Sense of the City Exhibition Catalogue
Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal
October 2005

"Architecture of the Senses"
David Howes

An intense new focus on the cultural life of the senses is sweeping the human sciences1 and crossing over into other disciplines, including architecture and urban studies. This revolution in the study of perception highlights the fact that the senses are constructed and lived differently in different societies and periods. The perceptual is cultural and political, and not simply (as psychologists and neuroscientists would have it) a matter of cognitive processes or neurological mechanisms located in the individual subject.

The sociality of the senses and sensations is brought out well in the following quote from Constance Classen's "Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses," which introduces the key notion of the “sensory model" as a cultural and historical formation:

When we examine the meanings associated with various sensory faculties and sensations in different cultures we find a cornucopia of potent sensory symbolism. Sight may be linked to reason or to witchcraft, taste may be used as a metaphor for aesthetic discrimination or for sexual experience, an odour may signify sanctity or sin, political power or social exclusion. Together, these sensory meanings and values form the sensory model espoused by a society, according to which the members of that society 'make sense' of the world, or translate sensory perceptions and concepts into a particular 'worldview.' There will likely be challenges to this model from within the society, persons and groups who differ on certain sensory values, yet this model will provide the basic perceptual paradigm to be followed or resisted.2

The emergence of sensory studies, as this dynamic new area of inquiry could be called, has come at the end of a long series of turns in the human sciences. For instance, in addition to the openings described in the box “Sensory Stirrings,” there was the linguistic turn of the 1960s and 70s inspired by Saussurian linguistics (and Wittgenstein's notion of language games) that gave us the idea of culture as "structured like a language" or "text" and of knowledge as a function of "discourse." This was followed by the pictorial turn of the 1980s, which emphasized the role of visual imagery in human communication -- particularly in our "civilization of the image" -- and gave rise to the ever-expanding field of visual culture studies. The 1990s witnessed two new developments: the corporeal turn, which introduced the notion of "embodiment" as a paradigm for cultural analysis, and the material turn, which directed attention to the physical infrastructure of the social world, giving birth to material culture studies.

While these different turns represent important shifts in models of interpretation, the emergent focus on the cultural life of the senses is more in the nature of a revolution. That is, the sensorial revolution in the human sciences encompasses and builds on the insights of each of these approaches, but also seeks to correct for their excesses -- offsetting the verbocentrism of the linguistic turn, the visualism of the pictorial turn, the materialism of the material turn, for the latter shift occludes the multisensoriality of objects and architectures even as it stresses their physicality -- by emphasizing the dynamic, relational (intersensory, multimedia) nature of our everyday engagement with the world. In this essay, I would like to trace some expressions of the sensorial revolution in the fields of human geography, social history, urban anthropology, and finally architecture, in order to show what a focus on the senses can contribute to our understanding of the physical and built environment. In place of "reading" or "visualizing" the city (or analyzing it as the "materialization" of a given set of social values), this essay delves into the significance of "sensing" the city through multiple sensory modalities.

Geography of the Senses

In Landscapes of the Mind, geographer J. Douglas Porteous notes that: "Notwithstanding the holistic nature of environmental experience, few researchers have attempted to interpret it in a holistic [or multisensory] manner."3 He is critical of the planning literature that pays lip service to the notion of the multisensoriality of the urban landscape, but then quickly descends into a discussion of merely visual aesthetics, and he is particularly critical of the trend towards satellite-generated data produced by remote-sensing. Porteous himself advocates a return to a "ground-truthing" mode of exploration for geoscientists and travellers alike, which he calls "intimate-sensing."

Remote sensing is clean, cold, detached, easy. Intimate sensing, especially in the Third World, is complex, difficult, and often filthy. The world is found to be untidy rather than neat. But intimate sensing is rich, warm, involved ... and the rewards involve dimensions other than the intellectual.4

Porteous discloses, in intimate detail, how our sense of space and the character of place are conditioned by the diverse deliverances and interplay of the senses. Different senses produce different takes on the same space, and while auditory and olfactory perception are discontinuous and fragmentary in character, tactile perception is aggregative, and visual perception is detached and summative. Breaking up the idea of landscape into a multiplicity of sound-, smell- (and other sensory as well as imaginary) scapes, Porteous presents an analysis of the acoustic ambience of the city of Vancouver, and a redolent (if stereotypical) description of the "peculiar smell" of India: "half-corrupt, half-aromatic, a mixture of dung, sweat, heat, dust, rotting vegetation, [oil] and spices."5

Landscapes of the Mind is indeed rich in "non-intellectual rewards," though Porteous's account remains open to criticism for the way in which it essentializes the senses by failing to inquire into how the sensorium is constructed in the actual cultures of the geographic areas on which he trains our attention. For example, while the Western observer who walks down a swampy Bangkok slum lane will find his or her nostrils assailed by the stench of rotting refuse, local residents find meaning in such effluvia, because they understand the smells in cyclical, rather than purely spatial, terms. That is, those inhabitants who have migrated to the city from rural areas relate to the garbage and to its smells in terms deriving from the olfactory cycle in the rural environment, where "the odious smell of refuse, through ecological recycling,... [becomes] the pleasant smell of the life-giving fertilizer."6

The Senses in History

Sensory history seeks to enliven the dry bones of history and put us in touch with the past through the analysis of the sensory practices and ideologies that produced the distinctive sensibilities of different historical periods. For example, one leading study reconstructs the acoustic world of Elizabethan England, another explores the varieties of haptic experience in Renaissance culture, while a third, entitled The Foul and the Fragrant gives us a whiff of pre- and post-revolutionary France.7

One of the most prominent themes of this literature is the separation of sight from the other senses in the sensory model of modernity. In premodernity, the senses were considered as a set, and each sense was correlated to a different element: sight to fire and light, hearing to air, smell to vapour, taste to water, and touch to earth.8 All of the senses, like all of the elements, were integral to the epistemology and ontology of the universe. This elemental understanding of the architecture of the senses came undone during the Enlightenment, when the association of vision with reason became entrenched, and the progressive rationalization of society became identified with the increasing visualization of society and space.

In Seeing Like a State, social theorist James Scott exposes how modern statecraft depends on rendering complex living realities "legible" through the use of cadastral maps and miniature models of towns and cities.9 These maps and models have the effect of simplifying and remaking that which they represent in the interests of large-scale social engineering. Formal, geometric simplicity and functional separation and efficiency (i.e., zoned spaces) would become the new standard for urban design, marginalizing all of the spontaneous ways in which actual human subjects create order and make sense of the city. It is one of the grand ironies of modernity that the grand plans rarely achieved their intended effects, and often contributed to disorder instead of curbing it. This is because the "tunnel vision" of the modern state is no substitute for the "eyes on the street" of neighbourhood residents, as Jane Jacobs exposed in her well-known treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.10 Multiple or cross-uses of spaces, rather than single-purpose zones, represent a far more effective means of promoting informal social order because of the "foot traffic" they generate and concomitant opportunities for monitoring the conduct of one's fellow citizens, not to mention enjoying their company. Jacobs achieved her insights by sensing the city as a pedestrian would, rather than seeing it from an airplane as God and the planners are wont to do.

According to Scott, the paradigm case of modernizing vision imposing its logic on the organization of urban space is Brasília, the administrative city par excellence. With its great voids between superquadra, and strictly geometric and egalitarian facades, Brasília realized the "formal order and functional segregation [envisioned by its planners] ... at the cost of a sensorily impoverished and monotonous environment."11 First-generation residents of this model city coined the term brasilite, meaning roughly Brasíl(ia)-itis, to connote their traumatic reaction to -- and rejection of -- the placelessness and anonymity of life in the capital city.
Many of the themes in Scott's Seeing Like a State are echoed and amplified in Flesh and Stone by Richard Sennett, another academic at odds with the sensory order of modernity. Sennett sets out to write "a history of the city told through people's bodily experience ... from ancient Athens to modern New York." He laments "the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern buildings; the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment."12 Sennett lays the blame for this condition on the phenomenon of urban sprawl, which gives rise to the dispersal of the population to the discontinuous geography of suburbia, and the way in which modern "technologies of motion," such as cars and highways, elevators, and movie theatres, function like sheaths or cocoons -- transporting us effortlessly from point to point, while at the same time insulating our bodies from physical stimuli. Sennett detects a pervasive fear of touch behind these developments which, by giving us "freedom from resistance," only serve to increase our passivity and diminish our capacities for empathy or meaningful engagement in public life (the domain of alterity). Sennett holds up the example of ancient Athens, where life was lived out of doors, at least by men, and nakedness was not uncommon in public (at the Olympic games, in the public baths), as a culture that honoured the dignity and diversity of bodies. "What will make modern people more aware of each other, more physically responsive?" Sennett asks.13 No determinate answer is forthcoming from the guided walk he takes us on from Athens, via medieval Paris, Renaissance Venice, and other sites down to Greenwich Village (his own cul-de-sac), but the implication is that only a revolution in the senses will bring about the desired revolution in society.

In the work of social theorists such as Scott and Sennett, social critique and architectural critique begin with sensory critique. The senses become the sentinels or theoreticians of society and space.14 This sensualization of theory, which resists the traditional identification of theorizing with "gazing upon" (in Greek, theorein) some object, opens up many avenues for sensing the city in bold and potentially liberating new ways. In the next section, we shall explore how refiguring the senses is not an exclusive preserve of academics, but a vital dimension of everyday practice.

Street Sense: Sensory Ethnography and the City

Statue Square in Central Hong Kong, with its looming bank towers, is a monument to the vibrant business culture of one of Asia's “miracle” economies. Of a Sunday, however, when Central is empty of business people and closed to traffic, it acquires a very different atmosphere, as upwards of 100,000 Filipino domestic workers flock to the city core and transform it into a space of leisure and pleasure with a distinctive Filipino flavour. As urban ethnographer Lisa Law relates in "Home Cooking," melodic cries of "peso, peso, pesooooo!" ring out from informal currency-exchangers; there are long, chattering lines at public telephones as the women take turns phoning home; beauticians set up shop on the sidewalks to offer manicures and hairdos; groups of friends pose for photographs and read out letters from distant loved ones; the smell of clove cigarettes scents the air; and, the open ground floor of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank becomes crowded with women seated on straw mats eating pinaket or adobo. Such food represents "exotic" cuisine in the eyes of the Chinese, but it is food that exudes the aromas and textures of "home" for the Filipinas themselves, who eat it with their hands instead of chopsticks, because this is said to enhance its flavour. Central Hong Kong becomes the spectacle known as "Little Manilla" for a day -- a conscious invention of home-away-from-home for those who, as live-in domestic workers, are forced to abide by Chinese cultural conventions for the rest of the week.
This "domestication," as it were, of public space by the domestic workforce is denounced on aesthetic and hygienic grounds by the members of the dominant society in letters to local newspapers. They would prefer their servants to remain out of sight (and smell), and not interfere with the image Hong Kong wishes to project of itself as a global financial centre, all the while ignoring the role that migrant workers, and not just bankers, have played in Hong Kong's commercial success. This conflict, within Hong Kong society, over the sensuous (re)construction of space by the migrant workers during their leisure hours, testifies to the politics of differing (dominant/subaltern) sensory strategies for making sense of the same place, and calls attention to the multicultural tensions embedded in the city's urban fabric.

Lisa Law observes that "the senses are often assumed to be an intrinsic property of the body -- a natural and unmediated aspect of human being,” whereas her analysis of the "production of an alternative sensorium" in the case of Central/Little Manilla suggests that "the senses are far from innocent: the senses are a situated practice that can shed light on the way bodies experience different spaces of culture.”15 The senses are political. This point is further illustrated by another landmark work in the new urban anthropology, Christoph Neidhart's fascinating study of the senses under and after Socialism in Russia's Carnival: The Smells, Sights, and Sounds of Transition. Neidhart begins by tracing the visible fallout of the transition from a centrally-planned to a market economy in Post-Soviet society. Under Socialism, Russian architecture was reduced to "the assembly of prefabricated concrete elements organized by the ministry of construction"; Soviet cities looked grey and faceless, except for the red banners with the heroic portraits of Marx and Lenin that adorned public buildings; and there were no apparent fashion trends, since everyone aspired to the same standard of "cloth-coat proletarian respectability" and individualism was viewed with suspicion.16 In the wake of the carnival-revolution of 1991 led by Boris Yeltsin, images of Western models (Claudia Schiffer, the Marlboro Man) have replaced those of Marx and Lenin; "newly erected buildings display a great and often confusing variety of styles"; and state uniforms have been exchanged for suits and printed dresses.17 Not only the look, but the fit and texture of Russian clothing has changed dramatically as a result of the influx of Western imports: shoes that do not pinch and are waterproof instead of soaking up water, and summer shirts of cotton instead of Soviet polyester, which is said to have had the suppleness of a shower curtain. Just as Russian apparel has "come a long way" in the Post-Soviet era, so have the self-perceptions of those who wear it, according to Neidhart.
A new olfactory regime has also taken shape. "Soviet streets smelled of diesel and dust, Soviet houses of cabbage and chlorine,… staircases were musky and reeked of garbage and cat urine," whereas in Post-Soviet society, many industrial plants have shut down, leading to a corresponding diminution in air pollution, and numerous Western-style home and cosmetic products, including deodorants and perfumes, have come on the market, with the result that many people no longer give off the smell of their homes.18 In the sphere of cuisine, the burgeoning number of restaurants boasting Western-style menus with a clear order of dishes (there was no temporal order to the traditional Russian way of dining) has spelled the end of the longstanding equation of sausage and vodka with well-being; indeed, according to Neidhart, "by eating foreign food, Russians [have] learned to accept and even like the diversity of the world."19

It is in the domain of sound that the most extreme manifestations of the transition have registered. "The Soviet power wanted to reach its subjects anywhere, anytime, and so created a system of loudspeakers and radios."20 The fixed-wire radios in Soviet hotel rooms could be turned down, but not off, and were limited to state-sponsored channels that broadcast news of what ought to happen (in the eyes of the State), not what was happening. The radios were even rumoured to be two-way systems, so that the state could eavesdrop on its citizens. Acoustic privacy was at a minimum. In the Post-Soviet era, the state monopoly over the soundwaves has been broken, and formerly underground sounds, such as jazz and rock, can be heard anywhere, anytime, and at a volume that drowns out the voice of the state. Nor is there any longer the same reticence about conversing openly with foreigners in hotel rooms, or elsewhere.

The answer to the question with which Neidhart opens his sensory ethnography of contemporary life in the former USSR: "Is [Russian] democracy visible?" would thus appear to be a resounding yes. The senses are indeed "subjected to new and very different sensations," and "the increasing plurality in appearances" would seem to indicate that the transition is irreversible.21 Nevertheless, there is evidence of countertendencies to the unilinear progression towards a greater diversity and refinement of sensations that Neidhart sketches, such as the rise of Ostalgie in the former German Democratic Republic, namely, people preferring Soviet-made goods to western imports because of their "cruder" sensory qualities and identity-confirming characteristics (an identity now lost).22 The sensorial revolution since the fall of the Wall is not over yet.

Architecture of the Senses

How might the insights (inscents, insounds, etc.) of the emergent fields of sensory geography, sensory history, and sensory ethnography be employed by architects and urban planners? How might the architecture of the senses -- i.e., the study of the cultural construction of the sensorium in different times and places -- help inspire an architecture for the senses? It bears noting that in the 1960s architects and urban planners were already sensitized to this issue, if only partially, by the works of Marshall McLuhan and E.T. Hall, who introduced the notions of “sense-ratio” and “proxemics,” respectively.23 It is only in recent years, however, that the theorization of an architecture of and for the senses has begun to receive serious attention, thanks to a growing series of works in sensory architecture, and the staging of exhibitions, such as the current one, on the sensory qualities of the material world and their social significance.

The sensorial revolution in architecture is apparent in even the most visualist of treatises, such as Witold Rybczynski's The Look of Architecture which, for all its emphasis on retinal impressions, on "style," nevertheless acknowledges that: "Although architecture is often defined in terms of abstractions such as space, light and volume, buildings are above all physical artifacts. The experience of architecture is palpable: the grain of wood, the veined surface of marble, the cold precision of steel, the textured pattern of brick."24 In other words (my own words), the essence of a building lies in the articulation of its materials and in the atmosphere it condenses in its substance, and this is something that no picture can convey, as Rybczynski also insists, which is another point at odds with the whole visualist thrust of his thesis on style as being the thing in architecture.25
Juhani Pallasmaa goes further in The Eyes of the Skin. He proclaims that: "Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses" -- all of the senses, playing off and into each other.26 He holds up the work of his Finnish countryman Alvar Aalto as an example of what he calls "sensory realism," on account of the richness of its textures and acoustics, and as a precursor of the current aspiration for a "haptic architecture." Haptic architecture, as anticipated by Aalto and theorized by Pallasmaa, aspires to plasticity, tactility, and intimacy in a bold rebuke to Modernist architecture's striving for clarity, transparency, and weightlessness. The opacity and solidity of Aalto's sensuous structures would likely appeal to Richard Sennett's sensibilities, on account of the resistance they afford.
In Sensory Design, Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka argue "for an architecture that views the sensory response and memory of human beings as critical functions of the building, and thus vital to the design process."27 A house should be "constructed of sensation and memory" and not merely function as "a machine for living" (in Le Corbusier's famous phrase). Their book is a compendium of sensory research in aid of an architecture for the senses, and puts forward many inspired (and inspiring) schematics and tools (such as Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, which enables a “multisensory understanding of spatial design”) that can be used to design ends. There is, however, at least one very serious problem with Malnar and Vodvarka's attempt to recuperate the senses for architectural practice: In their effort to develop tools for calculating and predicting sensory response, they occasionally lose track of the dual meaning inherent in what it means to “sense” something -- be that something a building or another living being. Sensing involves a fusion of sensation and signification, of stimulus and meaning. Technologies such as CAVE may enable an understanding of the former, but it takes an ethnographer to grasp the latter. Furthermore, tools such as CAVE occlude the role of some senses in the production of architectural experience, while extending the roles of others (e.g., sight over smell, kinaesthesia over texture), and thus serve to perpetuate certain sensory and social hierarchies.
This is where, it seems to me, the new urban anthropology of the senses, with its emphasis on discerning the meanings and politics of perception, has a key role to play in taking the sensorial revolution in architecture a step further. By foregrounding the role of all the senses as mediators of experience, and exploring how different people bring their senses to bear upon the urban environment in culturally conditioned -- yet always strategic -- ways, sensory ethnography provides a vibrant means for architects and planners to enhance their sense of the polysensoriality of the city and imagine how to design or redesign it in sensuously fitting and stimulating new ways.


1. Thus, the senses mediate between mind and body, idea and object, self and environment. The senses are everywhere.

2. Constance Classen, "Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses," International Social Science Journal 153 (1997), 401, 402.

3. J. Douglas Porteous, Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Sense and Metaphor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 6. Other landmark studies in the geography of the senses include Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies (London: Routledge, 1994), and Yi-Fu Tuan, Passing Strange and Wonderful (New York: Kodansha International, 1995).

4. Porteous, 201

5. Ibid., 29

6. Erik Cohen, "The Broken Cycle: Smell in a Bangkok Soi (Lane)," Ethnos 53 (1988), 37, 38. The cycle being broken in the urban environment, the smells of refuse are not necessarily pleasant to the lane residents, but nor are they intrinsically offensive.

7. Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Elizabeth Harvey, ed., Sensible Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986).

8. See Louise Vinge, The Five Senses: Studies in a Literary Tradition (Lund, Sweden: Royal Society of Letters, 1975); Constance Classen, The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination (London: Routledge, 1998). These two works trace the changing fortunes of the senses in Western history. On the fate of the elements, such as water, see Ivan Illich, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness (Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1985).

9. James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

10. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).

11. Scott, 126.

12. Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. (New York: Norton, 1994), 15.

13. Sennett, 17.

14. On sensualizing theory see David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 238 n. 3.

15. Lisa Law, "Home Cooking: Filipino Women and Geographies of the Senses in Hong Kong," in Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, ed. D. Howes (Oxford: Berg, 2004), 225.

16. Christoph Neidhart, Russia's Carnival: The Smells, Sights, and Sounds of Transition (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 55, 34. Other examples of this new genre, which is grounded in the methodology of "participant sensation" (or using the senses as a lens through which to analyze and critique urban experience) include: Robert Desjarlais, Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood among the Homeless (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); Judith Farquhar, Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-socialist China (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); and Christopher Fletcher, "Dystoposthesia: Emplacing Environmental Sensitivities," in Empire of the Senses, ed. D. Howes (Oxford: Berg, 2004).

17. Neidhart, 34.

18. Ibid., 90.

19. Ibid., 100.

20. Ibid., 80.

21. Ibid., 111, 2.

22. See David Howes, "Hyperaesthesia, or The Sensual Logic of Late Capitalism," in Empire of the Senses, ed. D. Howes (Oxford: Berg, 2004), 281, 294--95.

23. See the discussion of McLuhan and Hall's work in Howes, Sensual Relations, xix--xx, 14--17, as well as Marshall McLuhan, "Inside the Five Sense Sensorium" in Empire of the Senses, ed. D. Howes (Oxford: Berg, 2004), 43 (originally published in The Canadian Architect, 1961).

24. Witold Rybczynski, The Look of Architecture (New York: The New York Public Library, 2001), 89.

25. Ibid., 13--15.

26. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (London: Academy Editions), 50.

27. Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka, Sensory Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 287.