Architecture Beyond the Visual Sense

More than Meets the Eye

Architecture has so much to offer occupants, particularly when designing for all the senses — going beyond the visual.

As explained in the Alan Saunders’ radio show, “Beyond Appearances – Architecture and the Senses”, the general public has come to know many architectural works by way of photography and other similar medias. People think of most architecture predominantly with their visual sense, excluding many of the wonderful characteristics that make a building more whole and full of life. (1)

Yes, architecture is visual, but it is also a wonderful way to experience renewed haptic, audio, olfactory and even taste senses. In this article, we will take a closer look at just how architecture can make the most of these other senses — even tapping into some additional senses that occupants just need to have “turned on”.

More than Five Senses

The major five senses that you often hear about are not necessarily the only senses that architects need to keep in mind as they design. Rebecca Maxwell, a writer who lost her sight at the age of three, describes her experience of other senses when she interacts with architecture. Some other senses that she describes are:

  • sense of pressure (1)
  • sense of balance (1)
  • sense of rhythm (1)
  • sense of movement (1)
  • sense of life (1)
  • sense of warmth (1)
  • sense of self (1)

As an architect, you should be aware of such other senses as you design. For instance, I find it interesting when Rebecca Maxwell states that an “air-conditioned building feels dead”. (1)

Just imagine how many variables that go into your designs that could make all the difference in awaking your occupants as they experience a space. A building can exist as a finely tuned instrument that interacts with occupant senses at just the right moments in their experience.

The key is to understand what you can about how the human sensory system works, making you more aware about how your design gestures will truly impact your occupants — from all dimensions.

How Do You Design for the Sense of Taste?

Let’s start with this great quote by the Finnish architecture theorist Juhani Pallasmaa:

” There is a subtle transference between tactile and taste experiences. Vision becomes transferred to taste as well; certain colours and delicate details evoke oral sensations. A delicately coloured polished stone surface is subliminally sensed by the tongue. Our sensory experience of the world originates in the interior sensation of the mouth, and the world tends to return to its oral origins. The most archaic origin of architectural space is in the cavity of the mouth.” (2)

Here, Juhani Pallasmaa describes just how far we can go. And, believe it or not, we can go further.

Architecture really does have so many possibilities — many of which we simply ignore or don’t think about as we design. Keeping an understanding of how materials and their arrangements impact occupants will go far in making your designs that much stronger, particularly as we enter an era with evermore technology and heightened architectural interaction.

Architectural Technology and the Senses

Integrating more and more technology into architecture seems to heighten some senses and suppress others. Of course, it will still be important to design principle architectural elements paying attention to fundamental features for safety, aesthetics and function — but how will embedded computing technologies impact architectural design; and thus, occupant experience?

It is especially important that architects not ignore the sensory “side-effects” of such emerging technologies. When not integrated into your designs properly, varying sensory and experiential problems can surface; such as, cognitive overload, sensory deprivation and other forms of “painful” stimuli.

In order to integrate architectural technology in the best way, you should pay attention to things like glare, unwanted HVAC sound and meaningful opportunities for haptic interactions. (These are just a few)

Architectural technology will continue to provide many benefits for people experiencing our public buildings; however, it is important to make sure that such technologies don’t detract from a more profound and meaningful architectural experience — ultimately impacting overall aesthetics, safety and function.


(1) Saunders, Alan. Beyond Appearances – Architecture and the Senses. Aired (radio): November 2004.

(2) Pallasmaa, Juhani. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Wiley-Academy: Great Britain. (p. 59)

Using Interactive Lenses to Enhance Occupant Experience in Buildings

Architecture is Getting Even More Personal

As new technologies are being developed, architecture is getting better at communicating with its occupants. For example, real-time communication can occur between a building’s system and an occupant’s clothing — or other worn devices, like interactive lenses.

So, does this mean that occupants will be able to control certain aspects of a building they are visiting? Yes, you can see this already happening in certain interactive installations. Hopefully, such integrations will mean that buildings will be better tailored to meet an occupant’s specific needs.

Image Credit: Iuliia Timchenko | Dreamstime

To get a better idea of how this all might come together, let’s take a look at a new emerging technology by the German research society “Fraunhofer”:

Displaying Information on the Lenses of your Glasses

Here’s the headline by Stuart Fox:

“A German company turns regular glasses into an eye-motion-controlled PDA screen.” (1)

With a display screen on your lenses just imagine the many activities and interactions that could be integrated into your daily life. When tied to architecture, the possibilities are limitless.

Opening Channels of Communication Between Building and Occupant

Designing an architecture that syncs with worn devices will provide for almost limitless innovation. Such technologies will make architects think about building experience in a renewed way.

Of course, occupants will still need certain primary needs met — such as temperature control and way-finding. However, interactive innovations will enable buildings to personalize information and other stimuli to better an occupant’s experience (in real-time).

Such innovations, like the “information glasses”, open channels of communication between the building and the occupant — where the building can “speak” to the occupant through the glasses as well. This has potential to take interactive architectural design to a whole new level.

Here are a few examples of how this might work by integrating those “information glasses”:

  • WAY-FINDING — Building signage becomes dynamic and is tailored to your specific needs (not only where you need to go but also information about where you are).
  • WORKING — When working on a task with your hands, wouldn’t it be helpful to have real-time imagery in front of you (that you can control with your eyes)? Perhaps the room environment can also change depending on your “eye-controlled navigation”.
  • SHOPPING — While shopping, it might be helpful to have an interactive “shopping list” in your line-of-sight. (Of course, stores will probably figure out a way to market to you through your lenses.) The “micro-architecture” islands of products may even interact with your list, or your selection process.
  • LEARNING — What if you’re taking photos as you tour a new city? These retina-controlled glasses might teach you the history about the places you visit. This could also be coordinated with real-time happenings within the buildings that you approach.
  • RELAXING — Sipping coffee while at your favorite cafe, worn technologies might communicate with the restaurant to display their menu, dessert/drink options, signal your waiter/waitress or simply indicate that you are ready for the check. (Not to mention that you could read a book “in” your glasses while enjoying your coffee!) By changing the role of the waitor or waitress, architects could rethink restaurant design.

The Challenge

Innovations like the “information glasses” are good because they cause architects to think about buildings in a new light. However, there are some challenges.

For instance, the merger between architecture and “information glasses” must be complementary — so one does not detract from the other. (We wouldn’t want building occupants to not appreciate the beautiful architectural features or functions because the glasses “covered” them unnecessarily.

Both interactive technologies and architecture should “sync”, where each feeds into the other; yet, allows the inherent beauty of each to shine through.


(1) Fox, Stuart. Heads-Up Display Embedded In Glasses. Popular Science. June 3, 2009.

How to Translate Project Design Research into Tangible Benefits for Occupants


As an architectural designer, there are often many activities which you engage in at the preliminary stages of your architectural design projects. These project research phases can be optimized by knowing the right question to ask as you create your architectural design. In this micro-lecture you will learn exactly what that question is, along with how to use it as you engage in your preliminary design research. After all, the main idea is for you to translate your research into a beautiful design that speaks to occupants on many levels — helping them to meet their needs and reach their goals. Watch this micro-lecture to learn more about how to make this all happen within your architectural designs.

Can’t See Video? Click Here.


00:00 Maria Lorena Lehman: I’m Maria Lorena Lehman, Founder of Sensing Architecture and the MLL Design Lab. In today’s micro-lecture, we’re going to take a look at architectural design project research and how you can translate your architectural design project research into tangible benefits for your architectural building occupants.


00:27 MLL: So today we’re taking a look at how to translate project design research into tangible benefits for occupants. So we start off with your project, and for any given project there is a certain amount of research that must be done, and the question is: How do you engage in research before or during the preliminary stages of design for your architectural project? You probably engage in activities like client interviews, you may conduct surveys for future occupant usage, you might read many books or journals on the subjects related to your architectural design project. You might brainstorm with colleagues, you will probably travel to the architectural project site to learn more about the site’s context and culture, and I’m sure there are many other methods that may pop-up as they are customized for the particular project specifications and needs that may arise on a per project basis.

01:42 MLL: But the question is now that you have all of these project research methods, how do you fuse them together? How do you take the results of your research, fuse them together and funnel them into your orchestrated architectural design narrative? Now, narrative is important because it is with narrative that you begin to deconstruct your project research results and formulate them into an architectural space filled with moments that run their course over time that occupants can experience through their architectural journey.

02:26 MLL: So you go from project research to an architectural narrative that you construct and orchestrate, and then this leads you to a most important question which is: How does this architecture feed the senses to help your occupant uplift their quality of life? So you might wonder how you can make your architectural narrative feed your occupant’s senses to uplift their quality of life. And you can feed their senses through your architecture by engaging their different sensory modalities, and when you do this, you begin to construct a storyline that will take them closer to their goals, closer to meeting their needs, and this becomes your constructed architectural journey that your design ultimately becomes.

03:29 MLL: So to recap, when you’re engaging in project research, always keep the end result question in mind about how you feed your occupant’s senses to help uplift their quality of life. Knowing this end result question will better inform the way you do your project research, what questions you ask of others and what questions you ask of yourself as you engage in your architectural design.

04:00 MLL: If you’d like to learn more, I invite you to join my Design Insight Newsletter, and you will also get my book, ‘Bringing Architecture To The Next Level,’ for free. Discover how you can shift your mindset to reach breakthrough ideas, meet and predict occupant need using sensory design, leverage your design process so you can get more with less and re-think new technologies to unleash your innovative edge. To join now and access your book simply visit: