Book Review: Sensory Design

Sensory Design by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka

It can be argued that since the Renaissance architects have been wearing visual blinders. They value form, formal novelty, and other visual considerations over those of the other human senses: sound, touch, and smell/taste. It seems that when architects do give (almost) equal value to these other senses, it's only with projects that require a particular environmental sensibility, such as medical treatment facilities. But don't the day-to-day activities, the spaces where we live, work, and play deserve the same consideration? Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka think so.

They start their book in the realm of architectural theory, specifically in type as a reflection of the collective unconscious. This gives way to an analysis of historical research on perception and the authors' formula that combines perception with cultural context, an important relationship to which the authors constantly return. This analysis also defines the perceptual realm to include eight "senses": visual, auditory, taste-smell, orientation, and four haptic types (texture, kinesthesia, plasticity, temperature). Near the end of the book these eight senses are used by the authors in a system that designers can use to rate degrees of intensity for each. This system allows designers and non-designers alike to see how existing buildings fare, but primarily it's intended to influence the former's design decisions towards a consideration of all the senses.

In between the theoretical beginning and the practical ending, the authors argue their case by looking at the histories of architecture, science and art. They see a movement towards holistic thinking in the various disciplines, illustrated by key figures like Juhani Pallasmaa, Edward T. Hall, and James Turrell, respectively. In this regard the authors, refreshingly, don't dwell on the mediocrity around us and rail against it, but rather take an optimistic tone as they present projects that embody their principles, such as Peter Zumthor's Thermal Baths.

While it's hard to deny their argument, it's also hard to determine if their sensory system will have an effect on the architectural profession or academia. The former is a stubborn bunch focused on getting jobs, keeping jobs, and presenting sexy photographs of their buildings. The latter is characterized by a lack of interaction between environment and behavior classes and design studios, the studios where schools give the most attention. But the authors are probably aware that change is slow and this book is but one step towards a "sensory-oriented design paradigm."