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.
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.
On Wednesday, I attended a lunch event 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.
The Spatial Communication and Contextual and Theoretical Studies Programme Group at London College of Communication invited me to present some of my projects, notably my thesis on Interior Practices in Urban Environments, to staff and students in the college campus. It was a unique opportunity to contribute to the programme events and provide an insight into perceptions and multi-sensory practices.
I was invited by Dr Kevin Walker who runs the MA Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Arts to talk to students from a range of MA programmes. Spatial design isn’t fully integrated in many of the programmes but some students do have projects that exist within this context and they were very keen to find out more. I really enjoyed it and it was great being able to chat with a few people about individual projects afterwards.
SPATIAL EXPERIENCE – An insight into environmental perceptions
The lecture proposes that life itself is a performance and considers the notion of space not simply as a physical entity but as an event. Starting with observations on identity, cultural ideologies and communication, the proposal unfolds to provide an insight into environmental perceptions and atmospheric qualities, and includes examples of experimental projects designed to develop environmental awareness and spatial experience.
Merleau-Ponty M., (2012 ed.) Phenomenology of Perception Routledge, New York.
Gibson J. J., (1986) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Psychology Press, Hove.
Pallasmaa J., (2005) The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester.
Malnar M. J., Vodvarka F., (2004) Sensory Design University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
Van Schaik L., (2008) Spatial Intelligence. New Futures for Architecture. AD Primer. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester.
Lefebvre H., (1991 ed.) The Production of Space. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
Zizek S., (2006) How to read Lacan Granta Books, London.
Freud S., (2003 ed.) The Uncanny Penguin Classics, London
Zumthor P., (2003) Atmospheres Birkhauser, Basel.
From some of the people who attended…
I attended your lecture at the RCA today which I enjoyed very much. I was going to ask you a question but you looked at little busy so I thought I would email instead.
I shot a photographic series last year, the focus of which was signage and I have recently been revisiting ideas around the project, to uncover things I had overlooked. The photos themselves are technical, large digital composites shot as panoramics, but its the method I found each location which now seems important. I obsessed over each location, virtually (through satellite imagery and street view), sometimes for years because they were in America. When I eventually visited the chosen locations, I often experienced a strange sense of deja vu, a space never before visited by very familiar to me.
I’m researching this relation between psychological state, space and mapping, and wondered if you had any suggestions for further reading?
Dominic Hawgood, Visual Artist
Hello my name is Bohyun, 1st year student majoring in Service design at RCA.
It was really great to being on your lecture today. I had to skip one meeting for that but I’m so glad I did.
As I mentioned after the lecture, currently I’m doing project for the Sainsbury for innovating customer’s supermarket experience and got to very interested in developing environmental awareness like you said. It would be really grateful if I can also get reach to the paper having the list of books you recommended as I don’t have any contact at the Information design programme, which is shame. And you also mentioned about BBC radio programme regarding ‘perception & sense’. I wonder if I can still get hold of it if I go the the BBC website.
Actually, I was very inspired today more than anytime before in RCA as I was very interested in knowing what comprise of the unique atmosphere of each site but I haven’t got any chances to learn or practice properly about it from my programme. Please let me know if you are going to give lecture to public or do any lecture which are allowed to students from other university, I would love to listen your lectures once again.
Oh yes, and will you also tell me some of museums in london you’ve suggested to visit? I was trying to take a note of your slide but I couldn’t see very well as I was sit at ‘Background’ not the ‘foreground’.
Thanks a lot. I look forward to hearing from you.
I just wanted to send an email to say thank you so much for talking to me about my work and about the kind of projects you get involved in. Your talk was really inspiring and getting to speak to you after was a wonderful opportunity. I was feeling quite concerned about my direction and potential role in a career and you were so encouraging and really gave me the boost I needed to get some faith back.
Thank you so much for giving me your time, I really really appreciate it. Hope to be in contact soon,