The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses

Part 1

Vision and Knowledge

  • Starting the Ancient Greek philosophy, sight was considered to be the noblest of the human senses in Western culture. Today, vision and hearing are the principal senses, while other three do not possess that much significance in the modern code of culture. The ocularcentric paradigm of the Western culture has formed a vision-centered interpretation of reality.
  • Architecture gives space and time a human measure and shows a man’s place in these dimensions; it limits the endless space and time to make it understandable and inhabited.
  • Modern architecture is inhuman since the body and senses as well as dreams and imagination are neglected. The supremacy of sight and intellect leads to alienation, isolation and detachment.

Critics of Ocularcentrism

  • Rene Descartes considered touch to be more truthful and less predisposed to errors than sight, while Sartre believed that the look is “objectifying” and that it petrifies everything that contacts it.
  • It is believed that modern culture strengthened the negative tendency of the domination of sight. Technological progress led to the perception of the world mainly through images. At the same time, sight is the only sense, which can reach the increasing speed of the technological progress.

The Narcissistic and Nihilistic Eye

  • During the last 20 years, the majority of the architectural projects demonstrate narcissism and nihilism. Sight, being hegemonic, weakens the ability to feel empathy and compassion.
  • For the narcissistic eye, architecture is only a way of self-expression detached from the connection with society; hereby, the nihilistic eye increases alienation and sensory detachment.
  • Nihilistic architecture isolates the body and makes the reading of the collective cultural codes impossible.
  • The modern mass production of images is inclined to separate vision from emotional involvement and participation. Everything today is measured by the ability to show or be shown. Thus, communication transforms into a visual journey.

Oral versus Visual Space

  • For primitive cultures, hearing, taste, smell and touch were more significant for communication and utilization of space; and only later, they were replaced by the sight.
  • The transition from oral to written and printed culture occasioned the shift from sound to visual space, which is a place of cold, non-human facts.
  • The domination of sight caused the development of the Western ego-consciousness, which has separated a human being from the world, while other senses used to connect a man with it.

Retinal Architecture and the Loss of Plasticity

  • Haptic senses were the sources of the traditional cultures’ architecture. The loss of plasticity marks the transition to the domination of vision. Previously, sight reinforced other senses, which were no less important than vision.
  • Today, the bodiless observer through the suppression of all senses except for sight becomes detached from the environment.
  • Vision gains the leading role in modernist ideas. The study of architecture is mainly grounded on the visual analysis; therefore, it is perceived as a three-dimensional image in space.

An Architecture of Visual Images

  • The main goal of the architecture of the last 30 years is to be a startling and unforgettable visual image, while the existential depth and sincerity are lost. Contemporary spectators are not able to experience the world from the inside as a part of it; thus, they are used to watch the world and specifically architecture as alienated strangers.
  • With the loss of plasticity and connection with the language of the body, buildings become flat, sharp-edged and unreal. The great amount of reflecting glass in architecture increases the feeling of detachment from reality.

Materiality and Time

  • Natural materials such as stone or wood are able to express their age and the history of their origins. On the contrary, modern materials such as glass, metal and plastics ruin the sense of age. The aim of the contemporary contructions is to avoid the demonstration of aging, which is caused by the human fear of death.
  • A man needs to feel that they are a part of the continuity of time, and modern architecture cannot reinforce this feeling. Modern culture undergoes the process of de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation. As a result, the production of the great number of unrelated images causes the loss of their emotional content.

The Rejection of Alberti’s Window

  • One of the most important turning points in the evolution of modern art was the liberation from the perspective.
  • The works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn are the examples of the countercurrent against the perspectival eye.

A New Vision and Sensory Balance

  • It is suggested that a new mode of looking is emerging since a huge number of images makes the craving for the control eye lose its focus.
  • The need in sensory experiences is demonstrated today in the works of the architects who try to re-sensualize architecture with the help of weight, texture, light and density of space.

Part 2

The Body in the Centre

  • Human body is considered to be the center through which the world is experienced. Thus, all the feelings of different senses combine within the body.
  • Today, it is possible to witness the lack of transaction between the body, imagination and the world.

Multi-Sensory Experience

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  • Architecture should be understood as the extension of nature into the man-made world; the reason is that it increases the existential experience and, thus, the felling of self as well as makes different sensory experiences merge with each other.
  • All senses may be considered as an extension of touch since without it, a man would not know what is distance or profundity, while only touch can give a feeling of special depth.
  • The body memory is as important as the brain memory since the world is reflected in the human body and the body is also projected into the world.
  • According to Merleau-Ponty, the main task of architecture is to show how the world touches humans.

The Significance of the Shadow

  • Shadow and darkness are significant since they help immerse in the unconscious, make the vision unclear and awaken the imagination. Also, shadow gives shape to the objects in light.
  • The sense of intimate life is lost today since a great intensity of light provided by huge windows in modern architecture puts on the display human lives and people are forced to live in public.

Acoustic Intimacy

  • Hearing structures the experience of space. For example, some sound heard in the middle of the night reminds a man of their solitude and mortality and can make them conscious of the world around them without looking at it. The sound awakens the feeling of solidarity and unity, while vision is an attribute of the solitary observer.
  • A building is perceived through its echo, but this experience remains on the subconscious level. The contemporary city plans, wide and open, are not able to return echo, and the recorded music of shopping centers and other public places does not allow one to experience space through sound.

Silence, Time and Solitude

  • Architecture represents the art of the fixed in stone silence separated from the external noise; consequently, it switches the focus to the existence of self and reminds of the solitude of a man in the world.
  • Cities and particular houses allow people to experience the flow of history and the passing of time cycles, which surpass the life of a man.
  • In architecture time, matter and space collide with one sense of being.

Spaces of Scent

  • The strongest memory of a place is usually supported with some smell. Old cities, streets or houses obtain their own specific scent, which can make imagination produce particular images or awaken some long-forgotten memories connected with that smell.
  • Architecture is a projection of the images of ideal life in space and shape. Buildings such as Melnikov House can also demonstrate how the ideas oof the iconic house are detached from real life.

The Shape of Touch

  • Hands allow people to understand the texture of the surface, density, temperature and weight of an object.
  • The door handle through the touch can connect with previous ages, traditions and generations. It is obvious that there is a strong connection between the naked skin and the experience of home and the intimate warmth. Home is always a pleasure of the skin.

The Taste of Stone

  • Some colors or details of the piece of art or architecture are capable of evoking oral sensations since the oldest origin of architectural space is in the cavity of mouth.
  • Touch and vision can be easily transformed into taste experience, while encountering an object of art.

Images of Muscle and Bone

  • In primitive cultures, body served as a measuring tool of the constructions.
  • Architecture not only has to meet social, functional and intellectual needs of a modern man but also reckon with their primordial traits of behavior passed by the genes.
  • The body memory carries within it the idea of what makes the house comfortable, but architecture cannot be reduced to a tool of functionality and pleasure. A sense of distance, tension and mystery must be present in order to evoke the feeling of comfort.

Images of Action

  • Architecture suggests an inherent action within its images. Apparently, this possibility of action distinguishes architecture from other types of art.
  • The experience of architecture is always an encounter, an approach and a confrontation of a human body with some building; it is not about looking at the façade or examining the interior, it is about opening the doors and looking through the windows.

Bodily Identification

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  • People live in the permanent dialog with the surrounding environment so it is impossible to distinguish the self from its existence in particular space or situation.
  • While looking at some work of art, emotions and feelings are projected to it; therefore, a person faces themselves in that piece of art.

Mimesis of the Body

  • People unconsciously mimic the structure of some piece of art with their body; thus, the sound of music is transformed into sensations, an abstract painting is perceived as tensions in muscles and the composition of some building is understood through the image of the skeleton. Architecture makes the body of the maker communicate with the body of the observer.
  • Vertically directed buildings both make a man think of gravity and the depth of the earth and dream of flight at the same time.

Spaces of Memory and Imagination

  • Imagination and memory can take a man to distant places or make them walk the streets of the city created by a writer. Usually, such places can evoke much stronger feelings than any real visited location.
  • With the help of memory, one can recall all the delightful sounds, smells and alteration of light and shade of the city. A good city is the one in which one can fall in love.

An Architecture of the Senses

  • There are different types of architecture taking into account one of the 5 senses that is the most important for the creator.
  • The works of Le Corbusier and Richard Meyer were created mainly for the visual perception. For Erich Mendelsohn and Hans Scharoun, muscular and haptic plasticity was mostly significant as they wanted to suppress the domination of ocular perspective. Contemporary architects such as Glenn Murcutt, Steven Holl, and Peter Zumthor try to evoke the multitude of sensory experiences with their works.

The Task of Architecture

  • Architecture is capable of reflecting and materializing the images of ideal life. It makes them eternal, while helping people understand and remember who they are and place themselves in the continuum of time. Thus, spaces and places become the parts of the human existence.
  • The main task of architecture is to be a symbol of integrity and to inspire everyone to spread this idea of integrity around the world.

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