Humans are different from other animals because we possess consciousness. We have a natural instinct, a gut feeling that has evolved from our primal senses. Architecture shapes the world around us, and our daily experiences revolve around the spaces we live in and move about. But how much of that do we really notice and take in? Most of us are caught up with a million things on our to-do lists, scrolling through our phones, taking calls and answering emails; and in that hustle, our environment remains in the background. Design and planning today are focussed on being functionally efficient. Our buildings maintain the ideal temperature and humidity for us to work at our optimum levels. Even subtle changes in this optimum environment tend to manifest as physical and mental health changes. Pandering to our senses to that extent has reduced architecture to a mere backdrop.
In the opening paragraph of his book “Thinking Architecture”, Zumthor makes us ask ourselves what we think about when we think about architecture. What are the sensations we associate with architecture? Throughout the book, he narrates different stories that his mind has linked to specific encounters with architecture- be it an oak staircase, a well-lit corridor, the texture of flooring tiles, a particular door handle- different elements provide the reader with a fleeting glimpse of the past that he so fondly remembers. Think back to your childhood home, the gardens, and verandahs you played in, the low table where your grandmother served you food, sleeping under the stars in the hot summer nights- so many of these memories are shaped by the places we lived in. Even as we grow older, all these feelings will come rushing back if we ever step into a place that is similar to these. In
fact, we also unconsciously try to shape the space around us in a similar way in the rest of our life too, from the places and events that
shaped our minds, the.lessons we learned, the opinions we formed. Architecture is as much about design as it is about the memories.
“Producing inner images is a natural process common to everyone. It is part of thinking. Associative, wild, free, ordered and systematic thinking in images, in architectural, spatial, colorful, and sensuous pictures- this is my favorite definition of design”
There has been a great deal of philosophical discussion regarding this aspect of architecture. Alain de Botton, in his book “The Architecture of Happiness” has talked about some ideas of architectural development that have made it memorable. Some of them reflect the points I wrote above- Architecture brings out specific aspects of our personalities, and projects ideals in our minds- sometimes falsely. Architects have used various elements in their designs as a challenge to viewer perceptions. The pointed spires in churches and cathedrals, the alluring expanse of the Persian-Mughal style domes, the impossible curves of Gehry’s Guggenheim, the confusing facades of Gaudi’s houses, and the marvel of the Hindi temples- they have all continued to astonish our minds.
The different styles of architecture that developed over the course of history have shaped our personal preferences and opinions on a very superficial level. This is why some of us admire intricate designs and enormous, elegant structures of the classical style, while others feel themselves identifying more with the modern minimalist approach. This is also why we also simply rearrange our furniture or repaint a room ‘for a change’.
But architecture is not just about the visual perspective. According to Juhani Pallasmma in his book “The Eyes of the Skin” he emphasizes the importance of all five senses in the art of shaping spaces and buildings. We might use our vision for the first impression of a space, judging distance and space depth. But it’s only through employing the other senses that we can truly experience architecture. A simple touch helps us to actually connect with the planes, acoustics help us understand the harmony between various elements and the sense of smell helps us gauge the quality of the space. It is like watching a movie without the sound, we miss out on the emotion conveyed by the space. This approach to design is called a phenomenological approach- which focusses on not just creating a building, but an experience. It requires not just design acumen, but an understanding of the human thought process (both conscious and subconscious), and its reactions to elements and spaces- not from a technical aspect, but from an experiential or philosophical one.
It is important to also learn from these experiences. Architecture tells the story of the evolution of mankind and therefore has a lot to teach us. Developing architecture as a sensory narrative is also important because it is only when you experience a space first-hand that you understand what works and what doesn’t. A lot of what Many celebrated buildings throughout history have in reality been failures. The owners of Villa Savoye came to despise the iconic skylights and the bands of windows because it interfered with the heating systems. It was a space worth experiencing- every nook and corner. Their house has come to be known as a symbol of Corbusier’s work, but in the end, it could never be what it was originally meant to be- a home.
“As people move about the environment, they acquire knowledge about the patterns of their own movement and about spatial relations among places in the world. This knowledge is encoded and stored in memory, allowing people to find the places again” –Human Spatial Memory: Remembering Where