It is common for humans to adapt their behavior with respect to their surroundings. For example, a person is conventionally boisterous in a concert or a sports stadium, however maintains silence in a library. Spatial factors can also change one’s mood and enhance their ability to perform a certain task. This blog explores the impact of the ‘multi-sensory design approach’ on human behavior, its importance, and how one can inculcate it in their architectural design.
How does architecture impact human behavior?
“Spaces that trigger emotions alter the behavior of people. Architecture aims at influencing human behavior by space creations.” –Justus Dahinden
Imagine a room with no windows and a low ceiling or an all-white room without an iota of color? In spaces like these, it is inevitable for one to feel claustrophobic or even frustrated. Most often people do not realize the role architecture plays in their day-to-day life and how it shapes the way they think, feel and behave. A well-designed space considering its users and their activity result in improved productivity whereas poorly designed spaces with a lack of ventilation or natural light not only affect one's mood but can pose health problems.
In the above picture, which space seems more inviting to you and lifts up your mood?
Humans and their environment should interact with one another. The location of a space, the anthropometry, colors, furniture, visuals, the odor of the space, and materials, etc, are some aspects that form the essence of the space and impacts human behavior. For example, it is common for children’s classrooms to be colorful and interactive as it is scientifically proven to benefit them by attracting attention and fueling their imagination. If a sense of vision alone can inculcate such profound character to the space, imagine what all five senses are capable of doing!
Journal of environmental psychology by S. van der Liden, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, are few books that discuss the impact of the environment on human behavior elaborately.
We continue perceiving architecture as a visual composition, but this is a dead and distorted way of looking at architecture. - Juhani Pallasmaa
Architecture for decades has primarily focused on the functionality and aesthetics of a built structure with the ultimate goal of making the space habitable. A well-designed structure often tries to captivate its user through visual delights while paying little to no attention to other senses. It is important for architecture to interact with its user by stimulating different senses to add depth to the user experience. An architectural design should be an experiential journey making it easier and intriguing for the user to perceive the space. A room that makes you feel good is more valuable compared to a room that only looks good. One might argue that they go hand in hand but there is always more than meets the eye. This is where multisensory architecture comes to play.
Our environment is full of different stimuli. When one goes out for a walk in nature, they not only see the pretty landscape but also hear the birds chirping, smell the surroundings and feel the blissful air. All of these sensory stimulations enrich the experience in an unbuilt environment. Inculcating this perception of space in the ‘built form’ can be defined as multisensory architecture.
Various architects have defined multisensory architecture in different ways. Selina Mason, Board Director of LDA Design says, “Multisensory design brings the person into the foreground of our thinking. It suggests a more meaning full relationship between ourselves and our environment. It allows us to enjoy the cacophony of urban life where sensory overload can overwhelm as much as exciting us by offering a counterpoint- the deep-rooted restorative effect of the natural world, its sounds, smells, texture, and joy to the eye.”
Traditionally, there are 5 senses: Sense of vision, taste, smell, sound, and touch. Let us talk about their relation to architecture.
Sense of vision
The inventor of Sensorama (the world’s first multisensory virtual reality apparatus), Morton Heilig believed that the sense of vision captured 70% of the attention of an individual.( sound-20%, olfaction-5%, touch- 4%, and taste- 1%). Architecturally as well, the sense of vision has been placed at the top of the hierarchy since aspects such as color, size, weight, order, and sense of space are first perceived by a user through vision, which then, may or may not stimulate other senses. The study of color psychology confirms how the color of a room affects one’s mood and productivity. Similarly, physical and mental health has been proven to improve with access to natural daylight.
At St.Ignatius chapel, Seattle, Ar.Steven Holl creates a serene mood for meditation and worship through lightings on colored reflectors behind baffles.
Architects and other designers have significantly done justice to the sense of vision. Use of light and shadow, vivid materials and textures, usage of colors for targeted purposes, and using other visual delights are some ways to stimulate the sense of vision. Natural lighting, clear sightlines, and visual transparency in spaces inculcate a sense of openness and encourage a healthy environment. Changes in floor levels and scale of the space can help stimulate other senses through visual connection.
It is very important to create the right audio environment for your work. -Jay Shetty (Podcast- On purpose: 6 ways to stop getting distracted and start getting focused)
Other than vision, sound plays an important role in making a space favorable. Reverberation, echo, resonance, and other factors relating to sound help a person perceive the form, shape, and dimensions of the space and create an immersive experience. Unfortunately, auditory factors in architecture are primarily given importance only whilst designing spaces like concert halls, auditoriums, dance studios, etc. or to cancel out disturbing noises. However, today, inculcating auditory senses has become a way of life. People listen to music while working and meditate on the sounds of nature. Poor sound effects or an imbalanced environmental sound can affect our health and productivity as well.
Zighizaghi transforms its external space into a dynamic environment where music acts as a vehicle between nature and visitors. The 16 sided red prisms are installed with loudspeakers that get activated when one interacts with the legs of the pod.
A proper study of materials to understand their auditory effect is one way through which a designer can consider the sense of sound. Using various sounds of nature can create a serene environment as well. Natural sound barriers such as trees can be used to block unwanted noise. As sound is omnidirectional, auditory changes caused by different ceiling heights can stimulate senses as well. Using pleasant music in semi-public spaces can never go wrong.
It is common for humans to associate space with its smell. You can smell the antiseptic scent with a tad of bitterness when you think of a hospital whereas the smell of a restaurant or cafe can leave you drooling. Similarly, nobody likes the room next to an unhygienic dustbin or a toilet. The odor of a particular space forms a distinctive character that either makes the space inviting or repellent, as it is something that lingers through our senses long after we have left the place. Olfactory considerations in architecture are limited to managing or avoiding the malodor. However, very few architects imbue the upside of olfaction while designing. Olfactory senses along with other stimuli can provide the user with an unforgettable sensory experience. Olfactory senses along with tactile senses can provide a unique experience to the visually impaired.
The central space containing the olfactory bulb is surrounded by a fabric membrane beyond which lie 1 thousand balloons (each with a drop of lavender oil) acting as vessels of scent. This scent is diffused into air once the balloon deflates.
Introducing artificial scents in a space is an effective method, however, the idea of the "sense of smell" must go beyond it. Every material and finish has its own smell which forms the essence of the space. One can also turn to biophilia including a well-planned sensory landscape to introduce a natural scent to the space. Some bakeries are also known to have their oven close to the entrance to lure people in through smell.
How often have you bought a fur jacket/pure cotton cloth or even slime toys not just because you found it aesthetically pleasing but because you loved how it felt against your skin? Or how often have you chosen a couch over chairs in a restaurant or café? These are simple examples of how tactility influences our selection and actions.
Tactile experience in architecture is the simplest way to invite people as it probes one to touch or use the product/space. Even though vision helps tactility, navigation through haptic architecture has proven to be a boon for the visually impaired. Our skin is capable of reading the texture and temperature of a space. This establishes a relationship between the body and the space which decides how habitable or inviting the space is. It is important to consider tactile senses while designing to engage the user and enrich the experience.
Providing good ventilation and sunlight to a room is the easiest way to stimulate the sense of touch. The impact of a texture is felt as soon as vision falls on it. Using materials and colors that do not radiate heat, providing comfortable seating, textured materials like wood, exposed bricks, that encourage touching are all simpler ways to do justice to the sense of touch.
Olfactory senses are known to invoke oral senses as well. Imagine walking past a bakery. You can now smell the bread which makes you hungry. Bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops, etc, lure us in using olfactory senses in order to satisfy our oral senses.
The sense of taste has evidently been overlooked in architecture, as introducing the sense of taste might seem unimaginable in relation to architecture.
Juhani Pallasmaa believes the aural, olfactory, and visual senses are connected. Using colors metaphorically to invoke a certain character can be sensed by our tongue just as different odors in a space can also be sublimely recognized by our oral senses. Considering the sense of taste adding external elements such as food vending machines, coffee machines can all result in making the user interested in the space as well as promote an opportunity to bond over chit-chat.
“I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the façade of the cathedral, where it roams over the moldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections; my bodyweight meets the mass of the cathedral door, and my hand grasps the door pull as I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.”
-Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses
Most activities we perform in our day-to-day life are multisensory. Why should our space be any different? The sense of smell, sound, touch, and taste in architecture must hold as much significance as vision. As architects and interior designers, it is our responsibility to consider the relationship between the body and the space to provide the user with an experience that goes beyond the visual paradigm. Understandably, it is difficult to engage all five senses (and more) simultaneously, but striving for a perfect balance of 3-4 senses must be our aim.
Spence, C. Senses of place: architectural design for the multisensory mind. Cogn. Research5, 46 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-020-00243-4
Pallasmaa, J. The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses. United Kingdom: Wiley-Academy, 2005.
Marquez, A. (n.d.). Introduction to Multi-sensory Design. Retrieved from http://www.aknamarquez.com/: http://www.aknamarquez.com/blog/2017/7/23/what-is-multi-sensory-design
C.N, S. N. (n.d.). Understanding multisensory architecture . Retrieved from coa.gov.in: https://www.coa.gov.in/show_img.php?fid=148