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Architecture and the Senses: Touch

Architecture and the Senses: Touch

Touch is possibly the least considered sense when it comes to designing buildings. It’s easy to underestimate how much of our tactile experience makes up our general awareness and memories
"Children mostly draw from memory, visual memories are fairly unreliable, but tactile memories, such as using a door handle are less so"

In previous articles I’ve mentioned ‘the mind’s nose’ (Aroma) and ‘the sphere of perception’ (Intro to Architecture and the Senses). Tactile awareness is undeniably real but how do we describe it? Do we have a mind’s body, or just a mind and a body?

Biologically, touch is defined as a combination of sensory experiences; temperature, texture, pressure and the stretching of the skin are a few. Not much help really but just stop and focus on the endless flow of tactile data that is finding its way to creating your mind’s interpretation of your physical contact with the world. I can’t find an equivalent to the mind’s eye or mind’s nose here. It’s too real on one hand, but then equally as abstract on the other. It may be that because touch is so primal that it is taken for granted. Touch signals that are interpreted into experience are no less abstract than those that create sight, smell or sound. Sight is upside down, yet the world is the right way up. The fact that the sensation of touch is so real may make us less likely to be aware of how abstract it actually is.

Philosophers frequently debate tactile concepts such as pain. Is it a level playing field? Do I feel the same amount of pain as you if a pin is stuck into my flesh or do you just complain more? No one knows the answer to this question. Or more weirdly, can pain be simply willed away?


To grasp how primal the sense of touch is, look at children. They prod, they poke and put things in their mouths (lips have a ridiculous number of nerve endings)


Physical pleasure and pain are understood very quickly, from birth (or sooner) when our touch memories begin. Hot hurts, soft is nice, wet is just wet and then words for describing the way things feel start to occupy a large chunk of the dictionary.

In life, I have found that there are a handful of things encountered that are so profound they never leave you. In a previous article I mentioned blind children modelling their heads where one model included gums, teeth and a tongue. This next one is to do with infants’ drawings of houses. An American art teacher and writer I came across when researching at university studied how children’s drawings evolve from when they first pick up a pen and trash the living room wall. A child of any age will happily draw a house, usually the one they live in, or at least attempt it. There is one thing you can almost guarantee that will be recognisable on the drawing. There might be wobbly windows, a roof of some sort, a chimney and some curly smoke but that one thing is a door and most importantly the door handle, because that is how you get in.

Children mostly draw from memory, visual memories are fairly unreliable, but tactile memories, such as using a door handle are less so. Children’s drawings of people will have five fingers, but I wouldn’t want fingers or hands that looked anything like a ball skewered with five needles. They are not drawing what is seen, but what is known. A strange thing happens as they get older, their knowledge increases, so the detail in the drawings does too. Clothes might have buttons, shoes gain laces (or velcro), nostrils appear, eye lashes and so on, but does it look like a person? More like an elaborate stick figure with too much detail. There is a point where many children lose interest in drawing as they start to see that their artwork bears little resemblance to reality. Ask these same people to draw a person when they become adults, invariably there will be embarrassment, as they are drawing from the same memories, five fingers, buttons, laces etc. To draw what you actually see requires looking. Something that happens less often than you might expect. It takes lots of time to take in and accurately draw all that detail. Hard enough normally but in this world of diminishing attention spans it’s a miracle that artists continue to emerge.

So now that I’ve messed up common pre-conceptions of this taken for granted tactile existence, how, do we as designers, ensure that this primal sense is not ignored?


The legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi took touch very seriously. Every one of his projects addressed the smallest detail. Experimenting with clay he designed handles for doors, windows, taps and cupboards, handrails and seating. Every object took into account every part of the body that would be in contact with it resulting in beautiful organic objects with places for fingers and palms to nest whilst doing mundane tasks such as opening doors. The stone handrail in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (photo) shows the stone made smooth by countless hands sliding their way up for over a century.

The important thing is to think about the things that we touch and make the experience as good as possible. Every now and then I get a thank you message from a client in Australia. It will be winter there, early morning and all because of a small electrically heated mat installed beneath the floor tiles under his feet in front of the loo.


Anthony can be contacted at Pettorino Design Ltd, 1 Worley Walk, High Street, Witney OX28 6HJ.

T: 01993 402 993

E: anthony@pettorinodesign.co.uk


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