Human Senses and Spatial Design

Spatial sensory qualities are typically by-products of visual configurations that address a fraction of inherited human sensations (BLESSER, Barry and Salter, Linda-Ruth, 2006). Considering these qualities, architects ordinarily design what is visually discernible. Historically, architects have designed large spaces to represent a narrative of ‘grandeur.’ For example, houses of worship and baroque castles were commonly built as large structures with immense spanning columns and high ceilings as design elements to impose a sense of reverential fear and self-abasement among individual users. This study does not declare that all historical architecture (or modern-day design) neglects to address additional human senses in their design processes. Evidence attests that the ocular sense manipulation has regularly been the primary design determinant.

Perception is never unmediated.
— Walter A. Davis (1978, p.89)

Davis’ statement affirms that the physical environment cannot exclusively be perceived visually, or only through any one sense, but rather is perceived collectively. In On the Soul, Aristotle defines that the state of being sentient is the sense by which animals perceive that they perceive. Classical Greek philosophers, like their Roman, medieval Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin counterparts denominate perception as “the common sense” (HELLER-ROAZEN, Daniel, 2007). Architectural design asserts its success when it incorporates one (or more) perceptual manipulation to communicate a singular aesthetic mental message.

Newborns possess a link between their five senses, an association comparable to the adult bond between the palate and olfactory senses. An abundance of neural bonds between the associated sensory cortices creates a perceptual unification in infants. Six months after birth, neural connections begin a purging process in response to the child’s surroundings and detach auxiliary connections.

The development of neural networks includes several anomalies. Brain scans reveal that the optic cortex in visually challenged children is active during Braille reading, a fundamentally haptic stimulus (VAN CAMPEN, Cretien, 2007). Turrell (2002), an artist, mathematician, and psychologist, bases his designs on synaesthesia, which is a neural anomaly that links the visual with other cortices. Much like the olfactory-palate neural connection, the neural pathways of synesthetic adults do not disengage fully. For example, a taste stimulus can trigger an additional visual sensation. Turrell explains that some synesthetic individuals observe colour when subjected to a sonic stimulus. Hence, the sensation produced in one modality is triggered when another is stimulated (TURRELL, James, 2002).

Programmable music is a phenomenon similar to synaesthesia and one in which average adult
experiences as an associated thought. The brain continually generates correlating visual images to comprehend aural stimuli. For instance, in Vivaldi’s Concerto (No. 1 in E major “La primavera” Spring—Four Seasons), listeners associate the intermittent high pitch notes with a bird’s song (VAN CAMPEN, Cretien, 2007). This type of associated thought also occurs in non-musical sonic contexts. Urban citizens recognise particular rhythms and frequencies with vehicular transportation and high-pitched sounds with alarms and sirens, which may signify destination or danger. Alternatively, when city inhabitants relocate to an aurally foreign environment (e.g., forest or jungle), most unseen aural events become signals for vigilance. In an unknown aural condition, the instinctual alert response occurs because the mind has not acquired the association database to discern the signals affiliated with their appropriate responses.

This study considers the programmable musical event as one circumscribing design parameter. Associated thought is linked to the programmatic use of space in the experimental and design, which can be regarded as spatial cues similar to visual components associated with spatial use. The next section discusses the physiological detection, decoding and response to different perceptual sound qualities including pitch, rhythm and loudness. These concepts constitute the paradigm of this study, the framework of the built reciprocity between urban and aural design, and the support for the proposed computational model.

Multiple Sensory Manipulation in Design

The section briefly discusses three well-known projects actively designed to manipulate more than one sense. The indicated three precedents are Yad Vesham-The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and The Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Also included here is a brief reference to James Turell’s work, which must be noted when speaking of architecture that manipulates multiple senses. The section concludes with the adoption of aural design as a subsidiary design aspect. Within the three cases, visitors’ senses are triggered in a seemingly quasi-order, setting a communicative medium for a single narrative. Every design decision aims to alter one’s perception of light, sense of equilibrium and human scale
reference. These architectural precedents use comparable design techniques, although are very different in materiality.

A single file movement, forced by tight spaces, is used in two different ways in Yad Vesham and the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (SAEHRENDT, Christian, 2005). In Yad Vesham, the main circulation artery is designed as a prism; the inscribed diameter narrows at its darkest point. In the children’s museum, the user enters through a small door that leads through bunker-like tunnels and ends in a dark room. The use of tight spaces subconsciously communicates solitude. The visual obstruction caused by those walking ahead provides a sense of trepidation of the unknown destination and a feeling of unsteadiness. The prism-like Yad Vesham walls continuously change inclination as the floor level intermittently deviates, ramping 5 degrees downward and upward. These constant planar shifts distort the visitor’s perspective (GOLDMAN, Natasha, 2006). Achieving a similar effect, the concrete blocks in the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin are the same length (238 cm) and are spaced at equal intervals of 95 cm. Like Yad Vesham, Eisenman deviates the vertical alignment of the blocks as a destabilisation design element (SAEHRENDT, Christian, 2005).

 Yad Vesham | The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Designed by Moshe Safdie. Image of the main circulation atrium (Mémorial de Yad Vashem).

Yad Vesham | The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Designed by Moshe Safdie. Image of the main circulation atrium (Mémorial de Yad Vashem).

 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin, Germany. Designed by Peter Eisenman Images curtsy of (EL RINCONCITO, 2011)

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Berlin, Germany. Designed by Peter Eisenman Images curtsy of (EL RINCONCITO, 2011)

The children’s museum in the Yad Vesham is designed as an architectural complex of dark rooms, and mirrors line all of the walls, endlessly reflecting five candles [Refer to: Figure 2. 3] (GOLDMAN, Natasha, 2006). These features resemble the highly polished surface at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. In both cases, the surfaces do not allow passive reflections, which compel the viewer to reach and touch them. Touching the Vietnam Memorial Wall verifies, solidifies, and grounds the engraved names from their apparent floating state (STURKEN, Marita, 1991). Haptic manipulation is also apparent in the Holocaust Memorial where the undulating and buckling ground forces a jerky unsteady walk (SAEHRENDT, Christian, 2005)

 Yad Vesham - Children’s museum the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Designed by Moshe Safdie. Image of Main Circulation Atrium by Rebecca Rosen Image Reference: (ROSEN, Rebecca, 2013).

Yad Vesham - Children’s museum the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Designed by Moshe Safdie. Image of Main Circulation Atrium by Rebecca Rosen Image Reference: (ROSEN, Rebecca, 2013).

It is a volcanic crater located in an area of exposed geology, the Painted Desert, an area where you feel geologic time. You have a strong feeling of standing on the surface of the planet.
— James Turrell

In the Roden Crater, Turrell manipulates the viewer’s perception of space through light (ENVIRONMENTAL GRAFFITI, n.d.). While standing in the crater and looking up, one perceives the movement of the earth. In his Wolfsburg project, Turrell succeeds in designing a space with visual illusions as the lighting is designed to eliminate all shadows. This lack of shadow contrast creates and illusion that the space has no depth (TURRELL, James, 2002).

 Vietnam Veterans Memorial - Washington DC, USA Designed by I.M. Pei in 1982 Image Reference: (COLD WAR AIR MUSEUM, 2010).

Vietnam Veterans Memorial - Washington DC, USA Designed by I.M. Pei in 1982 Image Reference: (COLD WAR AIR MUSEUM, 2010).

 James Turell Works: The Wolfsburg project at the Kunstmuseum, Germany. Exhibition between October 24th, 2009 to April 5th, 2010 Image Reference: (DESIGN BOOM, 2009 )

James Turell Works: The Wolfsburg project at the Kunstmuseum, Germany. Exhibition between October 24th, 2009 to April 5th, 2010 Image Reference: (DESIGN BOOM, 2009 )

 James Turell Works [Left] Roden Crater San Francisco Volcanic near Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. Began in 1972 unfinished work of art under construction Image curtsy of (FLATSURFACE)

James Turell Works [Left] Roden Crater San Francisco Volcanic near Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. Began in 1972 unfinished work of art under construction Image curtsy of (FLATSURFACE)

Aural Design as a Subsidiary Sense

Separately, the mentioned sense manipulations are significant design elements. Coupling sense manipulations with that of the auditory organ amplifies the narrative. What is heard, or unheard, highlights the intended subliminal narrative. The most obvious examples are found at the Memorial in Berlin and the children’s museum. Eisenman and Safdi purposefully restrict or saturate users’ visual senses, forcing them to rely on aural signals to predict what is around the next corner (GOLDMAN, Natasha, 2006). Smooth sound-reflecting surfaces lining the tight spaces reflect visitors’ low-frequency sounds (footsteps, breath and voice) back into their ears. The landscape of concrete blocks in the Holocaust Memorial and in the Vietnam Memorial Wall act as sound barriers, impeding the offsite high-frequency urban sounds from reaching visitors. The submersion of both sites places users in a position where the direct, unimpeded sound waves continue to travel above ear level. As such, visitors can see an occasional bus drive by, but they are unable to hear it. 

Many architectural precedents are designed for more than one sense to act as the primary sense during the experience. The reoccurring pattern in these projects is their exclusive use (i.e., memorials and museums dedicated to human trauma). Architects are aware that humans use all of their senses when experiencing their surroundings. Designers who attempt to convey a particular emotional narrative use false visual cues, planar and horizon shifts, and blocking of specific senses as design elements to achieve the desired experience.

The hypothesis aims to use the mentioned design methods regularly; not in particular design cases. Researchers argue that architects design visual architectural elements primarily because vision is the primary and hearing is the secondary sense. The next section establishes that this argument inaccurate. In actuality, the aural sense is connected uniquely to more than one cognitive process as humans instinctively respond to sound and map their environments mentally through separate conscious and subconscious processes.