotrope. Don’t forget to smell the roses.
Approaching our scared 14th Shamarpa Reliquary Building, we transition the visitor from the dirt path to an intimate gravel walk. The sound of feet shuffling on loose gravel slows the visitor to a meditative pace.
Just as one would kick the tires of a car (for whatever reason?), owners are known to knock on the walls of their corporate headquarters or performing arts center. There is a big difference between knocking on a stucco building that has applied the plaster over wood framing (which is commonplace in California) vs. applying plaster over solid stone walls (more likely in Europe). The latter sounds like it should—walls that will hold up your roof.
For some of our restaurants, we select the music that accompanies the design, complementing the spirit and energy of the space as it evolves through the day. Brisk music welcomes the early birds, even keel classical selections buzz for the professional lunchtime crowd, eclectic techno lounge greets the sophisticated diners, and jazz ballads wind down the afterhours crowd.
Most people are not going to be tasting a work of architecture. I don’t imagine someone visiting an office and licking the conference room walls. But in addition to the design of a kitchen, there are opportunities for an architect to create a tasty design to address this fifth sense.
For our design of the 44,000-square-foot chocolate factory for Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago, we didn’t just design an ambitious corporate headquarters, we incorporated tasting stations that present the company’s recipes/ingredients.
Through provoking all five senses, the sensual experience of architecture promotes emotional content that enliven the human experience. How our senses engage the built environment suggests the architectural philosophy of Phenomenology, which studies what the body confronts, and what the body interprets.