(Text of a 4-minute talk given to staff and students of the department of Architecture, University of Brighton, as part of the TwinTalks series 2016/17)
A few years ago I took time out of architectural practice to train as a yoga teacher. As part of that journey I got interested in evolution; how the human body had evolved over millennia as a response to the forces of gravity, the terrain in which we lived, the tools we developed, the social challenges we faced.
I learned about the human sensorimotor system, that we have more than five senses and that the sense which supersedes all the others is sight. That is to say, our visual sense dominates everything else our nerve endings are telling our brain, if we allow it to.
Architecture as it is commonly created and discussed now occurs to me differently. I notice critical discourse amongst architects centres around the visual and conceptual. Secondly that as a design tool, architectural perspectives lend themselves to flat smooth floor planes. Perhaps as a consequence, we work or live in places with floor surfaces which are more or less smooth. It's as if a seamless ground plane has been rolled out across an urbanised landscape. Thresholds become flattened, texture is minimised, the whole designed to suit wheeled transport.
If daleks wanted to take over the earth, they would surely have easy passage in our cities.
The flat smooth formula has reached its apogee here on Brighton seafront, with a ride on the British Airways i360. No noise, no vibration, no sensation of movement, no smell. It’s sensory deprivation except for the visual. An impressive technical feat no doubt, but there’s a cost to all this smoothness.
For one thing, we become physically stiffer. Biomechanics, the study of structure and function of biological systems, has something to teach us here. Hips, knees and ankles are evolved to roll and move. Humans are strong and versatile on variable terrain. We know when we have spent time exploring an ancient forest what effect that has on our wellbeing. Conversely, when our feet only encounter the ground in one plane, our joints only ever experience one kind of loading, which wears them out over time.
In his book “The Eyes of the Skin”, architectural theorist Juhani Palasmaa goes further. “With the loss of tactility and details crafted for the human body - and particularly for the hand - architectural structures become compulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial and unreal. The detachment of construction from the realities of matter and craft further turns architecture instead into stage sets for the eye, into a scenography devoid of the authenticity of matter and construction.” (palasmaa p34)
Palasmaa goes on to usefully explore what he calls the Haptic city - Haptic meaning any form of interaction involving touch. He suggests architects around the world are beginning to discover this Haptic world and use it to inform design. Surely an area worth exploring if you havn’t already covered it in this series of talks. Indeed maybe I’m preaching to the converted and Autodesk already offer plug ins to address the Haptic dimension.
Meanwhile if this haptic world hasn't reached a town near you yet, and architects are hell bent on designing numbness into human experience, how do we remedy all this sensory deprivation? If we like we can spend time in yoga classes. One area I like to explore involves the touch of the sole of the foot on the ground. This is typically where gravity, sensing, and place all coincide.
But if not, at least we all appreciate Brighton beach. That’s where we get in touch with ourselves, smell the salty air, feel the shock of the cold water as we enter the waves. Walking barefoot on the pebbles is excruciating at first, but can be a useful skill. If you havn’t experienced that yet, let me know and I can show you.