From 13th to 17th February 2023, students from the first year of the Master’s Degree in Interior and Spatial Design at Politecnico di Milano were called upon to study, observe and analyse the interiors of Piazza Grace, an integrated Day Care Centre in Figino (Milan). The Sensing and Emotions workshop, created by Valerie Mace, senior lecturer at the University of the Arts London, and Alessandro Biamonti, associate professor at the Department of Design of Politecnico di Milano, engaged the students to document the sensory phenomena and corresponding emotional qualities that they considered most significant as designers.
Although changes to the senses occur through the ageing process, people with dementia can also experience acute sensory challenges, which in turn, impact on the way they feel about their environment. According to Agnes Houston (2017), these challenges may include impaired spatial awareness through seeing, difficulties with loud noises, changes in taste, smell or temperature perception. This means that people with dementia can process sensory phenomena in a different way compared to people who do not have dementia. This can pose challenges when designing spaces for people with dementia. Accordingly, this project investigates a simple yet important question:
How can young designers better understand the sensory world of elderly people with dementia? While it does not claim to solve this challenge, this week-long activity introduces practice-led research methods that can provide a starting point towards a better understanding of the sensory world of people with dementia.
Sensory Lab was a participatory event in collaboration with students from the Design for Branded Spaces course at London of Communication (University of the Arts London) and part of LCC’s public events programme. The event ran on two consecutive days in June 2022 for 2 hours each day.
Visitors were invited to take part in a series of immersive activities challenging their perceptions through sensory stimulation via light, textures and sounds. They were then invited to leave feedback on their experience and this feedback was translated into a visual representation of qualitative data. First, using a creative toolkit method where participants could make a 3-dimensional expression of their experience and assign emotional qualities to these. Then, participants could record their emotions in a diagram.
The design of the diagram was adapted from Russell’s Circumplex Model of Affect in psychology. In Russel’s model emotions are organised across four concepts, arousal, pleasure, sleepiness and misery, represented around a circle to highlight their interrelation.
The purpose of the event was to examine and evidence the cause and effect principle between sensing and emotions. It was also a unique and memorable experience that stimulated the senses in an innovative and fun way. The event was hugely successful with over 80 people taking part.
In October and November 2021, I designed and led two workshops that allowed me to put principles developed in my PhD research into practice and test their validity and transferability. The outcome of these workshops will contribute further insights to the PhD. The first workshop took place on 26th and 27th of October in Pamplona, Spain, at the University of Navarra with students from the BA Service Design students. The second workshop took place online on 20th of October and on 3rd of November, a collaboration between students from the BA Interior Design at Politecnico di Milano and students from the BA (Hons) Design for Branded Spaces at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.
I would like to thank the students at Navarra, PoliMI and LCC for their valued contribution and amazing designs. I would also like to thank Aitor Alicu and Alicia Fernandez Barranco at University of Navarra, as well as Alessandr Biemonti, Silvia Maria Gramegna and Lorenzo Fossi at Politecnico di Milana for their support and warm welcome.
In these workshops students were introduced to principles of sensory ecology exploring the correlation between sensing and emotions in the context of place attachment and wellbeing. The objective was to design experiences that enabled people to develop positive emotional connections towards their environment. The principles explored in these workshops are discussed in a paper published in 2020. The paper titled “Inhabiting the Public Interior. An Exploration into the Critical Role of Personalisation in Imparting Quality to Public Life” is discussed in a previous post titled ‘Inhabiting the Public Interior’.
Designing experiences – University of Navarra, BA Service Design.
The activity took place on the site of the University of Navarra Museum designed by architect Rafael Moneo. First, students were invited to re-consider the museum as a public interior and were provided with tools to document and map sensory phenomena (sight, touch, smell, hearing, kinaesthesia). They were then tasked to design interventions that would entice visitors on a journey through the interior and enrich their experience of Museum.
Designing experiences – Politecnico di Milano, BA Interior Design and London College of Communication, BA (Hons) Design for Branded Spaces.
The activity took place online using Miro as a platform for students to collaborate (a fantastic platform for individual and group work). First students learned about the primacy of sensing and the types of emotional qualities people may experience in the built environment. They were then tasked to design a temporary public space or pavilion where people could define personal and group territories while still maintaining positive sensory connections with the collective environment.
These activities draw on phenomenological and ecological theoretical principles. Here, phenomenology is presented as the study of experience from the first-person perspective to foreground the primacy of embodied perception. The ecological perspective explores the relationship between living organisms (people) and their environment (the build environment). Phenomenology and ecology bring the perceptual and the relational together to become phenomenological ecology, a principles coined by Mark Reigner (1993, p.181) and discussed by David Seamon (1993, p. 16) in the book ‘Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing. Toward a Phenomenological Ecology’.
Reigner, M. (1993) ‘Toward a Holistic Understanding of Place: Reading the Landscape through its Flora and Fauna’, in Seamon, D. (ed.) Dwelling, Seeing and Designing. Toward a Phenomenological Ecology. Albany, USA: State University of New York.
Seamon, D. (ed.) (1993) Dwelling, Seeing and Designing. Toward a Phenomenological Ecology. New York: State University of New York Press.
This project invited a group of interior design students at ESDi School of Design (University Jamon Lull, Barcelona) to carry out a sensory study of the ROCA gallery in Barcelona, Spain. The activity was designed to help students reconnect with sensing through experiential learning. Following on site investigations, students were invited to translate their experience into three-dimensional artefacts.
In this workshop introduces a method to document embodied multisensory experiences in space. It is followed by an experimental design activity.
You will be assigned a sensory system documentation template to document a pre-selected site outside the ESDI building. Bring your sketchbook and a range of pen.
Once on site, use the template provided to document your embodied experience of the sensory system you have been assigned and map/sketch your experiences in your sketchbook.
Team with three other people so that each of you represents a sensory system (visual, auditory, smell/taste, haptic). As a team, make a collective mind map of their sensory documentation, highlighting significant elements, scale, connections, hierarchies, qualities/emotions.
Working individually again, use the information on the mind map as the basis for the design of a multisensory space/structure. Experiment by making 3 different sketch models to explore how you can give 3D form and spatial expression to your group sensory documentation. The objective is to explore and experiment not to provide a definitive solution.
Presentations and discussion
In your group, present your models to each other. Each group selects 1 model to present to the class and discuss insights.
In my research and PhD, I use phenomenological maps to represent my experience of environments. The map is a representation of the perceived environmental experience and of emotional qualities projected onto the environment.
Drawing on Dretske’s (2003) representational theory of experience, exploring the process of interpretation of the representational vehicle into representational content can help understand what is significant to the individual and convey what is perceived through direct experiences in the present. However, to understand what remains with the individual from the experience and potentially, what can consolidate the emotional connection to place, the mapping process turns to the concept of mental images. Cope (2019) provides a useful summary of the distinction between perceptions and mental images. He explains that perceptions are embodied, in the present, they can include abundant details and the subject finds meanings and recognition through direct experiences of the environment. Mental images on the other hand are re-lived in the mind, they are of the past and selective, only retaining information that is significant for the individual. This suggests that significant phenomena can be retained as mental images.
Malnar and Vodvarka (1992, p. 232) draw on the work of Arnheim to explain that “one’s percepts typically concerns the autonomous existence of objects as they form in the mind from many individual impressions, particularly as one approaches or passes through a building. And he notes that our end image of an object (or building, as one sort of object) is thus the result of our spontaneous integration of these multiple visual projection into a total perceptual image. Arnheim theory has three important aspects: first, a comprehensive perceptual image of a building develops as a purely perceptual process; second, this image must incorporate the sensations generated in the viewer by the building as it is experienced sequentially; and third, a building exists both as a spatial event outside the temporal dimension and as an event unfolding. […] The third point is critical in Arnheim’s argument, as it implies several conditions unique to architecture. First, that the viewer’s experience of the building is participatory; second, that the appearance of individual components of the building come from the intended order of view; and third that the order of view makes senses only in terms of the physical structure of the building. It’s enduring nature”
Therefore, unlike architectural floor plans, phenomenological maps are not representations of a unique space but an amalgamation of different situations that occurred over time and from which mental images have been retained, creating a connection between the individual and the environment.
The fluid aesthetic of the map draws on the “stream of consciousness” concept developed by the psychologist William James (Sennet 2019, p. 175). Sennet explains that “[a] stream flows: thinking, feeling, dwelling is never static.” Thus, the stream of consciousness in in constant flux, whether the body is static, as in the context of vantage points, or actually moving through the interior. Philosopher Mark Johnson (2007, p. 50) explains that “if you are moving forward in a linear fashion, you experience a visual “flow” that emerges from a horizontal focal point and streams toward you, and then envelops and flows past you.
Map organisational principles
The organisation of the content and design of the map draws on Kaplan and Kaplan’s (1981) mental map functional properties. They propose that to be useful the construction of the map should follow specific functional properties, described below.
Generality: the map extracts similarities and ignores unique situations in phenomena.
Simplicity: unnecessary information is discarded.
Economy: the map simplifies and codes the information for speedy and reliable access
Essence: critical stereotypical information is retained.
Connectedness: the map uses symbols to identify known points and establish connections for the map to read as continuous.
Directness: experiences are arranged into categories.
Unity: a clear organisation of information against its background.
Cope, W. (2019) Perceptual Images and Mental Images: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Available at: https://www.coursera.org/lecture/multimodal-literacies/11-3-perceptual-images-and-mental-images-H08eo (Accessed: 23 March 2019).
Dretske, F. (2003) ‘Experience as representation’, Philosophical Issues, 13(Philosophy of Mind), pp. 67-82
Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body. Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kaplan, S. and Kaplan, R. (1981) Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an Uncertain World. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ulrich’s Books.
Malnar, J. M. and Vodvarka, F. (1992) The Interior Dimension. A Theoretical Approach to Enclosed Space. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sennett, R. (2019) Building and Dwelling. Ethics for the City. London: Penguin.
This case study is presented as a phenomenological account of first-person embodied experiences of Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavilion in London. This account was first written in 2011 as a direct experience and revisited as a remembered experience, darwing on the power of mental images.
Frances Downing (1994, cited in Malnar and Vodvarka, 2004, p. 22) helps bring precision to the principles defining mental images:
Mental images are an active, vital repository of information gathered through sensual experience – through sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. […] [A mental image] does not include all the environmental information contained in a particular place or event experience. Instead, the mental image presents a version of experience that is most important to the individual or situation at a particular moment in time.
Zumthor is known for his striking
integration of sensory qualities in the design of his buildings (Ursprung 2014) and I had the
opportunity to visit his London Serpentine Pavilion twice. The first time the
weather was bright and relatively sunny while the second time, it was raining
abundantly. The weather is mentioned here because it had a significant impact
on sensory variability in the pavilion due to its design. According to Kellert (2008) sensory variability,
the level of variation in sensory phenomena such as light, sound, touch and
smell in an environment, impacts on human satisfaction and wellbeing and as
such, can impact on people’s ability to develop intimate connections with their
In the first instance, my experience of the corridor as I entered the building was especially powerful. Inside, intimate proportions, the modulated light, the mellow darkness and relative quietness provided a welcome refuge from the vastness and brightness of Hyde Park as well as the noise of traffic nearby. Robinson (2015, p. 57) highlights the significance of surface materials in Zumthor’s pavilion design. She explains how he seduced visitors by coating the burlap walls in black paste to introduce texture and micro-shadows to deepen the darkness of the interior (Figure 1). She doesn’t write about the smell but through my own experience, I know that a faint but comforting smell emanated from the walls. Upon entering the corridor, my body attuned to its environment, ‘[t]here was no need to hurry, no urge to move on’ (2014, p. 39). I felt an embodied connection with the environment. Zumthor had designed the outside of the pavilion as a simple black rectangular box hiding the inside so the experience was serendipitous. By including an opportunity for an unexpected phenomenon with special qualities to occur, Zumthor created a significant and memorable experience whose image still resonates with me today.
The corridor entirely surrounded the interior and the thresholds, from the outside into the corridor and from the corridor into the core of the interior, were cleverly staggered. This design feature protected the intimacy of the interior by providing a refuge from the more chaotic reality of the outside world. Covatta (2017) equates this form of intimacy to mental wellness and the interior, a simple cloister-like space with a rectangular garden of wild flowers as a central focal point, did present a peaceful and restful outlook. The experience was pleasant. The edges of the space were lined with benches integrated into the architecture, as well as tables and chairs inviting people to pause. Tuan (1977, p. 138) identifies pause as one of the conditions necessary for individuals to experience a sense of place. He writes that ‘[p]lace is a pause in movement. Animals, including human beings, pause at a locality because it satisfies certain biological needs. The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a centre of felt values.’ The ability to pause can thus be an opportunity for individuals to attune to their surroundings.
Beyond the biological need to rest, people tend to prefer secure and protected settings (Kellert et al. 2008, p. 13) and the recessed sitting area nested against the wall and protected by a short overhanging roof presented a nested opportunity for private positions from which to enjoy the garden. Bachelard (1958) relates the nest to the concept of inhabiting, linking the ability to withdraw into one’s intimate territory to pleasure, while Nakamura (2010) adds sensory precision to the concept of pleasure by explaining that, due to their intimate size, nests minimise distances and maximise opportunities for bodily contact with space through an active relationship between the structure of the space and the body.
Aside from its role as a natural focal point, the variety of plants, their colours and complexity of details contrasted with the simplicity of the architectural forms and materiality. This complexity also contrasted with the view to the sky above. Although the design of the pavilion eliminated all connections to the outside and people could seek protection under the overhanging roof, the garden remained open to the sky with the top of the trees in the park still visible. This feature provided a distinctive and enticing, even poetic, mental connection to the outside.
The edges of the space were busy, occupied by people, adults and children sitting on the furniture provided, some chatting, some eating, a few people reading, some simply resting while others strolled around the garden. All seemingly relaxed and enjoying the space (Figure 2). Following the more contemplative experience of the corridor I began to attune to the more convivial mood of the garden. Mallgrave (2015, p. 6) explains that the recently discovered mirror mechanism underpins human empathy and is the reason why we can easily share emotions with others. As such, the sight of people relaxing can have a positive effect on the mood of others as it did on mine.
During the second visit, the interior of the pavilion was almost empty and thus quieter because it was raining. While previously people dominated the experience of the space, this time I became immersed into the experience of the Summer rain falling onto the garden through the open roof, watching, listening to, touching and even smelling its humidity. Drops of water fell heavily onto the edges of the metal tables, creating a rhythmic sound pattern and visual liquid explosions (Figure 3). Even though it was raining, the overhanging roof offered protection and the experience was comfortable and relaxing. With little disruption, my mood was contemplative. During the previous visit, my body had attuned to the environment in the corridor however, while previously it felt like a sudden unexpected force, this time it occurred more gradually, as if my body was slowly easing into the atmosphere of the space. I tried to capture these experiences in a phenomenological map (Figure 4).
Even though the pavilion was temporary its design as a refuge, the choice of materials, the garden, the visual connection to the park and the thoughtful integration of natural elements, grounded the interior and gave it a natural relational presence. It felt authentic. Interior designer Mary-Anne Beecher (2008) expresses a link between authenticity and atmosphere. She argues that for a place to cultivate atmosphere, the setting requires an authentic and meaningful contextual grounding. Moreover, despite knowing that it was a temporary space, the environment also exuded continuity, projecting a temporal connection between past, present and future. Till (2013: 95) refers to it as ‘thick time’, when ‘[in] its connectedness, time places architecture in a dynamic continuity, aware of the past, projecting into the future.’ In this instance, a sense of continuity emerged from the surface materials such as the worn patina of the burlap walls and aged timber whose slight imperfections could be imagined as a reference to past occupancy, while the cloister like design also seemed to reference a historical architectural context. Although the black box of the exterior felt incongruous in Hyde Park, once inside, it felt that the interior had always been there.
Bachelard, G. (1958) The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.
Beecher, M. A. (2008) ‘Regionalism and the
Room of John Yeon’s Watzek House.’, Interior
Atmospheres. Architectural Design., pp. 54-59.
Covatta, A. (2017) ‘Density and Intimacy in Public Space. A case study of Jimbocho, Tokyo’s book town.’, Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, 3(5).
Downing, F. (1994) ‘Memory and the Making of Places’, in Franck, K.A. & Schneekloth, L.H. (eds.) Ordering Space: Types in architecture and Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, pp. 233-235.
Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J. H. and Mador,
M. L. (eds.) (2008) Biophilic Design. The
Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken, New
Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Mallgrave, H. F. (2015) Architecture and Empathy. Espoo, Finland: Tapio Wikkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.
Malnar J. M., Vodvarka K. (2004) Sensory Design, Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
Nakamura, H. (2010) Microscopic Designing Methodology. Tokyo: Japan: INAX Publishing.
Robinson, S. (2015) ‘Boundaries of Skin:
John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility’, in Tidwell, P. (ed.) Architecture and Empathy. Espoo,
Finland: Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.
Till, J. (2013) Architecture Depends. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England:
The MIT Press.
Tuan, Y. F. (1977) Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press.
Ursprung, P. (2014) ‘Presence: The Light
Touch of Architecture.’, in Wilson, V. & Neville, T. (eds.) Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined.
London: royal Academy of Arts.
Facilitated by Valerie Mace – Friday 25th May 2018. Participants: Students from the MA Narrative Environment course at Central St Martins.
In this workshop, an introduction to active sensing, you are invited to document sensory impressions across an environment defined as the dynamics of the physical space and people within it. The tools used in the workshop are designed to help you quickly familiarise yourself with the environment and become more conscious of your sensory impressions.
Understand the relevance of active sensing in environmental cognition.
Unlearn sensory inhibitions, learn to sense information in space.
Explore impressions that emerge from sensory information.
Be inspired by the sensory environment.
1pm. Lecture: Active Sensing 1:20pm. Workshop instructions 1:45pm. Travel to Soho Square 2:15pm. Workshop 3:30pm. Debriefing
Research toolkit A4 sketchbook, a few sheets of tracing paper and 1 bulldog/foldback clip to secure the tracing paper to the sketchbook. Different colour pen.
You will be working individually within a site pre-selected by your tutor. Work quickly: document your initial impressions as they occur and allow the flow of sensory impressions to guide you.
Discover-Walk through the site to immerse yourself into its sensory environment(space and people) and to familiarise yourself with it. Don’t just look, use all your senses: smell, taste, touch, listen and notice how you move. Use the Active Sensing Annotation Sheet to capture key impressions.
Document–Find a vantage point. Complete the sensory flow diagrams. This will increase your familiarity with the site and you will start to develop more precise mental images.
Document–Map sensory impressions using the 2D line drawing provided as an underlay. Place a sheet of tracing paper on top of the map and use symbols to record sensory impressions onto your map. Use the symbols provided and include annotations if required.
Indicative content: What do you see, smell/taste, hear, touch? How do you and others move through the site? Can you identify perceptual thresholds and boundaries? Are there any sensemarks? Don’t try to document everything. Capture the essence of how the space resonates with your senses.
Anheim, R. (1983) ‘Buildings as Percepts’, Via. The Journal of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, Architecture and Visual Perception(6).
Bachelard, G. (1958) The Poetics of Space., Boston: Beacon Press.
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.
Hiss, T. (1990) The Experience of Place. A new way of looking and dealing with our radically changing cites and countryside., New York: Vintage Book.
Johnson, M. (2007, 2008 ed.) The Meaning of the Body. Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kaplan, S. and Kaplan, R. (1981) Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an Uncertain World, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ulrich’s Books.
Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing. Lynch, K. (1960) The Image of the City, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The M.I.T. Press.
Mallgrave, H.F. (2011) The Architect’s Brain. Neuroscience, Creativity and Architecture, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Malnar, J.M. and Vodvarka, F. (1992) The Interior Dimension. A Theoretical Approach to Enclosed Space., New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Malnar, J.M. and Vodvarka, F. (2004) Sensory design, Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945. 2012 ed.) Phenomenology of Perception, London & New York: Routledge.
Schmitz, H., Müllan, R. O. & Slaby, J. (2011) ‘Emotions outisde the box – the new phenomenology of feeling and corporeality’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 10(2), 241-259.
The value of exploring the wider context of your research.
In 2017, I took part in Arts in the Alps, a week long doctoral research school organised by the Maison de la création at the Université Grenoble Alpes. The call for participation caught my attention because it related to my research interests while at the same time provided me with an opportunity to expand my practice and research network.
My research and the topic of ongoing doctoral research centres on sensing and emotions in relation to wellbeing. This is informed by previous work, notably a project called Sensing the Urban Interior published in 2014. Following the principle of ‘spatial inversion’, whereby spaces between buildings habitually referred to as exteriors become interiors, I carried out a sensorial documentation of an urban interior, the More London Estate, a contemporary riverside business development in London. The location sits at the boundaries between inside and outside, private and public, enclosed and open space. This distinctive position and promise of interiority made it an ideal site of enquiry. The objective of the research was to uncover connections between the way we feel and our sense of belonging. This was achieved by documenting how the urban interior resonated with the senses to provide a framework for reflection as well as an incentive towards sensory transformations.
Prior to the start of my doctoral research, I also worked on a project called ‘Residual Ambiances – An Illustration of Urban Heritage as a Sentient Experience’. 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 illustrated a unique perceptual encounter between the abandoned interior of Poplar Baths in London and myself. Subsequently, I synthesised the emotion and intimacy of the sentient experience into a scenographic narrative and short performance. The interest of the project lied in its ability to articulate how sentient experiences activate a deep empathetic connection between body and space in the context of urban heritage. Following the completion of the project, I wrote a paper about it, which I presented at the 3rd International Congress on Ambiances in Volos, Greece, in September 2016. While there, I also took part in another activity called Volos Transects, a sensory mapping of the city.
So, when the call for the Arts in the Alps research school came through, I saw this as an opportunity to further explore the wider context of my research, share knowledge and practices, participate, contribute and experiment within and international network of researchers and artists.
Below is the information sent by the Arts in the Alps organisers to call for participants:
The Arts in the Alps Spring School is bringing together a community of leading researchers, artists and PhD candidates from the fields of architecture, dance, geography, fine arts, performance, sound art and linguistics to explore, collaborate and experiment new practices of interdisciplinary and practice-based site-specific research entitled:
“Gestures of here & there: la fabrique sensible des lieux”.
During the week participants had the opportunity to experiment, discuss and share interartistic and interdisciplinary practices of site specific research. Specifically, centered on the question of the memory of a place, this research intensive week aimed at investigating the site of the Bouchayer-Viallet which has many historical layers: industrial, eco-cultural and artistic. This site held a strategic position in the hydroelectric sector in the early 1900s and is now reconverted as a development zone by the city of Grenoble. A nearly 3000m2 steel and glass factory building is now the home of Magasin les Horizons, a Center for Arts and Cultures which is where the school was based.
Throughout the five-day intensive doctoral school, participants had the opportunity to attend a series of workshops, seminars and events facilitated by an international group of researchers and artists. The mornings were dedicated to collective activities workshops, readings and seminars while the afternoon sessions focused on practice-based art and research platforms with smaller groups. Participants were encouraged to experiment with sensory based research practices and to re-enact the collective and individual gestures which wove and continue to weave the multi-faceted identities of this historical site.
Erin Manning (Concordia University, Canada) / Brian Massumi (Université de Montréal, Canada) / Helen Paris (Curious UK and Stanford University, USA) / Rebecca Schneider (Brown University, USA) / Anne Volvey (Université d’Artois, France)
Organizing committee: Gretchen Schiller (Maison de la Création & UMR LITT&ARTS, UGA), Nataliya Grulois et Anne-Claire Cauhapé (Maison de la Création, UGA), Claudine Moïse (LIDILEM, UGA), Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary (PACTE, UGA), Anne Dalmasso (LARHRA, UGA) Martin Givors (doctorant LITT&ARTS, UGA); Rachel Thomas (CRESSON, UMR 1563 AAU, ENSAG), Inge Linder-Gaillard (ÉSAD, École Supérieure d’Art et Design •Grenoble •Valence), Béatrice Josse et Camille Planeix ( Magasin des Horizons, Centre d’arts et de cultures), Marie Roche (Centre de développement chorégraphique Le Pacifique), Rachid Ouramdane et Erell Melscoet (CCN2, Centre chorégraphique national), Matthieu Warin (Maison des habitants de Bouchayer-Viallet).
This was a complete departure from my usual ways of working. I tend to work alone when carrying out research or with participants. In the doctoral school, we worked in groups of 8 participants and there were 4 groups across the school in total, with 2 workshop leaders in each group. We also had a couple of people who worked in the school who came in and out of the sessions. People came from all over the world. In our group: UK, Canada, Belgium, Turkey, Australia, France, Spain who were artists, performers, academics, architects, philosophers.
Each day started with a somatic practice organised by Germana Civera. Amazing! A most emotionally invigorating activity. Every day for 5 days, a great way to start the day. Then we would take part in thematic workshops and there were also two seminars with Erin Maning and philosopher Brian Massumi. The day would end with a conference. We started the day at 9am and finished at 8:30pm. Everyone would then meet for dinner into a restaurant booked by our organisers, a different place each day. We ended the week in a beautiful guest house in the woods outside Grenoble for a celebration and final goodbyes.
The theme for my group was Mapping Lost Gestures and the workshops were run by Gretchen Schiller and Helen Paris, both a pleasure to work with. They made everyone feel welcome and very soon, it became clear that we had excellent group dynamics where everyone was happy to participate, and no one was making judgements on others. In the thematic workshops, we were required to mostly express ourselves through bodily gestures. It felt very awkward for me at first because I didn’t know what I was doing but I soon learnt from observing others more familiar with performance and by day two, I became more attuned to bodily gestures, and by day three it felt like a completely natural way of communicating. All the activities we took part in in the first 4 days were designed to help us prepare a 40 minutes performance to present to the other groups and tutors on the last day. The group worked incredibly well and we were all able to make a contribution and enjoy ourselves in the process.
This week -long research school was the most uplifting research event I have been to. People connected in a very positive way. There was a degree of freedom and an ability for us to take some ownership of what we did which means that we achieved a lot and it was also a pleasure to do it. The organisers recently sent us the link to a website where they posted filmed interviews of the people talking about the activities they organised. Watching the films brought back very fond memories. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to apply performance to my research since I started by doctorate, my work is about embodied experiences, including bodily movement and gestures, so there may be opportunities in the future to integrate performance led experimental interventions into my practice.
 Attiwill, S. (2011). Urban and Interior: techniques for an urban interiorist. In R. U. Hinkel, (Ed.), Urban Interior – informal explorations, interventions andoccupations (pp. 12-24). School of Architecture and Desing, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. Baunach: Spurbuchverlag.
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.
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.