Blind Design // Sevrin Scarcelli
What happens in architecture when the sense of sight is taken away? Architecture as an experience comes from how we move through a space. The experience begins when the senses of the body are heightened. These senses are sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and gravity. Gravity is a combination of sight and touch, it is the force that our surroundings exert on our bodies as we are moving through space. As humans, we are visually dominant beings. We have two eyes, forward facing above our ears, nose, and mouth resulting in a priority of vision that overtakes our sensual experience and dulls out the other senses. Today, architecture has become so focused on the visual experience that the potential for a multi-sensorial experience has been muted.
The visual dominance against the other senses of the body
When the sense of sight is removed, the other senses are heightened, especially sound and touch. Research suggests that complete removal of sight causes disorientation, induces fear, and heightens the other senses of the body to adapt to external stimulus (1). When senses are heightened it results in a very memorable experience, the kind that triggers memories and connects a user to their surroundings. As humans we become more aware. Heightened sensual awareness allows the mind to become focused in the moment and acutely responsive. The ability to learn, understand and remember is a direct cause of the body’s interactions with the world. Chris Downey, a blind practicing architect advocates for designing for the blind, “He believes that in designing space, architects need to be better at delivering multisensory experiences in order to make them more effective for those with visual impairments. In doing so, he believes they are improving the spaces for everyone.”(2) As architects we are obligated to create surroundings that amplify those experiences and facilitate a better understanding of purpose.
(3) Bukichi Inoue , My hole in the sky by Giuliano Gori
Bukichi Inoue , My hole in the sky, a sculpture by Giuliano Gori in at Fattoria di Cella in Tuscany, Italy perfectly plays on a user’s sensorial experience. This sculpture begins with a slow descent into the earth guided by a narrow pathway. The pathway continues into a concrete tunnel that removes all light with the exception of small light wells. Narrow tunnels safely push users through a dark maze causing a new sense of orientation without sight. The passage leads to a spiral staircase flooded in light, ascending visitors to the surface. When the ascendence is complete all sound is muted due to the top of the staircase being encased within a glass box. This art piece achieved complete sensorial isolation from the surrounding environment. By doing this, it reintroduces the senses back into the world with a new perspective. It pushed the experience even further by taking away the sense of sound within the glass box. It started by taking away sight and burrowing down into a cold, dark place. It ended by reintroducing sight, but removing the sense of sound so the visual experience was heightened further. The artist pushes users through this process, to experience the space in only this way. It was a choreographed piece that the user partakes in to have an exact experience. The reaction to the experience cannot be planned, but the process to achieving the experience was executed in a way that touched on all the senses of the body. This installation is a model for what architects should strive for in their work.
Architecture can exist without the sense of sight. It can become enhanced and enduring when sight is removed, focused or manipulated in a way that reintroduces the other senses. The problem with architecture today is the attention given to visual dominance. Juhani Pallasmaa states, “Architecture at large has become an art of the printed image fixed by the hurried eye of the camera. The gaze itself tends to flatten into a picture and lose its plasticity; instead of experiencing out being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the surface of the retina.” As students, we often get sucked into the visual capabilities computer modeling offers and we forget to build with our hands. (4) “With the loss of tactility and the scale and details crafted for the human body and hand, our structures become repulsively flat, sharp- edged, immaterial, and unreal.” The loss of hand crafted work has resulted in a desensitizing way of design that prevents a deep connection between designer and user. Design suffers today due to desensitized environments that impede imagination. Architectural Digest, a magazine that promotes ‘good architecture’ does nothing more than trick the reader’s attention with glossy, colorful images. We are taught in school that ‘good architecture’ is a thought- provoking existential element that moves and touches our own world. This cannot be achieved with a couple of pages stamped with an array of pictures and words. Architecture is failing today because we have grown too accustomed to visual gratification. It is up to the designer to demand the attention of users and expose the necessity for a full body sensorial experience.
Diagram of users descending into the prairie, restricting sight and emphasizing the sense of sound and touch
Design needs to start without thinking about sight. It should first focus on producing a piece of architecture that connects with the body. Architecture can become tactile again, and encourage understanding through craft, but first it has to break through the flattened, artificial world it has fallen prisoner to. Design will flourish when the designer understands the importance of creating experience through the senses. The Design+Make Studio uses this idea in the Grasses Station, part of The Preston Outdoor Education Station project. The grass station descends users into the earth, restricting sight to the immediate grasses at eye-level, bringing users closer to the sounds of the prairie. Enhancing the senses to create a heightened experience that teaches and drives design will improve in architectural craft, understanding, and user perspective. It is the key to understanding how we connect to our setting and to each other. (5) “In memorable experiences of architecture, space matter and time fuse into one single dimension, into the basic substance of being, that penetrates the consciousness.” Triggering and creating lasting memories enables the longevity of architecture dependent on the experience of the body. Architecture will exist in the mind, the body and the world. Through the sensual experience of the human body it becomes transcendent.
Architecture can exist when sight is removed. It becomes enhanced and focuses attention on the abilities of the human senses. Design progresses when attention is given to designing for all senses. Seeing architecture does not surmount to feeling it, touching its existence and smelling its duration, listening to its permanence is what architecture is about. To create architecture is to create experience.
(1) Shaw, Jillian L. "Heightened Senses: Cross-Modal Neuroplasticity - Knowing Neurons." Knowing Neurons. Knowing Neurons,
27 Feb. 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.
(2) Schnieder, Caitlin. "How a Blind Architect Is Changing Design." Mental Floss. Mental Floss, 17 July 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.
(3) Andreini, Laura. "Fattoria Celle: A Dialogue with Giuliano Gori | Area." Area. Area, 01 Oct. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.
(4) Holl, Steven, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Alberto Pérez Gómez. Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of
Architecture. San Francisco, CA: William Stout, 2006. Print.
Andreini, Laura. "Fattoria Celle: A Dialogue with Giuliano Gori | Area." Area. Area, 01 Oct.
2014. Web. 08 May 2016.
Holl, Steven, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Alberto Pérez Gómez. Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture.
San Francisco, CA: William Stout, 2006. Print.
Schnieder, Caitlin. "How a Blind Architect Is Changing Design." Mental Floss. Mental Floss, 17 July 2015. Web. 01 May
Shaw, Jillian L. "Heightened Senses: Cross-Modal Neuroplasticity - Knowing Neurons." Knowing Neurons. Knowing
Neurons, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.
Written by Sevrin Scarcelli