Architectural Polysensoriality; For Expanded Oculocentric Considerations
In an article published last December in the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman invited architects to reflect daily on sound and its movement through space in their work. As noted in the article, we should think of sound in the same way as all other materials :
"Sound may be invisible or only unconsciously perceived, but that doesn’t make it any less an architectural material than wood, glass, concrete, stone or light."
Kimmelman, who’s not the first to be interested in the idea of soundscape, raises a major question by denouncing the oculocentric tradition. Since the beginning of time, architecture is reflected and appreciated first and foremost through aesthetic considerations, where the eye is the only judge, but Kimmelman calls for a certain reform of this way of understanding the practice. Architecture and urbanism are two fields that would benefit from expanding their considerations to bring into account the idea of polysensoriality.
If we only think of our own personal experiences, the memories we keep from a certain time and place contains way more than images. The places we visit impregnates and shapes our minds, allowing us to feel things beyond what can be seen by the eyes. Clearly, it is because of the soothing inhabited silence that we are able to stay long hours at the library or because of the awaking smell of coffee that we go back to the same cafe every morning. Every places have their own atmosphere and this atmosphere is partly planned by the architect. But what if the architect could plan the experience’s parameters in a more synergistic way?
Some buildings like the Sumtvig Chapel by Peter Zumthor, mentioned by Kimmelman in his article, already take the idea of polysensoriality in consideration. However, it is hard to perceive since we’re not really aware of the non visual qualities of the places we visit everyday. On the other hand, some other architects are trying to shake our habits by making obvious the fact that the exterior world has an impact on our behavior. In the majority of his immersive projects, Lars Spuybroek uses the idea of movement to show that every sense is important in the notion of the experience. For example, with the Son-O-House he created with Edwin van der Heide, the soundscape is constantly changing in reaction to the visitors' movements. Spuybroek’s architecture indirectly testifies in favour of polysensoriality in architecture by emphasizing the relation between the human and his habitat and the influences that one has on the other.
Beside, the idea that all senses should be included in the architectural reflexion is way more than an intuition shared by some architects and theoreticians. By studying blind people's reactions to landscape and space, specialists successfully demonstrated that the aesthetic experience of the environment is in fact polysensorial. In a study published in 2012, Marion Eirnwein and Anne Sgard explained that most blind people are able to critic or comment on places they visit, partly because of their sensorial consciousness. During the study, the description of spaces given by blind people was so close to reality, that it justified the interests that some may have in taking non-oculocentric dimensions into account in architecture.
Adding the movement of sound to the functional and aesthetic motivations of architects would not only allow better planning, but also a renewal of the philosophy of the field of study. It would certainly be interesting for architects to reconsider the question since the process would probably bring innovation and the development of a new form of architecture : one that might lead us to the cities of tomorrow.
Head image: Sumtvig Chapel by Peter Zumthor