Sensory design is the orchestration of spatial stimuli in built environments, regulated to lift the quality of experience for the occupants they serve cumulatively. By taking an occupant-centered approach, therapeutic architecture further explains how it can be better attuned through sensory design for a healthier mind and body connection physiologically, cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, and spiritually. The sensory design outline necessitates more as the built environment is assessed for the occupant’s well-being and performance. 

Prevailing sensory design literature indicates that architectural and urban design practices conceive spaces that fail to produce a non-visual experience. But, new technologies provide possibilities to measure specific environmental characteristics and human response to them. In recent decades, architects and designers have often begun to consider other senses like sound, touch (proprioception, kinesthesis, and therefore the vestibular sense), smell, and in rare instants, even taste in their work.

Sensory Design: Therapeutic Architecture - Sheet1
Colors projected onto the manipulated by the degree of pressure asserted_©architectmagazine

Architecture optimizes the healing process through the senses, presenting it unreliable that only vision reinforces the other senses. With only sight, people become detached from a relationship with the environment by suppressing the other senses. These expressions can be very well applied in different settings to create a therapeutic environment. We experience it every day without a second thought about how its design affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We perceive the world through a sum of all our senses. It only has meaning when experienced, and all our senses are simultaneously engaged as the acts and rituals of our daily lives occur. 

However, we currently exist in a world where visual stimulation takes precedence over the other senses, and factors such as emotion, perception, and memories are not factored into the design. Typologies like medical institutions shouldn’t be formulated only by its function, but by patients’ experience and well-being through sensory design. It should provide engaging spaces for all the participants in the healthcare setting. One such example is the Maggie Centre, Manchester by Foster + Partners. The Centre will offer free rational, emotional, and social support for anyone with cancer and their family. Encompassed by the Centre’s surviving lush gardens, the proposed construction aims to tap into the therapeutic qualities.

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Creative session at Norman Foster’s Maggie’s Centre, Manchester_©Philip Durrant

In 450 B.C, the Greek philosopher Protagoras noted this when he stated, “Man is nothing but a bundle of sensations.” It is an approach that focuses on the occupant and how sensory stimuli in built environments are arranged to elevate the occupants’ quality of life and experience. With this approach, the impact of architecture on occupants can be better tuned through sensory design for a healthier mind and body. Senses, perceived as a whole, are an information-seeking system. They interact with, are stimulated by the environment, and transmit signals to and feature a different perception range. Touch, smell, and taste provide information exploring sensory design and its potential to heal within the paramount space around us.

In contrast, vision and hearing can represent objects or events from greater distances.  Gibson integrated the visual, auditory, taste and smell, basic orienting and haptic systems and aspects of the world around us including matter, space and scale are measured by our bodies and require the use of all our senses to create an experience of therapy. One example of multisensory architectural design to which Juhani Pallasmaa induces attention in several of his writings is the Ira Keller Fountain, Portland, Oregon. According to him, it is “An architecture for all the senses, including the kinesthetic and olfactory senses.”  

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Ira Keller Fountain, Potland_©tclf

Sensual architecture deals with the structure and how it engages with our bodies in different ways and at other times. However, a building that incorporates experiential qualities can be visited many times. This design type pays attention to how its spaces are ordered to house its activities, how it is built, how it is structured, and what materials are used. All of those factors affect how a building goes to be experienced by those that inhabit it. 

Therapeutic design, which integrates the five senses, aims to create a soothing and uplifting environment to promote healing. It should form experiences that persuade beauty and cultural integrity through design concepts that inspire and stimulate the senses. Exploring sensory design and its potential to heal space and material, light and shadow, sound and texture, are blended in our everyday experiences. 

Multisensory spaces can make rehabilitation more efficient and reduce the amount of time spent in care. One such example is Paimio Sanatorium (now a hospital) in Finland by Alvar Aalto. He exclaimed that his design concept was to create a progression of experiential situations. He conceived the sanatorium as a delicately and empathetically examined instrument of healing for people at their weakest.

Paimio Sanatorium, Finland_©Alvar Aalto Foundation
Paimio Sanatorium, Finland_©Alvar Aalto Foundation

The human body follows and allows the mechanism of ‘self-healing’ when provided with a positive therapeutic environment. The terms curing and healing are usually misunderstood collectively and hence used interchangeably but hold different meanings. Curing is often referred to as the process of getting relief from the symptoms of a disease or condition. It is achievable through proper medication, whereas healing is referred to as the process of rejuvenation and restoration of health. The aura of the space transforms the perception of the person. 

The current medical health care demand trends for creating and designing health care environments include aesthetic enhancements for reducing stress and anxiety levels and promoting healing. If designed adequately with multisensory architectural experiences, the therapeutic spaces can have the ability to ignite the senses of the human mind towards the regenerative self-healing process.

Imbibing sensory design in therapeutic architecture_©designcurial
Imbibing sensory design in therapeutic architecture_©designcurial

Nowadays, with all our consumers’ needs just a click away, the notion of ‘real-time’ shopping in physical shops is under threat. Advanced technology has enabled new ways to fulfill many human activities in modern society without offering a public space. Consequently, public spaces have been transformed into private or requisite spaces by urban growth, focusing on the quality of improvement that mainly relies on economic, functional, and technological factors. Now, public realms have lost inherent values as social-mediated spaces. This situation has led the city to lose its existentialist meaning in such gathering space’ and the ‘absence of the public realm.’ 

Furthermore, aged and unsafe facilities in the marketplaces have prevented people from paying frequent visitations. Above all, the most salient reason for the decrease in the traditional market is modern people’s transformed lifestyle. Rethinking markets’ roles in the urban structure as the new type of social area, supporting urban traditions, and exchanging between communities economically and socially while dealing with current sustainability issues is now necessary.


Swara is an architect and a keen traveler with a significant interest in writing and blogging. She likes to work on exploratory yet grounded approaches and understands architecture from the perspective of human values and sensitivity. She believes that if drawings speak more, words articulate the most.