When designing a space, much of the focus is on defining the physical aspects of it, but what if architects looked beyond the physical? Sensory architecture can go beyond this and profoundly transform the relationship and interaction between people and the built environment.
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How Our Senses Affect Our Perception
Humans have five senses: touch, smell, vision, hearing, and taste. Each one directly affects our perception of the world around us. There are well-documented links between our senses and memory and well-being.
There is a difference between perception and sensation. Sensation is the detection of sensory stimuli by receptors on sensory organs (for example, when we touch a surface, smell a flower, or hear music) and perception is the organization, interpretation, and conscious experience of sensations by the brain. Biochemical and neurological functions of sensory organs facilitate the conversion of sensation into perception.
The scientific field that explores the quantitative relationship between physical events and psychological events is called Psychophysics.
How Sensory Design Affects Our Experience of a Space
Sensory design is design that is centered around considering more than one or all the senses when a person enters a space. A space designed with this in mind can trigger profound feelings of warmth, comfort, cleanness, and even surprise.
Temperature can be adjusted to the desired mood; soft textures can be used to evoke comfort, as can warm colors; aromatic plants can evoke smell (and memory); soft music can provide a sense of belonging and memory. Concrete is often perceived as a “cold” material, but this feeling can be adjusted by breaking a space up with elements such as plants and contrasting colors. There are a multitude of possibilities for designing a space around sensory needs which have positive impacts on well-being.
A Brief History of Sensory Design
Sensory design has its roots in the 1950s. Radical art collectives sought to disrupt traditional architecture paradigms. Zero in Europe and Gutain in Japan directed their work beyond the visual to all the senses. Their work directly confronted post-war consumerism. Light, reflection, sound, and garish and dramatic flourishes were married with physical actions such as burning and explosions.
In the 1970s, artists and performers such as Yoko Ono, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Gordon Matta-Clark provided seminal works that deconstructed our relationships with light, music, visual space, and emotional and psychological experience. Postmodernism played a huge part in disrupting traditional design, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, there are many examples of designs and art installations that use multisensory approaches.
Modern Examples of Sensory Design
Philippe Rahm, a Swiss architect, argues that we need heterogeneous designs with changing light, humidity, temperature, and space. Anti-Miesian in nature, the spaces he designs in his “Domestic astronomy” project transform homes into vertical, energy-saving layouts.
Architecture and the Science of the Senses | Stefan Behling | TEDxGoodenoughCollege
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Because hot air rises, Rahm’s designs place rooms that need heat, such as bathrooms, on the top floor. Corridors and bedrooms are unheated. His designs combine science with body awareness to create a multisensory architecture, turning occupants from passive space users into active learners about climate change.
The Blur Building at the 2002 Swiss Expo changed the user’s relationship with vision. By building a small structure and concealing it with fog, visitors needed to navigate it with other senses. New York-based DS+R designed the installation, and their work centers on vision, voyeurism, and exhibition with networked technologies.
There are also design projects that challenge deep-seated biases in society like ableism.
DeafSpace is one such example. The concept has put forward over 150 principles for multisensory design that elevates a space beyond the mere physical. Concepts include covering concrete with wood veneer to allow navigation by blind people via vibration, and designs that embrace color and visual elements. Multisensory design can have a real-world resonance that connects us in profound ways.
The Role of Light
Our bodies have an internal biological clock that revolves around our circadian rhythms. Light levels influence this, so understanding its effects can improve the user’s sense of well-being. There are numerous studies that have linked lighting with health. Intelligent lighting design can be the difference between a comfortable space and one which feels uncomfortable.
Lighting design with this factor in mind can improve motivation, focusing ability, mood, and even appetite. Incorporating elements like focal points, natural light, and color maps are central to good lighting design and can create a multisensory experience.
The Emotional Nature of Color
Colors have a profound psychological effect on humans, as they are associated with certain feelings. Thinking of color maps can subtly influence a person’s mood in a space. The great artists understand color and our emotional response – choosing the colors for a space should therefore be seen as akin to creating a great piece of artwork. Using color uniformly creates an overall emotional response to a space, whilst strong colors can be used sparingly to create focal points.
Sound design is much more than noise reduction and soundproofing. Adding auditory elements can expand the user's experience of a space. Soft meditation music relaxes, whilst upbeat music excites. Familiar songs from childhood can help mid-stage Alzheimer’s sufferers. Beyond music, the architecture itself can be made to sing if a bit of creativity is applied.
Mood Altering and Memory Evoking Scents
Smell is one of our most evocative senses. It helps bring back memories and can help users navigate a space in a non-visual way. Landscaping designs with fragrant plants can be designed, artificial aromas can be incorporated in rooms, and even open kitchens can be designed which allow the smell of fresh food to permeate a space.
Sensory spaces can be designed with tactile sensations in mind. Temperature, humidity, ventilation, and the surfaces of walls, chairs, and floors can all be involved to provide levels of comfort. Malleable materials and interactive elements can improve the user's relationship with the built environment.
Will multisensory design become commonplace? Only time will tell. Certainly, the idea that a space should be much more than its physical elements is gaining traction. Furthermore, augmented and virtual reality technologies have the potential to provide truly interactive, multisensory experiences for sensory space design in the future.
Further Reading and More Information
Davis, B (2021) How does all five senses impact perception? [online] mvorganizing.com. Available at:
Equipe Archdaily Brasil (2021) Sensory Design: Architecture for a Full Spectrum of Senses [online] archdaily.com. Available at:
Bucknell, A (2018) Touch it, Smell it, Feel it: Architecture for the Senses [online] archdaily.com. Available at: