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Architecture and the Senses: Sight

Architect Anthony Pettorino completes his overview of the relationship between design and our senses in a brief exploration of what we see (or think we see)
Anthony is a director of Pettorino Design Ltd in Witney

"Remember that the image on our retina is upside down and our mind’s eye kindly puts it right"

When it comes to how we perceive and process our surroundings, sight is undoubtedly the sense that gives back the most


Smell, taste, hearing and touch I consider ‘close range’ senses as their effectiveness fades with distance. Sight on the other hand has few boundaries: a lack of light, and objects that obscure or scatter light are the only ones. Without these obstacles we are able to gaze at the distant horizon or even deeper into space at stars that are many light years away. Sight enables us to appreciate a world and universe that is overwhelmingly vast in scale and detail.

Without light however, there is no sight. Without light, our eyes can’t help so we must then rely on our remaining close range senses. Preceding articles have explored sound, smell and touch and have described situations where people who have never had or have lost their sight survive.

One of my favourite writers, neurologist Oliver Sacks, sadly passed away last year, but he left us with profoundly perceptive accounts of the human experience and how we adapt when one of our senses or neurological functions misbehaves, and how what we take for granted can become something completely different.

His collection of case studies, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ (1985) inspired the film ‘Awakenings’. His 2010 book ‘The Mind’s Eye’ focuses on cases where eye or brain conditions cause distortions of reality. In 2012 he published ‘Hallucinations’ including personal accounts of the effects of his own partial loss of sight.

Understanding the effects of its loss or impairment can only enhance what we should consider the joy of sight. Far too vast to cover in these few words all I hope to do is open the door for sub-topics in future articles. I’ve already listed them out and they include design related themes like lighting, colour, texture, views and visual communication, both literal and abstract.

Back to basics, we must remember that what we see is what our brain tells us we see, and no two brains are the same. The visual world seems so real and absolute but it is neither. Our cone of detailed vision is actually very small and is focussed on the centre of our visual field of view.

The fact that our eyes are constantly moving allows the visual cortex of our brain to ‘paint’ a picture of our surroundings. Our mind’s eye. One simple experiment is to gaze at a point, and without moving your eyes, you quickly realize how little of your peripheral vision actually makes sense. Not surprisingly, the peripheral receptors on the retina are mainly to perceive movement, or in other words, provide a reason to point one’s eyes towards whatever it is that moved so it can be properly seen using the limited detailed receptors at the centre of the retina.

Then there are our blind spots, just to the sides of our centres of vision. This is where the optic nerve meets the retina and where for some unknown reason there is an absence of visual receptors. The brain’s visual cortex knows about this and kindly fills them in in some logical way so we don’t feel weird or get holes in in our visual field. Little white lies.

So how can we trust what we see? Well we can’t.

Remember that the image on our retina is upside down and our mind’s eye kindly puts it right. More white lies.

I started this series with an introductory article last July, and this one rounds them off. Aroma, sound, touch and now finally sight. So to enclose the parentheses I am repeating this iconic photo of the Salk Institute in California by the eccentric American architect Louis Kahn. This image is all about sight. We have the sunset over the Pacific Ocean at the equinox where we see our own star, The Sun, and all of the built objects pay homage to it. Our own piece of the universe, reflected in the moving water in the foreground. It’s the desktop photo on my computer and it will be a while before I find something better.


Anthony Pettorino is the managing director of Pettorino Design Ltd in Witney and can be contacted at anthony@pettorinodesign.co.uk



Related Articles: Architecture & The Senses: Sound