Sensing the architecture

Seeing with the body

We may think that we only perceive interiors with our sense of sight. The truth is, however, that human is a being with (at least) five senses, which also experience the reality around us. How many times have you felt that a certain interior has good energy, or that something did not suit you in a given space, even though it was objectively aesthetically pleasing? These were your non-visual senses taking their due voice. They are often overlooked in architecture, which is a shame, because responding to their needs could significantly influence our sense of belonging and harmony with our surroundings. It could simply make us feel good in a place.

Child senses

When I think of how much potential is wasted by ignoring the senses, it makes me really sad. And I don't even mean private spaces, but public, educational ones. My daughter goes to a pre-school where there is atmospheric lighting, where rooms are intimate, she has soft carpet underfoot and a smell of a delicious breakfast greets her every morning. Memories of my kindergarten from late 1980s, by contrast, are not only visual, although I still remember works of Tadeusz Makowski depicting sad puppet children. What I remember most, is the cold red faux leather of the seats at the entrance and the smell of Lysol disinfectant, which made me feel scared, blocking all creativity. To this day, from time to time I can still feel this mixture (the faux leather also had a distinctive smell!) in unexpected places, e.g. in taxis, which immediately causes stomach ache. Children have incredibly heightened senses, they perceive space from a different level and with the participation of all their senses, and I would very much like the environment in which Pola will discover herself to be welcoming and safe to perceive.

This multisensory memory of given places is called an incarnate body memory. Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect whose book „The Eyes Of The Building: Architecture and Senses” is a must-read for architecture students all over the world, has covered both the topic of the body memory and hegemony of the sense of sight.

“The door handle is the handshake of the building”

In his texts, Pallasmaa referred to scientific studies which show that the sense of touch is the oldest and most sensitive of the senses. The mother of all other senses. And even that man is able to distinguish certain colours ... through the skin. He also argued that life-enhancing architecture must engage all the senses because its primary function is not only to provide shelter, but also to integrate us with our surroundings, to enhance our sense of reality and self. This means that every interior, and even more so our private space, is in some sense a living organism, literally seeping into our body and becoming part of our existence, our corporeality and being. If you are interested in exploring this topic I highly recommend reading Pallasma. He gives a remarkable perspective on the senses by showing how our communication has changed over the centuries and how the dominance of the eye has influenced the current shape of buildings. Also, it is Pallasma who is the author of one of my favourite quotes 'The door handle is the handshake of the building', which so aptly defines the way we interact with architecture.

From dachshund to human-centric interiors

A year ago, one of our two beloved dachshunds irreversibly lost her sight, partly also her sense of smell, as a result of an autoimmune disease, and with both them also her joy of life basically overnight. And so we have begun to visit vets and learn how exactly our Molly perceives the world around her. And what's more important how to make Molly independent again. This situation also made us take a completely different look at the space in which we function every day - from the point of view of senses other than sight. To listen to the sounds around us, which made Molly feel lost when it was too loud. To empathise with the textures her paws come into contact with, which, over time, she began to distinguish with her nose and treat as signposts. Watching her try to adjust to this new situation reminded us that reality around us is perceived through all the senses, even though we may not be fully aware of it. In a sense, the interior is a living organism that is 'somehow' tactile, has a certain smell, makes sounds, is 'somehow' located in space and has a certain temperature. All of this (at once) affects how we feel in a given environment. So knowing all this, how can we consciously control the space so that it positively affects all our senses?


An ideal space should be ergonomically arranged and ... we should like it. That much is clear. We won't argue about tastes. However, it is probably worth repeating (and repeating on and on again) that the beauty of a given interior is determined primarily by the quality of its finish and the materials used. We not only feel better in the company of natural materials such as stone, wood, leather or wool, but it is also difficult to make any aesthetic mistake with them. They are honest in nature, very durable and patinate beautifully. It is also worth thinking about nature in interiors in a more direct way i.e. letting it in. Make space for potted plants, choose properties with large windows, sliding walls, terraces or loggias. I'm particularly in love with atrium patios in a form of 'wells' enveloping the entire interior, usually located near kitchens, with access to daylight. I myself have the pleasure of owning a loggia, which is integrated into the body of the flat and which can be seen from every room in the flat (except the bathroom). I'm dreaming of a real atrium where one could hide from the world like in a cocoon though.

Shapes are another important visual stimulus that can create a sense of calm, monotony or complete chaos. If there are a lot of right angles in a room, it is a good idea to break them up with, for example, a circular mirror or an obtuse armchair. I myself have broken up the angularity of my bathroom equipped with a rectangular bathtub and rectangular washbasin with a large round mirror, which contrasts with the irregular surface of the wall tiles and the texture of the milky glass of large, round lamps.

Finally, when talking about the sense of sight, one cannot leave out colours, which, as we all know, have the power to shape our mood and which can be used in various proportions, combinations and patterns. They brilliantly enliven an interior and add it character. I have written extensively about colours here, here and here. Colour doesn't have to mean paint on the walls. I much prefer it in furniture or accessories, which are like splashes of paint on neutral canvases of walls and floors.


It will probably come as a surprise to many of you that I start my story about touch with light. Yet light nourishes more than just sight. We also feel light with our skin. Its temperature (including colour temperature) affects how we perceive the texture of materials around us. It even has the power to change the smell of objects (melted candle wax, a warm woolen blanket). And the power to completely change the perception of interiors. In order to find an atmosphere in which we feel comfortable, it is worth changing the position of the lamps in the house and experimenting with the colour and strength of the bulbs. I am a good example of a shadow fan who is satisfied with a small amount of light. I have written about how beautiful darkness is here. Kinfolk and Norm Architects collective has covered the topic of shadows and darkness in interiors, in a beautifully published album on haptic architecture titled 'The Touch': "Darkness has a bad reputation. What goes less recognized is that sometimes this is the environment that the human consciousness craves. A nest is dark, so too a den and a womb".

For me, however, a living interior that appeals to the sense of touch is first and foremost an interior full of materials of different temperatures and textures, deliberately juxtaposed in contrast. For example, a thick woollen carpet on a slick wooden floor. The pristine shine of bathroom fittings against the natural texture of stone or wall fluting. The velvet of the cushions juxtaposed against the roughness of the linen bedding. An additional dimension is added to the interior by old furnishings or antiques, which, just like a child in a museum, you want to touch refusing to believe that they could be older than your parents. Appropriately chosen spotlighting will further deepen these contrasts and make our experience of the interior richer, and more engaging.


Music allows us to travel without moving and has the power to influence our mood, to evoke memories. It can have a stimulating or calming effect. Or completely depress us. This we probably all know and we all use its power. It allows us to consciously control our senses, so it's worth remembering that we can also build our moods with it. I am a huge fan of vinyl, which has always been present in my family home. It is such a pleasure just to have a nice turntable. I love this special ambience accompanying opening the lid of the turntable, taking the record out of the packaging, adjusting the needle and so on. Pure magic.

No less important, or perhaps even more important, are the sounds coming from the interior surroundings. I was born in the centre of a large city. For several years of my adult life I have been living in a smaller town, basically on its border, so there was mostly empty space around me. And I soon realised that the silence there was difficult for me to cope with. Apparently, I'm too used to the noise of the city, which gives me a sense of belonging, of being surrounded by people. So much for me, because for someone else it may be quite the opposite. The same is true of the interior acoustics, which can evoke a sense of tranquillity or, on the contrary, irritate with a sense of excessive proximity to neighbours. It is therefore impossible to fully assess the quality of an interior without evaluating its acoustics and surroundings.


Smell also has a significant impact on the way we experience a space. As is the case with sounds, smells have the power to create a mood, they can both repel and attract, which is why they are so readily used in sales (aroma marketing). It is said that as much as 75 per cent of purchasing decisions are influenced by emotions. This is why brands are so keen to use our sight, hearing and smell to encourage us to buy things. The unrivalled master of merchandising are the Aesop brand shops, known to all aesthetes, which I have already written about here. Each of the brand's shops is a story told by outstanding architects, intertwined with the character of the location. It comes as no surprise that the Aesop brand is so often featured in top design, architecture, art and lifestyle publications, winning the hearts of stylists and influencers around the world. The brand is also featured in „The Touch” album where you will find examples of interiors that have achieved mastery in nourishing the human senses.

What about you? Are you consciously nourishing your senses at home? Be sure to share your best and worst architectural experiences with me by email or in a comment on Instagram.

All human senses are involved in experiencing space. Via NY Times.