Workshop information: We make sense of the world through our senses. We are sentient beings and that as such, experiences are inevitably multi-sensory. This exploratory workshop invites participants to discover ways to document and map sensory perceptions and learn how designers develop their knowledge of sensing and their sensitivity to the sensory world to perfect sensory intelligent designs.
The movements of the body enable us to engage with the world through a process of intimate connections and interactions with spaces, people and objects. Environmental psychologist James. J. Gibson (198)3) calls it active sensing. Passive sense organs pick up on energy in the environment. Active perceptual systems (Gibson 1966) – visual, haptic, smell/taste, auditory, basic orienting. – seek information in the environment by constantly moving (eyes, head, body). Active sensing occurs in motion.
The workshop begins with a short briefing session in the Lower Street gallery at London College of Communication. Participants are then invited to explore Elephant Park, a nearby green urban space, and bring back their findings to LCC where they are given the opportunity to translate these finding into a sensory map of their experience.
1pm – Welcome and briefing
1:30pm – Sensory walk and documentation
2:30pm – data translation and mapping
You are invited to explore sensory experiences in Elephant Park. In your journey through the park you will stop at six different points, including your start and end point. Each time you stop, mark the point on your map and record your experience using one of the documentation handout provided. Also indicate on the map the proximity of the source of the sensory experience. Using your phone, take photographs, films, sound recordings of your sensory experiences.
You will be assigned a starting point. You goal is to reach a diagonally opposite point of your choice. Allow your sensory curiosity and perceptions to guide you. You don’t need to walk in a straight line. You can move across following a curved or zig-zag path to explore different points of interest in your journey.
We encourage you to be experimental. Don’t just walk on the paths or edges, find interesting places such as placing yourself under a tree or even hugging a tree, lying on the grass or bench, looking up, down, through, into, etc. There’s no right or wrong, only your sensory perceptions as they occur.
In the Event Descriptor, write down adjectives that best represent the qualities of each sensory experience, then draw a shape or a series/cluster of shapes, with textures if relevant, that you associate with the experience. Next write down the name of the colour you associate with the experience. Don’t spend too much time thinking about the experience. Record immediate, visceral impressions as they occur.
We experience a flow of information as we move through the environment. Johnson (2007) calls it a ‘streaming-past’ flow. ‘[…] if you are moving forward in a linear fashion, you experience a visual ‘flow’ that emerges from a horizontal focal point in front of you, expands out from that point and streams towards you, and then envelops and flows past you.’ (Johnson (2007: 50). Not all sensory perceptions flow in the same way. For example, sounds and smells reach us and we move through them.
In the Sensory Flow diagram, place a dot to indicate the characteristic of the sensory experience. Below is an example of what the completed sensory flow diagrams looks like although your template will be different.
Gibson, J. J. (1966) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Gibson, J. J. (1986) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hove: Taylor & Francis Group.
Johnson, M. (2007, 2008 ed.) The Meaning of the Body. Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
The London Open Senses Festival ran from 19-21 May 2017. The first of its kind, first of many I hope, the festival included an rich mix of sensory events and experiences, and a symposium at the University of London. The symposium included many excellent presentations and workshops while the most pertinent to my research was a presentation by architect Juhani Pallasmaa. Titled Landscape of the Senses – Touching the World, the presentation explored the hegemony of vision in our culture and in architecture. The senses are often regarded as independent systems but they are in fact integrated as part of our embodied condition. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1958) speaks of the polyphony of the senses. In life, sensory stimuli don’t occur in isolation and embodied sensory experiences are essential to our wellbeing. If we remove ourselves from bodily sensory experiences we live impoverished lives. Therefore, we need an integrated approach in research and design.
Pallasmaa also spoke about the shallow appropriation of the sensory realm in marketing strategies. This sensory manipulation of the senses leads to hyperesthesia (or hyperaesthesia), a condition that involves an abnormal increase in sensitivity to stimuli of the senses. According to Pallasmaa, we are in an era of branded manipulations, of total anesthetisation. The essence of architecture and its social significance are being replaced by a formal aesthetic rhetoric and an uncritical view of digital technologies further detaches us from sensory experiences. Unfortunately, Pallasmaa didn’t have time to elaborate on these statements and explain what he means by the essence of architecture. Further reading into his many books and papers will surely enlighten the topic. However, I agree that many contemporary buildings and urban spaces lack social significance. Does the rise in interest in the senses across so many disciplines points to a societal malaise? Perhaps, as Pallasmaa points out, in a digitally enhance world, people have become starved of meaningful embodied experiences.
On the other hand there are interesting new possibilities emerging through technologies. In the morning of the symposium, I visited Thresholds by Matt Collishaw in Somerset House (not part of the festival). Thresholds is an immersive installation that uses the latest VR technology. It reproduces the interior of King Edward’s school in Birmingham to take us back to 1839, to an early exhibition of photography by British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. As in all VR experiences, I wore a headset but this time, I also had a unit strapped to my back. Initially the experience felt artificial, like being in a game, and intriguing at the same time. As my mind adapted to the environment details emerged and the VR space began to resonate with my senses. I could touch the wood of the photography display cases. Mice occasionally running across the room, insect flying around the chandeliers, and a fire burning in the fireplace, animated the space. I could feel the warmth of the fire but I didn’t have the same confidence moving my hands towards it as I would in real life. Perhaps because I couldn’t see my own hand, only an orange glow. My sense of depth and movement functioned as expected but I still needed time to adapt the the virtual environment. After a while, I could also hear the noise of a crowd coming from outside the room. I believe it was meant to be a riot though I never felt the tension the same situation would cause in reality. This was staged and the experience was short lived (six minutes). Nonetheless, the scenographic use of technology was amazing. It also illustrates possibilities for integrating sensory experiences into a virtual space. The experiment would have failed if it had only focused on the visual. Frieze magazine commented that ‘Collishaw has not recreated an historical experience, but has instead constructed an entirely new one.’ Matt Collishaw is an amazing artists who challenges perceptions and expectations.
Thresholds by Matt Collishaw
The ocular-centric paradigm occupies a prominent place in Pallasmaa’s critique of architecture. He argues that the role of the senses and the impact of the way spaces resonate with our senses is largely overlooked in architectural practices because of the use of an ocular centric language of symbols and images. He is not the only one to expound a a multi-sensory approach to architecture and design. Architect Joy-Monice Malnar and artist Frank Vodvarka (2004) also tell us that ‘sensory data are rarely central to design decisions’ and interior designer Sashi Caan (2011) identified that practice-led research in this area lacks rigour. I also include myself in this school of thought. In my research , I aim to enrich our knowledge of embodied sensory experiences through the study of atmospheric qualities and user relations in spaces, and promote a multi-sensory (integrated) approach to spatial design practices.
Visual culture dominates but vision is a sense of distance. We don’t need to be close to something to see it and this can create a distance between body and space. Pallasmaa may have been thinking about the work of theorist Henry Lefebvre (1974) when he spoke out against the prevailing ocular centric paradigm. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre explains that ‘[the image] detaches the pure form from its impure content – from lived time, everyday time, and from bodies with their opacity and solidity, their warmth, their life and their death’. Lefebvre takes and uncompromising position when he says that ‘[…] the image kills’. I wouldn’t go as far but I agree with Pallasmaa who says that ‘it is […] important to survey critically the role of vision in relation to the other senses in our understanding and practice of the art of architecture’. As Caan explains, ‘[d]esign is the deliberate intervention in our environment to ameliorate the conditions of our existence’. We can’t achieve this if we rely mostly on the visual sense when designing. Therefore, we need to encourage a multi-sensory mind-set in spatial design practices to enrich our experiences of everyday spaces.
Bachelard, G. (1958, 1994 ed.) The Poetics of Space.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Caan, S. (2011) Rethinking Design and Interiors – Human Beings and the Built
Environment. London: Laurence King.
Lefebvre, H. (1974, 1991 ed.) The Production of Space. Oxford, England:Blackwell Publishing.
Malnar, Joy MoniceVodvarka, Frank (2004) Sensory design. Minneapolis,Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Umwelten is a site-specific performance at the Royal Academy by Juri Nishi in collaboration with Bitter Suite. Blindfolded I was led into the space of the performance where three performers choreographed their movements with mine and choreographed my movements with theirs as I was led on a sensorial journey through the room. It was the most wonderful experience. At no point did it feel unsafe or awkward. I became completely immersed into the performance and completely relaxed, becoming malleable to the choreography. My Umwelten became a fluid space unconstrained by traditional architectural principles.
The Umwelt, located in the fairly new field of sensory ecology, is a theory developed by ethologist Jacob von Uexküll. The events’ flyer describes sensory ecology as the study of how organisms acquire, process and respond to information from the environment, exchanging materials, energies and sensory information. Von Uexküll studied how animals behave in relation to their environment and theorised that the qualities of an environment are not intrinsic to the environment but depend on the way the mind interprets the world. Therefore, organisms can have different Umwelten even in the same environments. This is an interesting theory because it articulates that qualities in the environment are subject dependent and that the mind and the world are inseparable. The theory of Umwelt recognises the complexity of the phenomenal environment as perceived and interpreted by the subject of perception.
Although I was blindfolded, I completely surrendered to the fluid environment created by the performance. I was told it lasted 20 minutes, it felt like barely 10 had passed. At the end of the performance, I was given a pad and pencil to draw my impression of the space as it emerged in my imagination. Still under the spell of the performance I drew a symbolic mental map that illustrates a fluid journey, in parts lacking definition in a space removed from architectural conventions. When the performance ended, I felt very light, almost floating, and this continued for a long time afterwards, until I took the tube to the next event I was attending that day. My London Underground umwelten brought me back to reality.
My Umwelten during the performance
Actual space where the performance took place
Buchanan, B. (2009) Onto-Ethologies. The Animal Environments of Uexkull, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
von Uexküll, J. (1934, 2010 ed.) A Foray into the World of Animals and
Humans with a Theory of Meaning.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Journey to the Interior
This event is described as ‘a multi-sensory, participatory performance and a feast, inspired by George Bellas Grenough, a geologist and founder of the Geological Society, London as well as Jules Verne’s story the Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.
Artistic Director, Tereza Stehlikova and her team, created an impressive array of sensory experiences around the topics of geology and journey to the centre of the earth. The journey began in Kensal Green cemetery all the way through to the core of the earth, through to carbon art by Mateusz Gidaszewski, sugar metamorphics by Ellie Doney, and ended with an amazing meal designed and prepared to enrich our experience of the themes chosen for this event. The food was intriguing, enticing and delicious. The company was excellent.
A workshop facilitated by Graham Barton from UAL Academic Support. Using the LEGO Serious Play method, participants were asked to construct and visualise the answer to a series of questions about their practice, research and PhD, and then explain their position to others around the table. A fun and instructive way to share experiences, discuss issues and expectations.
Above: Why take a PhD
Above: the relationship between research and practice
Residual Ambiances – An Illustration of Urban Heritage as a Sentient Experience
at: Ambiances, tomorrow, 3rd International Congress on Ambiances Volos, Greece: 21 – 24 September 2016
This paper is based on a project I carried out while a student on the MA Interior Design at the University of Westminster and the site visit this account relates to was initiated by the Course Leader, Dusan Decermic, whose inspiring vision, constructive comments and persistence gave me the confidence and commitment to push the boundaries of my knowledge and abilities.
Abstract. Our urban heritage incorporates many instances of abandoned buildings awaiting rescue, where residual fragments of past occupancies provide a stage for an immersive journey into the ambiance of the interior across past and present thresholds. Accordingly, this project illustrates a unique perceptual encounter between the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths in London and the author, while subsequently, the emotive affect of the sentient experience is synthesised into a performed scenographic narrative. The interest of the project lies in its ability to articulate how sentient experiences activate a deep empathetic connection between body and space in the context of urban heritage.
I worked with 3 other people (from Spain and Denmark) documenting route 5. Each of us had a specific role and mine was the cartographer. A fun and enjoyable experience, a great way to get to know people and a city.
Above: Map showing all routes. The black lines show pre-selected routes and the red ones the paths taken by the research teams. The objective was to remains as close as possible to the pre-selected route.
A paper I wrote as an account of a phenomenological experience. It is published in the 2015 Urban + Interior edition of the IDEA journal. Available for download from the IDEA website.
The paper also includes location photographs I took to illustrate the phenomenological journey.
This paper reconsiders a refurbished London street, Bermondsey Street, as an interior where objects of memories are curated into a reconstructed atmosphere of domesticity. The study argues that as our experience of the city becomes increasingly transient, the notion of inhabiting shifts to a wider and more fragmented context, and our ability to integrate with the urban environment becomes eroded. Bermondsey Street, however, presents a distinctive experience where the phenomena of intimacy and familiarity converge across space and time to provide a more stable form of inhabitation. In order to understand how these phenomena occur and how the experience of the urban interior manifests itself in our consciousness, the study follows the Husserlian phenomenological method of intentionality whereby the urban interior of Bermondsey Street becomes the intentional object. It also places the reflective gaze of the phenomenologist in ‘epoché’, a phenomenological method of reduction that suspends normality. In doing so, the phenomenologist is able to access the points of reference that reveal the affective qualities of the intentional object in our consciousness. While the discursive and theoretical content of the study is expressed in the body of text, the phenomenological narrative is bracketed and illustrated as a meditative journey; a recollection of memories of the homely, initiated by the encounter between consciousness and the way the interior animates imagination. Thus, in ‘epoché’, the reflective gaze of the phenomenologist transcends normality to reveal the underlying structure of the phenomena and the intentionality of the subjective experience.
On Wednesday, I joined a group of people, all complete strangers, for a multi-sensory lunch where each dish was prepared to provide a unique multi sensory experience. Of course, the taste of the food was very important but it was enhanced by varied combinations of colours, textures, presentations, light, sounds which suggested locations (the sea or the forest), and smells (tobacco essence, caramel) which, sprayed around the tables, served to enhance the experience of the food. The first dish was served with headphones for a total immersions, some were completely silent to minimise stimuli and enable diners to appreciate the food more. Sometimes the cutlery changed, as when we were given long tweezers to eat jelly fish (yes, and it was very nice too).
Each of the 5 courses was introduced by a short talk by Joseph Youssef from Kitchen Theory and Professor Charles Spence (from the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University) who collaborated on the project. A masterpiece, beautiful; food and great experience.
Below is the information that advertised the event, followed by scans of the menu:
How do colour, aroma, texture and even sound affect how you experience flavour? Why do we like and dislike particular foods? And do we all experience flavour in the same way? The emerging science of ‘gastrophysics’ – the combination of gastronomy and psychophysics – looks to answer all these questions and more.
Working in collaboration with Oxford University Professor of Experimental Psychology, Charles Spence, multi-sensory gastronomy experience designers Kitchen Theory, have ‘commandeered’ the Studio at London’s ANdAZ Liverpool Street Hotel to create the ultimate foodie senseploration.
Featuring a five course lunch, guests are invited to experience food in a whole new way. Do certain foods taste sweeter while stroking velvet? Will ‘sonic seasoning’ one day replace the salt cellar? If you can’t smell a meal, what happens to your experience of flavour?
Preconceptions will be challenged, while all of your senses will be stimulated. Prepare to walk away with actionable insights that you can apply in your own kitchen.
This workshop, also at the Design Research Society conference, was in part organised by Kate McLean, PhD candidate at the RCA (there were 3 activities, each organised by a different person). Kate’s fantastic work focuses on mapping our sensory experiences of smell. I highly recommend a lengthy visit to her website Sensory Maps.
Below: Smellwalk Brighton workshop instructions and my worksheet.I hope the handwriting is legible enough. I was writing while walking. Kate also introduced the workshop with an excellent talk on the characteristics of the sense of smell.
In June I attended the Design Research Society Conference in Brighton. Four fantastic days of workshops and talks on design research (of course). Two workshops were especially interesting for me because highly relevant to my research on sensory experiences. This is the first one, the other is available on the next post.
< This is the email information we received prior to the workshop: DRS Workshop: Capturing & Shaping Meaningful Sensory Experiences in the Urban Environment We are looking forward to working with you on Monday June 29 when we will explore and reflect on competing multi-sensory stimulations that shape people’s urban experiences intentionally or by accident. After a short introduction to the leaders’ sensory work, small teams of participants will take a sensory journey around the environs of Brighton. During the workshop, teams will map the contexts of their sensory journeys by capturing the sounds, smells and flavours that contribute to their overall sensory encounter. The explorations will emphasize the non-visual sensory modalities of contact (tactile), sound (auditory), and smell (olfactory). Highlights of the workshop include an immersive tasting scenario of each team’s urban flavour compositions and designing multi-modal (multi-sensory) scenarios for balanced urban futures. We are hoping for nice weather, however please plan for rain and cool offshore breezes. Wear good walking shoes and clothing for the outdoors (rain or shine). Please bring tools for capturing and recording data, (e.g. smartphone, notepad and pen, bags to collect artefacts, etc.). Please let us know when you arrive if you consent to being photographed and/or videotaped. >
The workshop drew parallels with my research practice and I was interested to meet like minded people whose research and practice also incorporated multi-sensory modalities. It began with a short introduction and we were asked to think about the kind of events and qualities we’d be looking for when documenting a specific sense experience. For example, what would it be relevant to investigate and document across touch, sound, smell and visual. This quick fire round was the first level of interaction between participants and a good ice breaking activity.
In the next part of the workshop. participants were paired up and given a map with pre-selected routes highlighted across 5 distinct sections. Kate MacLean, PhD candidate at the RCA (see my next post), worked with me to document touch, haptic perception, across Brighton. She specialises in smells so wanted to do something different and I thought touch was interesting because it usually comes with restrictions.
After a highly enjoyable and fun hour recording haptic perceptions in the streets of Brighton, we came back to the studio where we were paired up again with someone who had selected a different sense. My new partner had been working with sound. Our next task came as a complete surprise. After 15 minutes spent charting the qualities of our respective sensory experiences, their sensory DNA, we were presented with an array of food ingredients for us to use to translate our perceptions into food preparations, food sketches as our hosts called it. We used the taste, textures, colours, chewiness, wetness, dryness of the food to make a 3 course meal based on our sensory experiences of Brighton Seafront (blue route on the map). Our work also incorporated time and memory into the preparations. It was a lot of fun and everyone engaged with the activity with enthusiasm. Each team then presented their compositions, explaining the connection with the sensory journey through the city, while every one tried the dishes to get a taste of other’s experiences.
Participants were then asked to associate and adjective with each dish. The adjectives facilitated the expression of the qualities of the experiences to come through. A system of coloured dots and stars was also used for each participant to bring their own subjective evaluation into sensory experienced afforded by the dishes. Each coloured dot represented a sense, for example, green for smell, red for visual, blue for sounds and red for touch. We were given two dots of each colour and asked to place them next to the dish we felt had the most connections with the location it represented. We used the stars to mark the dishes we felt gave the closets representation of the sensory experiences depicted through food.
Below are the details of the food composition from my team (touch and sounds, map location 3).
1st course – Ground coffee and lime, rub together with finger and taste. This unusual combination of two intense – bitter and acidic – tastes was designed to challenge and be invasive as a representation of the assault of the wind and traffic when turning the corner that connects the city’s interior with the seafront. It seemed to work. People felt the assault and the taste combination was definitely a challenge.
2nd course – Banana chip, mascarpone, crushed weetabix to contrast creamy and dry textures. This is a reference to the experience of touching the railing by the seafront where the smooth, almost creamy successive layers of paint contrast with the dry and rough texture of the timber railing (especially on the sea facing side after years of being battered by the wind and rain). We added a hint of cinnamon to add warmth to suggest the warmth of the sun on the skin and raisins to add sweetness and echo the seaside sounds and its associated memories. The contrasts came across clearly.
3rd course – A medley of kiwi, white chocolate button, pieces of strawberry sweets and parsley flakes to bind the flavours as a reference to the sight and sounds of the merry go round by the beach. Not directly related to touch other perhaps than the wind from the sea. This polyphonic sensory experience reconnects us to childhood memories, seaside sounds and associations with sweet tastes/smells, bright colour and fun. The dish was extremely well received and seemed to fulfil its role connecting people with seaside fun.
What worked well?
The workshop was very well organised and I enjoyed the day. The translation of sensory experiences into taste was very interesting. Partly because taste is often neglected in the built environment (although it is connected to smell) and partly because I found the process enabled me to further explore, evaluate and, very importantly, share the experiences of urban spaces. The process of translation into food brought clarity into my understanding of the sensory experiences and the process of sharing enabled me to evaluate ways to transmit a highly subjective experience to someone else.
What could be improved?
Once the documentation and evaluation had taken place, I would have liked to be able to spend some time with others looking at ways in which this wealth of information could be used post-workshop.
What new insights did I take away from the workshop?
That, to some extent of course, it is possible to share subjective experiences. Enlightening!
What were the most interesting, challenging, and/or inspiring sensory aspects that I experienced?
I selected touch. It was for me the most challenging sense because it is so often the one sense that comes with many restrictions (can’t touch this or that, can’t walk here or there, touch amongst people is also culturally sensitive…). I enjoyed taking part in the sensory walk but it was challenging to separate one sense from the other and I often felt that other senses affected my ability to sense touch. Bachelard calls this phenomenon ‘the polyphony of the senses'(Gaston Bachelard, cited in Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005: 41.). For example, when we approached a large fountain on the green, hearing and seeing water fall onto stone gave us some sense of what it would be like to touch the wet stone or stand underneath the water. Lived sensory experiences are mediated by others senses as well as imagination and memories.
Another challenge was that as soon as we try to write down our thoughts on sensory experiences we objectify them and they lose their immediacy. Perhaps the process of translation and association with adjectives further dilutes the sensory experience away from its lived primary form?
Being very familiar with the location was sometimes challenging because I had to be very mindful of expectations and assumptions (based on previous experiences/memories) taking over the lived experience. Saying that, I lived in Brighton for a few years and never did I realise that the railing on the seafront offered such interesting haptic experiences and information about location/environmental conditions. With a focus on touch, I noticed haptic qualities and non-qualities in the environment that I hadn’t seen before.
A highly enjoyable workshop, great facilitators and fantastic co-participants.
This case study advocates a phenomenological approach to site-specific documentation and evaluation, placing human psychological needs and lived experiences at the centre of Spatial Design education. The project, with 2nd year students from the BA (Hons) Spatial Design course at London College of Communication, delineates how primary research methods are introduced as a prelude to sensory driven design iterations. It showcases how a public space became a pedagogic environment for students to bridge the gap between studio practice and lived experiences through active learning. It also underlines how introducing practices informed by academic research enhances the students’ learning experience.