Touching Architecture
visual dominance and suppression of other senses
We are prone to touch. Hunger for touch increased during lockdowns; missing personal interaction and opportunities for tactility became more challenging than ever. Advice from the government to find a sex buddy for the lockdown showed how much we value our tactile sensations. When the venues are open and the measures are down, we rarely think about it and tend to underestimate the amount of information perceived haptically. The touch can be comforting, seducing, aggressive, distancing, and possible in various forms causing completely different impressions. If we are so inclined to tactility and it plays such a significant role in our lives, why do we leave it out in architecture?
Labels 2, Berlin, HHF Architects
Paul-Löbe-Haus, Berlin, Stephan Braunfels
New Orleans, Rotterdam, Álvaro Siza
Unknown, Rotterdam
Throughout various philosophical and historical works, the tendency of setting the vision as a superior of the human senses is apparent. Plato was addressing sight as the greatest gift, Aristotle - as the noblest of senses, some philosophers set it higher in comparison to hearing, smell, or touch. However, the fact that the sense of touch is being neglected is unfair: it can be regarded as the primary way of perceiving the world as children, accumulating those notions, and only afterwards linking them to other senses.

The brain processes touch with different means. One of the ways is sensual, providing bare facts: location, pressure, vibrations, and so on. On the other hand, the perception of touch can be modified based on emotional content, and this is the second path of hapticity. For instance, cuddling with the beloved one concerns our tactile experiences much more than the same hug with a stranger (even in the lockdown when you might desperately need it). Even though factual information remains the same, the brain processes these experiences in two completely diverse ways.

Touch is powerful. It is essential for the healthy development of a child, it affects our social interactions and helps build up stronger connections, it can even be regarded as a therapy (think about massages). While touch plays such a huge role in our everyday life, how do we relate to it in architecture?

Architecture is affected by this imbalance between touch and sight even more; materiality is an essential part of constructing architecture, thinking about surfaces and the expression with relation to materials (photos of walls from Kolumba museum by Zumtor are an important reference for it). All this information is being stored in our brains as a correlation between the visual and the tactile and is waiting to be used further in the projects. While fostering new architects, few university programs highlight the importance of tactile experiences. They encourage to focus on thinking about spatial qualities and structural requirements, addressing the composition and the appearance of the building rather than the experiences of people inside it. This is a major deficiency: students do not get enough highlights about the role of haptics in architecture. Luckily, for our university it is not the case. We are forced to think about materiality and the relations between architecture and its tactile experiences; to dive into modeling already thinking of materiality during the workshops and relate a project to the sense of touch within it.
In his book 'The Eyes of The Skin' Juhani Pallasma describes the supremacy of sight in architecture and the negligence of other senses. Focusing on the biased attitude to sight in architecture and the consequent suppression of others, he elaborates on the way people experience it. We place ourselves in the surroundings which serve as an envelope for our 'feeling the self.' Rather than straight vision, a substantial role is carried out by the peripheral one and the hapticity of the environment. Pallasma also expresses his concerns regarding computer software, which is now mostly being seen as a purely beneficial aspect. In the meantime, it only enhances the abovementioned dominancy of sight. When working on a project or taking pictures of architecture, the focus lies on a straightforward, central vision, thus pushing a person to the outside.

This is an important notion to consider earlier in the studies. 'The Eye of The Skin' is one of the most influential professional literature books, which is currently strongly recommended in different architecture schools. Tactility is an inalienable part of architecture studies and must be highlighted day after day as the major pathway of perceiving and designing architecture.

People tend to analyze structures with respect to sight: what does a building or monument look like instead of what it feels like. However, the vision represents sensations that have earlier been discovered by touch, each exteriorization is written down in our minds and transformed into sight only after we got a chance to experience it haptically.

Some experiences might be interestingly tricky and overcome the memories we own from touch and vision: one such happened to me when traveling to Antwerp with fellow architecture students. Office buildings designed by Diener & Diener remained one of the illusive examples; giving the silk-like feeling from afar and by visual means perceived as the odd green-blue office towers, the truth was that the facades were made of fascinating ripple glass panels that turned out to be a true discovery when seen closer (photos shown above). Ripple glass was diffused from the distance, thus deceiving the sight. Only by touching the material, the façade can be discovered to the utmost; vision is powerless here, and the accent lies explicitly on this interplay and accounts for a multi-sensual architectural discovery.
Another encounter with a deceived sense of touch happened during Dutch Design Week. Round-shaped half-wall felt like a fabric stacked together, almost like T-shirts in a wardrobe. I decided to touch it right away, and that was when I suddenly realized that I had not noticed the expression of the 3D-printed concrete. Layer-like feeling it provides and the technology used make it different from what we are used to when it comes to concrete; this way I attribute 3D printed concrete to one of the fascinating demonstrations of tricky surfaces. We only know what the 3D printed concrete feels like after we could touch it, thus creating this memory through haptics. Next time we see printed concrete, we directly attribute it to that memory and can distinctly imagine what it looks and feels like. Would we know that it is rough and hard unless we knew that it was printed concrete? Look at the Milestone project in Eindhoven and give it some thought.

Dutch Design Week 2021 printed concrete
As future architects, we need to go beyond and explore, expand the boundaries, and stay critical of this supremacy. Only by submerging people in a full-fledged architectural experience are we able to create powerful buildings and enhance the feeling of connectedness with the world rather than detachment. Focusing on a multi-sensual architecture, which engages all the senses, and seeing the vision as means to translate other senses into the world, will benefit to architectural complicity of the world.
When seeing the exposed concrete rough walls, it is tempting to approach and feel it; contrasts between textures are attracting our attention, and materiality is one of the core concepts we often hear about. Only by touching can we be aware of what we truly see, hapticity needs to be demonstrated with much bigger importance and be taken into consideration in every project. Immerse yourself in the touching experience and enhance the connection of senses, touch Vertigo concrete walls, build up your own library of tactility. Disobey the ocularcentrism and fight its appearance in modern architecture. Touch the untouchable.

[reflection of April 2022]: When reading back this article at the end of the hectic quartile, I see the imbalance towards vision in the new light; while referring only to the already built, real-life architectural experiences, the part of the preliminary visualizations is forgotten. After working on a project where I did not see strengths in the concept, I put more effort into creating good-looking collages, floorplans, and even sketches. This was the moment I realized how difficult I find looking at the content instead of the first impression the presentation gives. The quality of drawings suppresses the spatial one, becoming an obstacle to my judgments. Proper drawings mean proper spaces, while this is at large extent not true.

All of it combined with avoiding model making in the last quartile makes me miss the abovementioned hapticity; I feel the urge to rewind and tell myself 'hey you, go make some models!' It also makes me wonder: how to improve the skill of seeing beyond perfect line weights and well-assembled collages? What does it take to see the spaces instead of drawings? Is it the way of thinking or the skill we develop throughout years of practicing architecture?
As fairly mentioned by Jacob Voorthuis several days ago, as architecture students we need to stay tangible and spend most of our time at the workshop. With the pandemic we switched from making architecture to keeping it within our heads; this is the change I see in myself and am willing to confront, fight and develop into a stronger skill – a skill of touching architecture.

With this concluding the end of the quartile and with a genuine desire to get into modeling in the next one,
and full of love (for architecture and not only),

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