A New Humanism: Part 25

Touch and the sensation of space as our interface with the built environment

Touch and sensing space

The group of sensations usually called “touch” or “haptic” senses seem to work through at least four types of receptors: three, primarily in or near the skin, sense temperatures, pressure, and a range of textures—a “tactile” sense.  A fourth group senses movements in and loads on muscles, tendons and joints—the experience called “kinesthesia.”  For the built environment it seems most useful to me to continue to call the first group “touch” but the second, “sensing space.”

These sets of receptors send messages into their own dedicated areas of the brain where they’re interwoven with sights, sounds, and smells. They first trigger the protective reflex responses to surprises—like the recoil from an unexpected impact or an out-of-balance pull of gravity. Then, milliseconds later, they join with the other senses and activate working memory.  Again, even thinking about movement or seeing things that we might touch—not necessarily overt action—activates these sensing systems  followed by the recall of past experiences, reasoning, and the prediction of future consequences.  And, like the other sensing systems, they underlie the metaphorical language we use to describe experience in a built environment: warm and cool colors; landscapes or furnishings that “soften” architecture; streets and circulation systems that flow “smoothly,” skylines that are “restless,” and so on. 

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Touch.   Messages from the “touch” receptors, which may have been the earliest to evolve, tend to be always “on” and are often the most urgent.  They pick up the close-in, imminent threats or opportunities and we use their unique quality, “tangible,” to describe the most reliable test of what is substantial and present, rather than sensations of the light or sound energy that’s been generated at a distance. When we’re at a distance from others, we say we’ll “keep in touch”. While “seeing is believing,” “grasping” implies a deeper, firmer understanding, and we call emotions “feelings.” In addition, as a close-in stimulus, touch, like taste, is usually brought into play to verify and flesh-out the significance—the usefulness—of the eyes’ and ears’ discoveries. We use it as a critical step in testing durability, authenticity and safety. 

Textures.   In a built environment we’re constantly surrounded by textures, and we imagine the touch sensations of surfaces that often we see only at a distance. Based on earlier experience, we enjoy the sense of taut or soft, fine-grained, healthy, unblemished skin, like the honed refinement in polished marble. Or, we tend to edge away from threats to health—uneasy about imagined injury from abrasive surfaces, blades, thorns or the human brutalism of rough concrete. A “texture” of window grids can add a level of human scale on a massive wall, and we seem to take a special pleasure in following the contours and textures of hand carving and human craftsmanship. They seem to invite close contact as we imagine our own hands and bodies engaged in the intricate work.

Making other associations in building materials, we tend to read the connections to the land in wood and stone textures, or the rational, efficient, industrial qualities in crisply detailed metal and glass. And we can read the stories of refuge—like the symbols of indestructible bedrock in large scale “rustication”, or in the fitted, seamless, interlocked patterns of Inca masonry.  And inside, a refuge is incomplete without soft fabrics or furs, warm to the touch, and soft cushioning of the body up off of the hard earth.  Even more pervasive, when we’re moving on our primary plane of action, changing textures underfoot—or under wheels—alert the always-on sense of touch, often more quickly and emphatically than the scanning eyes. Like any change, they are received as a warning, a signal that can automatically influence the pace and direction of attention and movement—whether in the manner the designer intended or not.

Temperature.   Again, as with the other senses, touch sensations, imagined or real, are among the precision tools of design. Because of the life-or-death importance of body temperature, the sensation of changes in heat and cold—like the senses of sound and smell— is continuously “on”. When skin—and then body core—temperatures stray from the narrow limits sensed as “comfort”, those temperatures themselves become the dominant sensations in a built environment. Then body chemistry takes over, and we seem willing to expend, often extravagantly, whatever energy resources are needed or available to answer this system’s demand, in order to feel free from anxiety and, fundamentally, safe. And when that priority is met, and we feel ourselves warm or cool, and secure, our attention is released and we tend to be more receptive to new feelings or ideas and more generous in our judgments. Naturally, the opposite happens as well.

Millennia of managing microclimates have left an abundant legacy in design vocabulary— orientation, channeled breezes or windbreaks, degrees of sunlight or shade, the cooling and imagined cooling in the sight and sound of moving water. And two centuries of science, engineering, and industries exploiting the benefits of energy sources, have given us a capability to produce, exactly and subtly, at large and small scales, essentially any optimum microclimate we can imagine—without offensive noise or hazards. That skill and accumulated knowledge is part of today’s humanism in design, and it has opened up enormous opportunities to resolve conflicts of the past, enabling daylighted buildings and more cost-effective floor plates, highly sensitive industrial processes, and vast, comfortable all-weather gathering places— whether at a ski village in the snow or a nightclub in the tropics.

Today, though, as we place greater value on conserving machine-made energy, we’re beginning to focus that technology more on the greater pleasure, when it can be found, in the combination of optimum temperatures with the scents, sounds, and the presence of natural settings—in other words, built environments that are not simply a replacement of natural climates, but more integrated into them. The rich warm-cool design vocabulary that we have been accumulating and our increased awareness of the costs of producing energy are now leading us both back and forward into a new set of adaptations-to-the-environment: new rounds of regional vernacular styles that create microclimates in a closer collaboration with nature, like the experience of tree-shaded streets and buildings; sun-filled rooms—indoors or outdoors—tempered in hot seasons with high ceilings, trellises, verandas, overhangs, and induced breezes cooled by evaporating water; earth materials used for heat storage and insulation and, more fundamentally, the earth’s geological processes themselves used to cool and heat.

This kind of design incorporates a symbolism as well, since physical comfort of all kinds tells a story of achievement, prosperity and superior wisdom.

Sensing space and mass

The sensations felt by muscles, tendons and joints, whether immediate, remembered,  or imagined, activate motor networks in the brain.  As a result it’s this system, this proprioception, that takes the lead when we “transcribe ourselves into terms of architecture,” or project our own presence and feelings into/onto a place.

It can be seen at work in the refuge and prospects of Mont St. Michel. There the mainstream of the perceived urban space is a complex order of a human-scaled, confined, single-minded, winding, climbing journey through a cohesive community to a hard-earned refuge, an altar, and finally the ultimate, secure but open prospect of endless horizons—sky, heaven, if you choose, and transcendence. It’s the dramatized story, in spatial terms, of human survival in life and immortality.

The refuge and prospects of Mont St. Michel – visceral sensations of space defining a secure human journey toward transcendence.

Space as the unifying “armature”.    Space and the masses that define it are sensed initially as physical dimensions and contours, of course, but that is only the beginning. Dimensions are not experienced as stable or fixed, but relatively and in three shifting contexts. The first, of course, is physical: indoors or out, in cultivated places or in mountains, along lively or monotonous paths, in changing weather, and above all as places enter into our “personal project,” as it’s updated by our growing sense of understanding and “ownership” of the place. And all of those perceptions change as the lines or surfaces surrounding us become articulated by lighting, color, rhythms, ornament, sounds, moving water or wind, the level of stewardship and the presence of people.

A second context is the lens of a mental set, the expectations and ideas that each of us brings to a place. And that is continually updated by the priming inherent in—and activated by— the sequences of immediate, ongoing experiences. The sensations that trigger the experience—the simulations “in-here”—are naturally spontaneous, visceral, and different for each of us. Yet, they reach deep into memories to link up with the full range of body-based associations that we all share: those related to perceived boundaries and territories, facades, paths, centers, balance, temperatures, textures, or—in Kevin Lynch’s “Image of the City” terms—edges, districts, nodes, paths, and landmarks.

Most important, like a sculpture’s armature, it’s the physical framework of space and mass that, in effect, organizes all of the other concurrent, mixing sensory inputs into comprehensive, coherent perceptions – into symbols, hierarchies, stories, familiar or new things, and aesthetic qualities. We even describe the passage through time in the vocabulary of space. It is in this sense of three, or four, dimensional volumes as a unifying core for experience, that space becomes the essential, distinctive domain of the arts of architecture, landscapes and urban places.

Bath in Southwestern England – where the sense of space is the unifying framework organizing all of the sensory inputs into perceptions, hierarchies, stories and aesthetic experience.

Capabilities.  This system of sense receptors and connected brain networks, which is mostly “on,” measures and records distances, directions, weights, and forces in relation to our balance, posture, movement, motor strength, and skills, and then adjusts a response. 

Then, as it keeps track of the position and thrusts of each part of our own body’s centers-of-gravity and momentum, it senses those same qualities in the places and people around us. Further, linked to other senses, it enables an extended “sensory memory” to keep track of complex sequences; we hold onto the cumulative perceptions of moving through a building, landscape or city, and grasp its unity—especially if we’re pursuing a goal.  Even when we’re moving in machines, we can often hold onto an accumulating sense-of-direction and distances, experiencing a very large scale “order” in streets, networks, or the “beauty” of a scenic drive.

In other words, within the space-sensing system we are able to visualize, anticipate, and build intricate memories of the forces we feel and the moves we make. The large and small motor skills involved have an enormous capacity to learn and remember. When they’re highly trained over time they become the foundation of a designer’s education and the source of an architect’s spatial “intuition”—changing forever for each of us the subjective experience of and response to the world around us. This is the same innate human capability called “embodied simulation” that is widely used in training for sports, flying, surgery and other kinds of spatially defined bodily experience.

In practice, we are continually responding—consciously but more often not—to a space that we feel we inhabit.  The eyes and tension in their muscles are critical links in the whole-body awareness of course, and the at-rest, straight-ahead axial view naturally takes precedence. From that beginning space seems to expand outward and upward from us and our lines vision until stopped or defined by enclosing structures, hills, an infinite horizon or darkness. Entering a place, projecting our senses out through flows of confined or interpenetrating spaces, following clues in sculpted forms and vectors, we probe first for edges and boundaries, for vital and vulnerable openings – entry points and lines of potential movement. Our attention can be arrested by a change in the pace of the progressive discovery – or by landmarks intended for that purpose – or by inviting refuges in sheltered “coves” and concavities – or open ends and high points where we can pause for overlooks and prospects. We are drawn even to a slight change in elevation or sloping ground plane – like an amphitheater – where we can reconfirm our orientation or find our place in a larger setting. 

Experience, then, is essentially the constant awareness the personal boundaries we’ve defined for ourselves. We feel sequences of containment, changing constraints and release, boundaries in response to the restriction of gateways, entrances, courtyards or pathways—the layered and linked spaces or movements of other people that invite and urge us to move on and explore. Each sequence of disclosures primes our next steps or, in contrast, leads us into secure, controlled nested spaces to rest and settle in, to dwell in for a time.

Sissinghurst Garden in the U.K. – layering of linked spaces inviting exploration or dwelling for a time.

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The next post continues this exploration of the ways we sense, remember, visualize and actively respond to the contours of masses and space.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichlerwho drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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