Giving Architecture a “Sense of Place”

Greater than the Sum of its Parts

What should the term “sense of place” mean to you as an architect?

A “place” is a simple term at first glance; but when you delve deeper, various issues spring forward…

For starters, there are specific features that usually tend to come together to make up a “place”. One of these features might include a physical configuration like having a center with boundaries, neighboring sub-center clusters and a peripheral fringe. A “place” also usually has a type of circulation embedded within it, one that is accessible and efficient. Many things can come together to make a “place”, but when a design has a “sense of place” it often becomes greater that the sum of its parts.

Image Credit: © Steve Kingsman | Dreamstime

When Architecture Communicates

There is probably a moment when a simple “place” exudes a “sense of place”; most evident when providing an “orientation” that contributes to the community or culture that is larger than it. Some have even said that architecture with a “sense of place” has “soul”.

As your architecture takes form, you should keep the idea of “orientation” in mind. This involves factors like time, identity, style, community and culture. When you design architecture you engage in the act of “placement”, and for your design to be successful, it must communicate.

Architectural “orientation” and “communication” are intrinsically linked.

Increasing Your Building’s Potential

By designing and building, you will experience how “places” grow and expand, get redeveloped, are preserved, demolished or get integrated with another place. Places morph — yet, does this mean that a “sense of place” can change? Sometimes the lifespan of a “place” is short and other times it is long-lived.

Whatever the case, the key is for you to be on the “pulse” of how to contribute to a given condition — by both finding “orientation” and designing for your “landscape”.

You should constantly question what a culture, community or individual needs. Design a vision — not a building that purely meets programmatic requirements, but architecture with a refined sensitivity to “orientation”.

By thinking about how your design is “oriented”, your building will relate to so much more — your “landscape” will become richer and your building’s potential will become greater, more timely and more meaningful.

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.