Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Lots of soft materials dampen sound reverberation
and create a sense of coziness. It's one reason
we perceive this window seat to be so inviting.
Many people consider architecture strictly a visual art—one involving the sense of sight alone. Architects often compound this misconception by concentrating almost exclusively on how their buildings look, rather than striving to involve the full range of human senses. Too often, they seem mainly concerned with how their work will photograph for a glossy magazine spread.

At best, this fixation on appearance leads to flashy but uninvolving designs; at worst, it can produce an architecture of oppression, as Modernism’s own mania for visual order so often demonstrated.

While the look of a building may be the first thing we perceive, senses other than sight must also be brought into play, or the architectural experience is sadly incomplete. Here are just a few ways in which the senses add dimension to architecture:

The sound of a tiny trickle of water
can transform a patio into an oasis.
• Sound. In a Gothic cathedral, the awesome reverberation of footfalls and voices literally amplifies the power of the design itself. But sound plays a role even in ordinary dwellings: big rooms with a touch of reverberation create a sense of grandness; small rooms with lots of soft surfaces and hardly any reverberation convey the opposite—a feeling of warmth, shelter, and coziness.  

Other sounds that we probably take for granted contribute as well: the crunch of a gravel path underfoot; the brassy click of a well-made door latch; the sound of rain drumming on a skylight. How about the chirp of birds in a window box, or the trickle of water in a fountain? A good design capitalizes on such simple ways to add sound to the architectural experience.  

A two-fer: This window box can provide
lovely fragrance and the equally lovely
sound of birds at breakfast.
•  Smell.  If you’ve ever sat beneath a jasmine-draped pergola on a hot summer day, you’ll know just how much the sense of smell can add to the enjoyment of architecture. In your own designs, look for ways to add this dimension, perhaps by incorporating fragrant planting into the architecture, or by using naturally aromatic woods such as pine or cedar. One of my most vivid memories of the old house I grew up in was the subtle smell of unpainted fir that still wafted out of the cabinets after nearly a half century of use.   

 This unusual corridor provides tactile contrast in the extreme.
Who could resist running a hand along both sides? Not me.
•  Touch.  Unlike painting and other visual arts, architecture is three-dimensional—it’s basically sculpture we can live in. Hence it has a unique ability to tantalize the human sense of touch. Something as simple as a handrail, for example, can give us a whole range of tactile choices: do we want the liquid smoothness of brass, the cold solidity of iron, or the familiar warmth of wood? Likewise, the texture of a wall can offer us the grittiness of wallboard, the glassy smoothness of tile, or the coarse power of concrete. Each, in a different way, adds tactile interest. 

Rather than limiting yourself to a single texture, however, try using contrasts—rough versus smooth, warm versus cool—to entertain the sense of touch. Frank Lloyd Wright was a master at juxtaposing such finishes:  stone against stucco; plaster against wood; concrete against glass. It’s one reason his works remain so powerfully involving to this day.  

 •  And about employing the sense of taste in architecture: A friend of mine has this two-year-old. . .

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