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Architecture and the Senses

Architecture and the Senses

Architect Anthony Pettorino shares his obsession with trying to understand how our surroundings affect how we feel
Why is a view ‘breath-taking’?

Finally, a shift from the technical to the ethereal. My last three articles have covered topics from self-build and winter sun to how heat pumps work.

All good stuff and very practical, however my real passion is for design at its most fundamental level. Over the past decades I’ve been gathering thoughts and ideas on what actually connects design and the human experience and how we can create experience through design.

Design covers everything from public spaces, work places, indoor and outdoor private living spaces, right down to everyday objects. Things like door handles, kitchen appliances, the mobile devices we can’t live without and the software that runs them. The list is endless. It includes anything we use or experience that is ultimately designed by humans, for humans.

The fascination began in the 80’s when I was researching for my thesis. Why is a view ‘breath-taking’? Why is a cathedral inspiring and a dungeon angst inducing? What we experience is the result of a complex mix of sensory data, provided by our eyes, ears, nose, and skin. How this data is processed is a mystery we are a long way from unfolding, but what is not a mystery is how we feel when this data is processed.

Sight is the obvious one to start with. We see our surroundings made up of colours, textures, objects, spaces, light and shade, and this affects how we feel. One way to attempt an understanding of this is to look at the extremes. Imagine a world without sight.

The world is the same, but the perception is completely different. My research took me to some unexpected places, the first was an experiment carried out by a psychologist in the 1970’s. It was a comparison between the perception of a child born sighted who later became blind and that of a child who was born blind. The two children were given the task of making a clay model of their own heads.

The child who had once experienced sight modelled his head as you would expect, by feeling the forms and textures with his fingers and then replicating them with clay. The child who had never experienced sight did something completely different. Starting from the inside of her mouth, she first modelled her tongue, then surrounded this with gums and teeth, before enclosing the mouth with cheeks and lips, and then finishing off with the outer surfaces of her face. This made me realise that without sight, there is no ‘opacity’.

The idea that one object obscures the view of another does not exist. This is a revelation that stayed with me ever since.

Years later, I rekindled my research into this world without sight. A YouTube video caught my attention where a blind American teenager effortlessly skateboards in and out of parked cars, pedestrians and traffic. He explains that he managed to survive his childhood by making constant ‘clicking’ noises with his tongue and then listening to the sounds bouncing back from his surroundings. This enabled him to build a mental picture of what was around him and to differentiate between a solid wall, a hedge, a moving vehicle and so on. This technique is called ‘echo-location’ and it results in what is described as a ‘sphere of perception’ in the mind’s eye. This sphere of perception is restricted by the reduced effect as objects become further away from the ‘observer’. Hence the term ‘sphere’, which has boundaries by definition.

‘Normal’ sight does not share these limits. We see stars in the sky that are light years away, we see colours, textures, patterns, light and shade.

Echo-location however works day and night so offers this advantage at least. The ‘touch only’ approach, going back to the congenitally blind child, offers another especially unique point of view. One where objects behind other objects are ‘visible’.

The point of these two examples is to illustrate how complex human awareness, perception and experience can be. As designers, our ultimate goal is to create and control this. In order to do so we need a deep understanding of how our surroundings affect us and how to use this when designing spaces, places and objects.

Terms like ‘elegance’, ‘wow-factor’ and ‘inspiring’ transcend fashion or style and this is what designers should be aiming for.

Anything less is an opportunity wasted. To achieve this, an understanding of our senses is essential.

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


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