The Other Three Senses in Architecture // Jacob Pivonka


Written by Jacob Pivonka

"The Other Three Senses in Architecture"


It is common knowledge that humans have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. All but the last is commonly used in experiencing architecture. Sight is by far the most useful in judging aesthetic quality and spatial understanding. It also allows us to best experience architecture without being present better than the other senses. There are a lot of architectural works that I revere though I will most likely never get to experience many of them in person; the closest I will ever get is through images in which sight is crucial. Touch, hearing, and smell are often seen as less important senses in architecture -- perhaps rightfully so – however, that does not mean they are without value.


I would argue that touch, in most cases, is the most useful sense in the understanding of architecture after sight. It is one of the best senses that gives you a physical understanding of build quality. There are parts of the building that are inherently more important when it pertains to touch due to your frequency of contact, such as door handles, handrails, faucets, and cabinetry. Door handles are particularly interesting because they are most likely the first thing that you physically touch in a building. While the door handle is your point of contact, I am including the weight of the door as a part of the touch experience.  A door’s weight, height, and finish can make a large difference in the perception of the building. Imagine you have two visually identical doors: one feels like a heavy bank door when opening and the other feels like a lighter closet door. These give two different impressions as you walk into the house. That impression lasts and tends to carry throughout the house or apartment. I’m not advocating heavier or lighter or different type of handles, but I am advocating that they fit a purpose. This idea travels through other elements that you touch throughout the building. Touch is not merely limited to the shape of the thing you are in contact with. It also has a large impact on thermal comfort as well. Touch is the sense that lets us understand humidity and temperature within the space these are factors that are critical to overall comfort within buildings. Out of the senses touch has the biggest link to the idea of shelter in humanity’s hierarchy of needs.


Hearing, or lack thereof, is important in architecture. Sound is more often problematic rather than an asset in residential architecture. Most residential buildings try to mitigate sound transfer between rooms or apartments. However, sound does lead to an understanding of architecture. For instance, I know at four in the morning in my apartment I can hear a train horn as it passes through Manhattan. I can think of very few times when sound transfer through a building is beneficial, perhaps if you live near the ocean and find the sound of waves soothing. In addition to sound isolation from the exterior environment, how sound acts within a space is often critical to the feel of the space. Whether the space is acoustically live, or dead can change the experience. For instance, imagine if you had a living that echoed would be somewhat of an intimidating space and rather off-putting. Footfalls are often a large contributor as it pertains to sound within an environment whether it high heels on concrete, or sneakers on hardwood it contributes to the experience. Seems appropriate to mention the link between materiality and the senses one may choose concrete for its aesthetic quality however they may not realize or care how this affects the other senses.


Smell, in my opinion, is one of the most memory provoking senses. For instance, not too long ago I was getting an air compressor out of the school’s storage unit and I was hit with the scent of mothballs. It immediately reminded me of my grandparent’s basement and the times I spent down there as a kid. Smell also has a huge impact on atmosphere. It can instantly give the impression of age of a building, cleanliness, femininity, masculinity, and the culture of the resident. Smell is also one of the most easily changed elements of architecture. Its natural scent can change very quickly due to the occupants and general maintenance.

Abstract: Architecture is often judged only by sight. What you see in a magazine or on TV but in actual residency there is a lot more that needs to be dealt with. How do the senses of touch, hearing, and smell affect our experience of architecture?  How do they impact the design of architecture?


Audience: to those who only think about the sense of sight to experience architecture.

The question now is how does this pertain to the Design Make’s current project of a duplex in Waldo, Kansas? While the tactile element may have become secondary to visual, it was not forgotten. We tried to select faucet fixtures that suited the building and were tactilely pleasing. Both our cabinetry handles and our handrailing will be custom fabricated; by doing so we hope to have more control over the tactile element. Are handrails for instance were heavily thought about. This is because it is in our building particularly its most likely the handrail is the first thing you touch rather than your front door. So, we wanted to spend extra care in designing this aspect of the project. In our handrail, we offset our rectangular tubing used as a vertical structural member from the handrail. To prevent of one accidentally kicking the vertical members of the handrail. From there the actual connection of the vertical supporting members to the handrail was thought about rather than have our perpendicular to the direction of travel we turned it parallel to allow your hand to seamlessly glide over vertical connections. As for sound, we used sound insulation within the firewall and used our bathroom’s utility closet as a barrier to isolate sound from the adjacent apartment. We are adding carpet tile in the living room to mitigate both noise and add an extra layer of insulation for thermal comfort on one’s bare feet. As for scent, it is dictated by material choice which was dictated by cost and aesthetic qualities; however, scent is soon to be altered by the residents.


In the end, the use of the four senses (sight, hearing, smell, and touch) is a balancing act. We needed to design a building that appealed to all senses, not merely sight.