THE MULTI-SENSORY REALITY-  integrating the existential experience


By Juhani Pallasmaa


Throughout its history, architecture has been regarded as an artform of vision, while vision has even been associated with truth. ”The eyes are more exact wittnesses than the ears”, Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Ionian philosopher claims  in one of his fragments. 1 Somewhat later, Plato  connected vision with understanding and philosophy: ”The supreme benefit for which sight is responsible is that through the cosmic revelations of vision man has acquired philosophy, the greatest gift the gods have given or will give to mortals” 2 The vision-centered view is based on the understanding that we have five senses, which form a hierarchical order: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. With this order of preference Aristotle  declared vision our most important sense, ”because it approximates the intellect most closely by virtue of its relative immateriality and knowing”, and touch as the lowest sense, ”because even animals have a sense of touch” 3.

In the end of the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher and jurist, deviced the Panopticon scheme for a prison that could be controlled by vision from one single spot. 4 The architecture of the separating and controlling eye is well exemplified by this project. Today we are unnoticably living in a world-wide Panopticon through global electronic monitoring and recording.

Fig. 1 Jeremy Bentham. Panopticon Prison 1791 scheme for a prison which can be controlled visually from one single point.

Regardless of the unchallenged hegemony of vision in Western culture, there have also been outspoken critics of the ocularcentric view. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, accused philosophers of a ”treacherous and blind hostility towards the senses” 5 , whereas Max Scheler called this attitude bluntly ”the hatred of the body”. 6 It is evident that our obsessively materialist culture has a dualistic attitude of the human  body: on the one hand, physical appearance and bodily abilities are admired, but on the other, the fundamental meaning of embodiment in being a human in all its dimensions, capacities and qualities, is not acknowledged even in educational theories or practices.

Architecture has also been regarded solely as a domain of vision, but  scholars on environmental soundscapes have suggested that the first spaces of early humans were selected for acoustic purposes – to dramatize the voice of the shaman – not to be appreciated by vision . Other significant discoveries reveal that early humans built structures for their dead much earlier than they built any shelters for themselves. This implies that the first concern in building was in the mental, metaphysical and imaginative realm, not in the profane utility of shelter. 7

It may also sound surprising, but in early human history, vision was not the primary sense, as hearing and smell were existentially much more important. Regardless of such historical facts, the hegemony of vision has been strengthened by the tradition of western philosophy associating vision with clear thinking and truth, and the eyes being regarded as the most reliable and final wittnesses. Yet, St Thomas did not believe his eyes and poked his finger into the wound of Christ, as depicted dramatically in Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-02). Recently science has even poked human vision into a black hole.

Fig. 2 Caravaggio The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-02). Neues Palais Potsdam.

The preferential position of vision has been decisively strengthened through numerous technical inventions, such as writing, telescope, microscope, mechanical printing, photography and the current digital technologies. We can now see into the core of matter as well as into the mysteries of outer space. Walter J. Ong, philosopher and theologian, connects the final dominance of vision with writing and, especially, the invention of mechanical printing. ”The shift from oral to written speech was essentially a shift from sound to visual space ”8, Ong argues, and continues, ”Print replaced the lingering hearing-dominance in the world of thought and expression with the sight-dominance which had its  beginning in writing” 9. Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical printing in 1450 began to turn us forcefully into creatures of vision. Ong concludes: ”Though words are grounded in oral speech, writing tyrannically locks them into a visual field forever […] a literate person cannot fully recover a sense of what the word is to purely oral people”10. Indeed, historians tell us that still in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, hearing and smell dominated the daily environmental experience, instead of vision. ”The sixteenth century did not see first: it heard and smelled, it sniffed the air and caught sounds. It was only later that it seriously and actively became engaged in geometry, focusing on the world of forms […] It was then that vision was unleashed in the world of science as it was in the world of physical sensations, and the world of beauty as well”, Lucien Febvre, a historian, testifies.11


Throughout the modern era, the dominant role of vision has been unquestioned also in architecture. This visual bias is evident in Le Corbusier’s famous credo: ”Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”12. Even today architecture is predominantly taught as a visual endeavor. The valued position of vision in modernity is beyond doubt, and the senses that have been understood to have the least significance in human  experience are touch, smell and taste. This reveals the regrettable fact that more than half of our sensory modes have been marginalized in our culture. Besides, our eyes have not evolved for bright light, as we are dwilight creatures, but this biological fact has not been concidered either in contemporary architecture, its education or design standards.

Additionally, the senses have mostly been studied in isolation from each other and in the unnatural situation of the highly controlled research laboratory, rather than in the reality and ”impurety” of real lived life. Vision itself has been mostly researched as a fixated, immobile eye, although that is a completely unnatural situation. Our eyes are constantly in unnoticeable motion, and when they are experimentally fixated, the fixed image disintegrates after a few seconds. The understanding of vision as a purely optical phenomenon has also failed to ackmowledge the amazing neural complexities in the process of seeing.

It is also crucial to understand that we are not creatures that see, hear, touch, smell and taste as separate and isolated sensations. Our sensory systems integrate experiences of our existential encounter with the world. The human reality is not visual or auditive, it is essentially multi-sensory, and this sensory integration provides the veracity of the real, the truth and the magic of the world. The senses constantly interact and we experience sensorially complete and integrated spaces, places and situations, in which all the sense modalities are fused to give rise to the experience of reality. Our very reality sense, its plasticity, depth, continuity and existential authority, arise from this crucial interplay, layering and fusion of the senses. Even neurobiologically the integration of the senses is seminal: all sensory inputs interconnect at the brain stem, and how we feel, think and act involves all the senses, as Eve Edelstein, architect and neuroscientist, claims 13. We are not usually conscious of the multi-sensory nature of our experience, as we take reality for granted and as a given. But the experiential reality is miraculous product of our sensory world. Isn’t it a miracle that each one of us creates her own reality  around herself, but yet we feel that we live in one and a shared world?

Most of us must have experienced how a movie loses its feeling of reality, when just the sound is turned off, and we can imagine how alienating a purely visual world would feel. The frightening and depressing character of a sudden visual experience has been commented by blind persons who have recovered their capacity to see. We have also witnessed how our reality sense flattens even when a flue or nasal catarrh  weakens the olfactory sense.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher, who opened the sensory and experiential world to our philosophical understanding, describes the integration, completeness and simultaneity of our sensory experience convincingly and poetically: ”My perception is therefore not a sum of visual, tactile, and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being; I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once”.14 This philosopher has also introduced the suggestive notion of ”the flesh of the world”15 to describe the lived reality in which we are immersed. ”Our body is in the world as the heart is in the organism; it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system”.16 Henri Matisse, the master painter, describes concretely the integrated multi-sensory experience and its existential nature: ” If I was able to unite in my picture what was outside, the sea, for example, and the interior, it is because the atmosphere of the landscape and that of my room are one and the same […] I don’t have to bring together internal and external, both are united in my sensation. I can combine the armchair next to me in the studio and the cloud in the sky, the quivering of the palm tree by the waterside, without any effort in differentiating the places, without dissociating different elements of my motif”. 17 This description of sensory and existential fusion is a lesson for all artists.  

Henry Matisse The open window Collioure summer 1905. Collection Mrs. John Kay Whitney.


Synesthesia is a somewhat exceptional capacity of individuals to merge two (or more) sensory realms, for instance, seeing musical sounds or entire musical keys, as colors, or visa versa. But, provided our senses and neural systems function normally, we all experience the world as a sensory unity in a polyphonic manner. We do not normally distinguish individual senses, as they all interact in the existential experience, our very sense of being and self. The reality sense is exactly this layered sensory multiplicity and it addresses primarily our sense of existence; we sense our own being in this world as revealed and projected to us by our senses and the temporal and causal continuities of that experience. The Cartesian view famously connects the sense of existence with thinking – cogito ergo sum – but, in my view, it is more correct to say – I sense, thus I exist. Thinking implies stepping away from the reality of existence into conceptualized ideas and interpretations of that very existence.

In opposition to the commonly accepted dominance of vision in our culture and architecture, I wish to argue that the most important sense in the art of building is not vision in isolation, but the integrated existential sense, our sense of being, registered and communicated through all the senses simultaneously. We confront the world and our buildings with the sense of existence, rather than by our eyes, and we share the flesh of the world with phenomena of nature, spaces, places, artefacts, other humans, and human situations in the complete existential experience. Simply, we are not looking from outside, as we are part of the ”flesh of reality”.  Architecture is also an inseparable part of this flesh of reality; it is a man-made extension of this flesh, but it is simultaneously an extension of both our physical and mental faculties. The wonderful unity in the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, for instance, demonstrates this sensory integration. His paintings mediate the fused existential sense, which is not dominated by vision and does not separate the senses. His paintings turn vision into touch, distance into nearness, sound into feeling, matter and smell into colour and atmosphere, and everything is fused in a singular sensation of happily shared existence. Bonnard as well as J.M.W. Turner, Claude Monet, Mark Rothko and other great painters convey the existential experience, the fusion of the world and the mind, rather than the isolated visual appearance of physical objects or facts out there. This is also what music, dance, poetry and architecture do; instead of constructing an image in front of our eyes, they give rise to a distinct merged mental state in our sense of being.

Fig. 4 Pierre Bonnard Nude in the Bath 1925. Private Collection.

There is a definite tactile component in vision; we touch unconsciously surfaces, materials and temperatures through vision. Not surprisingly, Walter Benjamin, the philosopher and writer, regarded cinema and architecture primarily as tactile art forms, in his visionary writings of the 1920s .18 Merleau-Ponty expands our visual touch to cosmic dimensions: ”Through vision we touch the stars and the sun ”. 19  The unconscious touch concealed in and mediated by vision is crucial for the feel and atmosphere of surfaces, materials, objects, and spaces. The usual visual hardness and unwelcomingness of contemporary architectural environments largely arise from the lack of a visually transmitted unconscious sense of tactility. There are also visual and tactile components in hearing; a space can appear acoustically ”soft” or ”hard”, ”intimate” or ”repulsive”, for instance. Also vision mediates acoustical qualities as well as experiences of smell and taste, and vice versa. We can ”see” sounds, tastes and smells, and this sensory mediation and multiplicity gives rise to the veracity of the experience.

Regarding art not as an object, but an experience is the lesson of John Dewey’s book Art as Experience (1934). He also emphasizes the seminal interaction of the senses: ”In seeing a picture, it is not true that visual qualities are as such, or consciously, central, and other qualities arranged about them in an accessory or associated fashion. Nothing could be further from the truth […] when we perceive, by means of the eyes as causal aids, the liquidity of water, the coldness of ice, the solidity of rocks, the barrenness of trees in winter, it is certain that other qualities than those of the eye are conspicuous and controlling in perception […] This bearing has many aspects. One of them is the inherent tendency of sense to expand, to come into intimate relations with other things than itself, and thus to take on form because of its own movement –instead of passively waiting to have form imposed on it. Any sensuous quality tends, because of its organic connections, to spread and fuse”20


In his book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin Ashley Montagu, the Canadian anthropologist, argues: ”The skin is the oldest and most sensitive of our organs, our first medium of communication, and our most efficient protector […] Even the transparent cornea of the eye is overlain by a layer of modified skin […] Touch is the parent of our eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It is the sense that became differentiated into the others, a fact that seems to be recognized in the age-old evaluation of touch as ´the mother of the senses´”.21

We are not usually aware of the fact, that all our sense organs are modifications of the original skin tissue of the fetus, and transformed forms of touching, and thus related to and modifications of touching. We touch with all our senses, and even with our sense of existence; human existence is always placed as already the Greek philosophers of Antiquity understood, and we sense our being in a distinct place. As James Turrell, the light artist, has testified, we can all fairly easily learn to distinguish a few strong colors by the skin of our elbow and knee bends. 22 Light and sound waves can transport the visual and aural sensation long distances, whereas smell implies nearness, and taste brings the object to our lips and the cavity of the mouth, eliminating distance altogether (even in the case of ideated taste mediated by vision or smell). Among animals even smell can serve as a distant sense; I am thinking of the extraordinary olfactory capacities of certain butterflies, which can smell the odour of a mate more than twenty kilometers away; at that distance the smell is so ”weak” that there is only one molecule of the pheromone in a cubic meter of air. Regardless of our beliefs, also the human olfactory sense is surprisingly accurate; we need only eight molecules of substance to trigger an impulse of smell in our nerve ending, and we can detect more than 10.000 different odours.

The sensations of the mouth are the infants first contact with the world; this child’s mouth contact with the world is called ”introjection” in psychoanalytic terminology literature. Introjection fuses the interior and exterior experience, as in Matisse’s account of his painting above. Touch itself is the sense of being in physical contact even when a tactile stimulus is mediated by other, more distant senses, as vision and hearing. The sensory coldness, hardness and unwelcomingness of contemporary architecture usually arises from the lack of haptic invitations through vision, conveyed by tactile materials, inviting shapes and details. Allow me to put it this way: architecture of today lacks eroticism.

A gifted architect does not design the visual image of a space or detail, but the full material and haptic experience in his empathic material imagination. In its obsession with optical form, modernity has neglected the material imagination of touch and feeling during the design process. A sensitive architect touches the non-existent building with his hands, skin and body. Indeed, Gaston Bachelard divides imagination into two categories, formal and material imagination, and he argues that the images evoked by the latter project a deeper emotive charge. 23


As commonly understood, the significance of odours for taste is seminal in the art of cooking, but olfaction is equally significant for the reality sense in our daily experiences. The sensory fullness and deeply comforting pleasure of walking through a forest or a natural field, arises decisively from the complex fusion of tactile experiences, sounds and smells, as well as subliminal sensations of taste through visual stimuli. Such experience touches and massages us simultaneously from outside and inside. The multisensory richness of the experience reinforces its sense of reality and truth. Even the cold weather of a winter day, in the midst of an all-white snow field, has its distinct odour, a kind of a stimulated absence, or active expectation and desire of smell, which is sensed in the widely open nostrils. 24  In the absence of sensations, we tend to imagine them, and this domain of the imagination is seminal for a healthy mind. Even in our dreams, we are not looking at imaginary pictures, as we are right in the middle of the ”reality” of our dream world; we could, perhaps, even speak of ”the flesh of the dream”, borrowing Merleau-Ponty’s notion.

Smell is our most archaic sense, and memories of odours are also known to be the most persistent. Recent studies of wittness statements reveal how unreliable our visual recollections can be, but we can hardly falsify our olfactory memories. The nose makes even our eyes remember. ”Memory and imagination remain associated”, Gaston Bachelard writes and continues: ”I alone in my memories of another century, can open the deep cupboard that still retains for me alone that unique odour, the odour of raisins drying on a wicker tray. The odour of raisins! It is an odour that is beyond description, one that takes a lot of imagination to smell”.25

The role of the senses is culturally learned, conditioned and controlled, as the pioneering studies of the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall revealed in the 1960s. 26 Odours, for example, are highly regulated and supressed in western culture, but they have significant communicative roles in many other cultures. Similarly a delicatessen of one culture can well be unbearable in another, due to the implied associations or explicit taboos.


Tactile and acoustic sensations, as well as suggestions of smells and taste, are also significant for the reality sense in literature. When reading a novel we do not only project the visual image of the narrative, as we experience the reality sense of the spaces, places and events of the narrative. When reading  great literature, we create the settings with their sensory qualities in our sensory imagination. This is the true educational value of literature; it trains our capacities of constructing and feeling existentially true alternative worlds. That is why I always recommend reading good literature to my design students. In his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge Rainer Maria Rilke gives a stunning description of the sensory qualities of the scarce signs of life, especially of odours, left of a demolished house on the end wall of the adjacent building. ”There were the midday meals and the sicknesses and the exhalations and the smoke of years, and the stale breath of mouths, and the oily odour of perspiring feet. There were the pungent tang of urine and the stench of burning soot and the grey reek of potatoes, and the heavy, sickly fumes of rancid grease. The sweetish, lingering smell of neglected infants was there, and the smell of frightened children who go to school, and the stuffiness of the beds of nubile youths.”27 Even tiny fragments of a building in the poet’s description give rise to a forceful narrative of life through the collaged unity of subliminal visual, tactile and olfactory sensations. Similarly, we also ”hear” spaces, materials and surfaces; we can hear entire landscapes, villages and cities, and every region has its characteristic soundscape and odourscape.

The poet’s description surely makes our current sanitary and visually aestheticized images of architecture appear sterile and devoid of life.  ”Why is it that architecture and architects, unlike film and filmmakers, are so little interested in people during the design process? Why are they so theoretical , so distant from life in general”, Jan Vrijman, the Dutch film critic, asks. 28 ”Let us assume a wall: what takes place behind it?”, poet Jean Tardieu asks similarly. 29  Yes, this curiosity for life ought to be the designer’s and architect´s primary concern.

In the arts, hidden and subliminal images, suggestions and associations, are the most effective stimuli for imagination and mood. The difference between images that open up our imagination and ones that close it down, is crucial. True poetic images always open up, liberate and inspire. ”The cinematic [artistic] image is not a specific meaning by the director [artist], it is an entire world as reflected in a drop of water”, Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker writes poetically.30 ”There is no violence in my film M, or when there is, it occurs behind the scenes, as it were. Let’s take an example. You will remember the sequence, where a little girl is murdered. All you see is a ball rolling and then stopping. The balloon flying off and getting caught in some telephone wires […] The violence is in your mind”, Fritz Lang comments on the invisible content of terror in his classic film M (1931). 31


Also great writers are able to mediate experiences of all our senses, including the intestinal sensations – disgust, fear, suspense, angst, nausea – evoked by their literary text. A touching text even evokes reactions in our skin, throat, breast, heart and stomach. A great writer does not show us a snapshot of the scene, but he/she entices us to project a true multi-sensory experience around the imagined event. I read Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment sixty years ago, but I can still enter the room of Raskolnikov’s terrifying double murder in my memory, or experience Mikulka beating his tired horse to death on a sidestreet of St Petersburg. I remember these imaginary events forever, because I have been there and experienced them through my entire being.

We are not watching the scene as outsiders; we are right there in the middle of it. Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech writer, points out the bodily concreteness of the literary imagination: ”When I read, I don’t really read: I pop up a beautiful sentence in my mouth and suck it like liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing my brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel”.32 This account of a writer reveals how real and life-like sensory stimuli, evoked by literary imagination, can be. Besides, these sensations are transferred from one realm to another, and even to the most intimate of our senses, smell, taste and the interior of the body.

In her book Dreaming by the Book Elaine Scarry explains the vividness of a profound literary text in a following way: ”In order to achieve the ’vivacity’ of the material world, the verbal arts must somehow also imitate its ’persistence’ and, most crucially, its quality of ’givenness’. It seems almost certainly the case that it is the ’instructional’ character of the verbal arts that fulfils this mimetic requirement for ’givenness’.33 This requirement for ”givenness” also applies to architecture and other arts; an artistic work should appear natural and unconstrained, instead of feeling fabricated, aestheticized and artificial. In a painting, the mere visual representation does not suffice, as a great painting gives us a fully rounded sensory experience: ”If the painter presents us with a field or a vase of flowers, his painting are windows which are open on the whole world”, Jean-Paul Sartre  writes poetically. 34 Paraphrazing Paul Valéry the poet, Merleau-Ponty suggests: ”[Paul] Cézanne’s paintings make us feel how the world touches us”. 35 This is also the task of architecture, as buildings mediate between us and the world. Architecture must articulate and mediate the touch of the world for us.


When being in a landscape, we are not looking at it from outside as a visual image, and we do not feel like being in a visual space as we are participants in the full sensory complexity of space and situation, not merely looking at it. Edward Relph uses the notions of ”existential insideness” and ”existential ousideness” for the sense of reality and its absence. 36 In the contemporary city we frequently experience existential outsideness, a feeling of not being there. This brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s famous expression: ”When you get there, there is no there, there”. 37

Human existence is always constituted in a specific space, place and situation, not as an isolated or disconnected abstraction; human experiences are always placed, as already Plato understood. We are in the landscape through our whole being. We are in the flesh of the landscape. Experiences take place in the continuum of perceived space and time, not as isolated fragments. The landscape and our sense of existence are fused in a singular experience of being and self. This experience of interiority, Rilke’s wonderful notion of Weltinnenraum, the inner space of the world, is essential for the poetic and artistic consciousness.38 Being in a space is always an exchange; as I enter a space, the space enters me.  In these experiences, all our sensations, including the consciousness of our body and its interior, feelings and moods, are fused and united. ”In the fusion of place and soul, the soul is as much of a container of place as place is a container of soul; both are susceptible to the same forces of destruction”, the American literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison maintains. 39

Sensations of gravity, air temperature and movement, sounds, smells and tastes, all constitute to the fullness and reality of the experience, even in cases when our attention does not consciously focus on them. The sense of time is also integral with the reality sense. We experience the richness, sensory layeredness and continuity of the world in a peripheral, unfocused and atmospheric manner. Also all built spaces and structures have their specific acoustic characteristics, odours and even subliminal suggestions of taste; there are sweet, sour, salty and sugary materials and spaces, for instance. The brilliant short stories of Anton Chekhov , for instance, convey rich sensory experiences, especially of smells. Also architecture contains odours; in Le Corbusier’s spaces an acid smell of concrete is characteristic, whereas in Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Alvar Aaltos’ buildings we sense the odour of brick, lime mortar and wood, although we are not normally conscious of these olfactory experiences. In addition to each building having its characteristic odour, even the works of individual architects tend to have a specific odour due to the materials and surface finishes that they favour. This sensory character is mostly mediated by the atmosphere of the space. The buildings without an odour are usually the ones that represent the high-tech and minimalist aesthetics, and the lack of odour emphasizes the feeling of placelessness, alienation and loneliness.

A multiplicity of sensations is essential for the reality of all buildings. Try to imagine a medieval cathedral without its echo, its cool air guarded by the mass of stone, the layered fragrance of centuries of burnt candles and incense and the smell of limestone, that also suggests a distinct sour taste. The sense of an authoritative reality would be lost without these sensations. Sitting on the pew in a church brings a taste to the mouth, which is in dialogue with the odours, materials and visual stimuli. Marble, especially when polished, triggers a subliminal sensation of taste, and coloured marbles bring a suggestion of a sweet taste to the tongue. Sensations are witnesses of the truth of reality. ”There is nothing more abstract than reality”. Giorgio Morandi, the painter of metaphysical still-lives once wrote. 40 The artist’s word ”abstract” could be replaced by the adjective ”complex”. Our real experiences are orchestrations for all the senses. A sensitive architect, artist, writer or poet, imagines this orchestrated and polyphonic entity, instead of a mere visual space. In an amazing letter Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart confesses that he does not hear his composition as a temporal continuum, note by note or page by page, but as a singular fused experience, the entire musical piece simultaneously at once. 41


 The senses are either directional or omni-directional and embracing. Focused vision is directional and it separates us from the object, space or situation that we are seeing, whereas sound and smell are omni-directional and embracing sensations. We face the object of vision, whereas we occupy the space of sound and smell. Modernity has been obsessed with clarity of form and focused vision, which both promote exteriority and control, and the separation of the subject and the object. Peripheral vision has hardly been studied at all, although it seems to be the essential medium of our spatial and existential percepts and cognitions, and especially of our emotions. Due to its fascination with focused form, modernity has undervalued peripheral perceptions and the other senses and failed to acknowledge atmospheres, feelings, tunings and moods as real and significant architectural qualities.

The fact that we have an identifiable and visible organ for each one of the five Aristotelian senses, has further guided us to think of the human sensorium as being constituted of five senses. Yet, Steinerian philosophy categorizes twelve human senses –  touch, life sense, self-movement sense, balance, smell, taste, vision, temperature sense, hearing, language sense, conceptual sense, and  ego sense 42 The Sixth Sense Reader, edited by David Howes, lists no less than 34 systems through which we are in interaction with in our environments. 43 The growing knowledge on the significance of the bacterial world in our intestines – we all have about one and half kilos of bacteria, and quite shockingly, more bacterial DNA than human DNA – has further expanded the network of our relatedness with the world. This intestinal bacterial universe has even been called ”our second brain”, in reference to the multitude of crucial communicative and regulating tasks that it performs.

It is evident, that besides the sensations of the five senses, our experience of reality includes sensations of gravity, orientation, temperature, air movement, placeness and time, as well as personal intentions, feelings of one’s own body and inner organs, memories and momentary dreams. Italo Calvino provides a memorable image for the merged material and mental worlds: ”Who are we, who is each one of us , if not a combinatoria of experience, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable”.44

Atmosphere is similarly a synthetic experiential quality, that has recently emerged in studies on perception, experience and emotion. In his recent book on atmospheres, Tonino Griffero calls such phenomena ”quasi-things” 45 The experience of atmosphere, feeling, or mood, is a complex ”quasi-thing”, which can have a decisive impact on our behaviour, mood and intention, although it does not possess materiality, form or a conceivable structure. The atmospheric experience is immediate and involuntary, as we have a feeling of our environment, weather or social situation without specifically intending it. Reality is always a complex and dynamic mixture of sensations – material, bodily and mental components – which does not form a definite figure, pattern or organization.

The shift of attention from form to experience and from visual impression to multi-sensory, fused, atmospheric and existential encounters, calls for a new design consciousness and methodology, but that would be a subject matter for another essay. Yet, it is evident that as architects and designers we need to grasp the essence of the entire human sensory reality and to sensitize ourselves to our neglected and nearly lost senses. We need to practice our senses and imagination as well as empathy. Rainer Maria Rilke advised poets to exercise their imagination as sportsmen exercise their bodies. 46 The task of architecture is to strengthen our autonomous sense of reality and self, not to create aestheticized fantasy worlds and false realities. As Alberto Giacometti writes: ”The task of art is not to imitate reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity”. 47

Fig. 5 August Rodin The kiss 1886. Marble Musée Rodin Paris.

 (This lecture is an unpublished re-written and expanded version of my lectures at the SAUL Conference on Senses in Architecture and Landscape at Katowice, Poland on 26-28 September 2018, the Conference on Soundscapes in Berlin on Friday 14 June, 2019, and  Aalto University in Helsinki on 29 September 2020)

Juhani Pallasmaa (b. 1936), architect, designer, writer, professor emeritus. Practiced design in collaboration with other architects since 1962 and in 1983-2012 through his office in Helsinki. He has held positions as Rector of the Institute of Industrial Design, Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Professor and Dean of the School of Architecture, Helsinki University of Technology, and several visiting professorships in the USA. He has taught and lectured in numerous universities in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury 2008-2014.

He has published 65 books and over 800 essays, articles and prefaces, and his writings have been translated into 37 languages. His widely known books include: The Embodied Image, The Thinking Hand, The Architecture of Image: existential space in cinema, and The Eyes of the Skin.

He is Honorary member of SAFA, AIA and RIBA, Academician of the International Academy of Architecture, and has received numerous Finnish and international awards and five Honorary Doctorates.


1    Heraclitus, Fragment 47 b, as quoted in Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes – The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1994), 27.

2    Plato, Timaeus and Critias, as quoted in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Lewin (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 1.

3    Aristotle, as quoted in Georgia Warnke, ”Ocularcentrism and Social Criticism” in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision,  David Michael Levin, ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 287.

4    Panopticon, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979).

5    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power, Book II (New York: Random House, 1968), 253.

6    Max Scheler, Vom Umsturz der Werte: Abhandlungen und Aufsätze, as quoted in David Michael Levin, The Body’s Recollection of Being (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 57.

7    Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and ITs Prospects (New York: Harcourt, Prace & World, 1961), 7.

8    Walter J Ong, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 117.

9    Walter J Ong, op.cit., 121.

10  Walter J Ong, op.cit., 12.

11  Lucien Fevre, as quoted in Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes – The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University California Press, 1884), 34.

12  Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (London and New York: Architectural Press and Frederick A Praeger, 1959), 31.

13  Eve A. Edelstein, ”Neuroscience and Design: Clinical Neuroscience at the Interface of Architecture and Health”, lecture at the Neuroscience for Architecture, Urbanism and Design Summer Intersession Program in the New School for Architecture and Design, San Diego, August 15, 2018. The writer’s lecture note.

14  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ”The Film and the New Psychology”, Sense and Non-Sense (Evaston, Illinois: Nortwestern University Press, 1964), 48.

15  Merleau-Ponty describes the notion of the flesh in his essay ”The Intertwining – The Chiasm” in The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

”My body is made of the same flesh as the world […] this flesh of my body is shared by the world”, 248.

16   Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1992), 203.

17   Henry Matisse in Georges Duthuit, Le feu des signes, 1962, 10.

18   Walter Benjamin, ”The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 217-251.

19  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as quoted in Levin, op.cit., 14.

20  John Dewey, Art as Experience (NY, New York: the Berkley Publishing Group, 1934), 123-124.

21   Ashley Montague, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 3.

22   James Turrell, ”Plato’s Cave and Light Within”,  Elephant and Butterfly: permanence and change in architecture, ed. Mikko Heikkinen (Jyväskylä: 9th Alvar Aalto Symposium, 2003), 144.

23   Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter(Dallas, TX:The Pegasus Foundation, 1983), 107.

24   A year ago I was invited to collaborate with a team of parfume chemists of IFF International Flavours & Fragrances, New York in the process of conceiving and developing a fragrance for an exhibition on novel scents in New York in the summer of 2018. I suggested the concept of an absent smell or non-smell echoing the strong nasal sensation in a snow landscape in a minus 30 Centigrade cold without any distinct smell. The exhibited scent is entitled Twilight. See my lecture ”Thought and Form: drawing and writing architecture” at the Field Kitchen Academy on 22 Aug, 2019.

25   Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 13.

26   Edward T, Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Auckland: Anchor Books, 1966); The Silent Language (New York: Anchor Books, 1973); Beyond Culture  (New York: Anchor Books, 1976).

27  Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M D Herter Norton (New York and London: WW Norton & Co, 1992), 47-48.

28   Jan Vrijman, ”Filmmakers Spacemakers”, The Berlage Papers, 11 January, 1992.

29   Jean Tardieu as quoted in Georges Perec, Tiloja ja avaruuksia (Espéces déspaces)(Helsinki: Loki-kirjat, 1992), 72.

30  Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflectins on the Cinema (London: Bodley Head, 1986),110.

31   Fritz Lang, as quoted in Peter von Bagh, ’The Death of Emotion¨, Synnyt: Sources of Contemporary Art, ed. Timo Valjakka (Helsinki: Museum of Contempoaray Art, Helsinki, 1989), 202.

32   Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude (San Diego-New York-London: Harcourt, 1990), 1.

33   Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 30.

34   Jean-Paul Sartre, ”What is literature?”, Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings , ed. Steven Priest (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 272.

35   Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ”The Film and the New Psychology”, op.cit., 48.

36   Edward Relph, Place and Non-place (London: Pion Limited, 1986), 51.

37   Virginia Woolf, TO BE COMPLETED

38   Rainer Maria Rilke in Liisa Envald, ”Lukijalle” (To the reader), Rainer Maria Rilke: Hiljainen taiteen sisin: kirjeitä 1900-1926 (Helsinki: TAI-Teos, 1997), 8.

39   Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Chicago: The UNiversity of Chicago Press, 2008), 130.

40   Giorgio Morandi, quoted by my student Vida Katarina Vidovic in Juhani Pallasmaa, one week workshop, University of Ljubljana, May 2015, worshop report, p. 55.

41   Letter of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as quoted in Anton Ehrenzweig, The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: An Introduction to a Theory of Unconscious Perception (London: Sheldon Press, 1975), 107-108.

42   Albert Soesman, Our Twelve Senses: Wellsprings of the Soul (Stroud, Glos: Hawthorn Press, 1998).

 43   The Sixth Sense Reader, ed. David Howes (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2013).

44   Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (NewYork: Vintage International, 1993),124.

45   Tonino Griffero, Quasi-Things: The Paradigm of Atmospheres (New York: Sunny Press, 2017).

46   As refered to in Robert Bly, Selectd Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: A Translation from German and Commentaries by Robert Bly (1981)

47   Alberto Giacometti, the quote came up in a workshop, see note 23, origin of the quote unidentified.