Architecture is all visual, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

Imagine you have just entered the lobby of a luxurious hotel. You gasp, in awe of its striking, eight-story high lobby, with a water feature cascading down at its centre and a soft pile carpet beneath your feet. Before you check in, you pay a visit to the washrooms and are welcomed with a clean, earthy waft of cedar wood - or is it cypress? You inhale deeply; it is comforting. Your eyes then turn to the white Corian vanity units. They look so inviting you can't resist running your fingers along the surface; it feels as smooth as silk, polished to perfection.

What you have just experienced is multi-sensory design, the kind you could never truly savour with your eyes only. The kind that engages all five of your senses. You saw the wonderful height of the lobby, you heard the waterfall, you perceived the scent of cedar wood in the washroom and you felt the polished stone caress your skin.

What about taste, you may ask? It seems implausible for architecture to stimulate our taste buds, but wasn’t it Dali who wrote of the "edible beauty" of Art Nouveau architecture after all? You might be surprised at how powerful a space can be and even more surprised at the emotions it may trigger.

Architecture can elicit a wide array of emotions

Joolz Headquarters in Amsterdam

It is true that architecture can move us. It can bring back memories and elicit strong emotions. It can be intimidating just like it can be comforting. We might feel safe amidst the books of an airy, public library just like we might feel oppressed in the fusty, sombre atmosphere of an office reception area.

Whatever the emotion conveyed, this interaction between architecture and people is never the same. So, what is it that sparks all of these emotions and why do we react differently to a space? What can architects and landlords learn from multi-sensory design and how can they use it to create commercial spaces that would be leased in a heartbeat?

Let's go back to our luxurious hotel lobby and imagine a slightly altered scenario. The eight-story high lobby is still there, in fact, the reception area is now strewn with beautiful, modern art paintings. The water feature has been replaced by an abstract anodised aluminium sculpture, reflected in the marble floor. As for the washrooms, they are still elegant but the scent is gone and the Corian has been replaced with laminate.

Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses

Juhani Pallasmaa

This is retinal-experienced architecture and, at first glance, it appears to be enough. The space is well-designed, but it lacks character and more importantly, it lacks depth. It is one-dimensional.

What can we change? How can we design multi-dimensional spaces? How can landlords improve their commercial space to appeal to more tenants and enhance their revenues?

Designing for the senses

“Architects who understand their users’ needs and feelings design successful buildings” illustrator and architectural designer Justine Bourland told Republic. “I have always been curious to know how the environment we live in has an impact on our perception of space” she continues to say, “we started brainstorming on a system using a polygraph to measure people’s heartbeat and moisture. This is an efficient way to read people’s reaction to their environment.” A few months later, the device in question, created by Bourland and three of her colleagues, existed in real form and experiments were conducted on over one hundred people. 

The outcome was fascinating. The polygraph showed more activity in an urban setting – which meant more stress – and less activity by the sea. “The results have only confirmed that our urban environment is not adapted to our needs anymore” Bourland points out, raising an important question: how can we design better spaces?

Landlords and developers can learn a lot from this experiment. A commercial property designed for the senses could easily command higher rent as the tenant will be engaged in more ways than one. Bourland is well aware of the magnitude of workplace design: “People living or commuting to a city spend most of their time at work. Workplace design should be just as important as that of people’s home” she says, urging landlords to invest more time and money in the workplace design strategy.

Architecture cannot exist without human habitation. The interaction between environment and body is constant and according to Bourland, it “should be the architect’s priority”. When we experience a space, we experience it through our senses and as we all know, we have five of those. That is five different resources for designers to explore and tap into, five different resources often forgotten by landlords attempting to lease a space that only stimulates one, maybe two senses.

So how exactly do we design for the senses and why will your business profit from it? Let’s take it one sense at a time.

1.   Sight –  the primary sense

Torres de Satelite by Luis Barragan
Torres de Satélite, 1958, Barragan and sculptor Mathias Goeritz.

Architects use vision like spiders spin a web – instinctively. Le Corbusier, the icon of modern architecture reinforced the idea that vision is at the heart of everything when he wrote "I exist in life only on the condition that I see" and, as such, it comes as no surprise that architects, furniture designers, landlords, developers, tenants even, all rely on the power of sight.

Sight is what allows us to perceive light, form and colour. Take the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragan, otherwise known as the architect of colour. Barragan’s style can be recognised not only from the distinctive colour palettes he uses but also the serenity permeating his architecture.

Granted, we could not fully comprehend Barragan’s work without our sense of sight, but what makes the urban sculpture above particularly successful is not only the colour palette but also the choice of material. Notice every concrete prism features horizontal shutter marks that add character to the entrance of Satélite, one of Mexico City’s satellite towns. Yes, colour is at the crux of Barragan’s work, but what about materiality?

2.   Touch – the smooth and the rough

castelvecchio step detail

Materials come in all forms – some are polished, others are raw, some are warm, others are cold, some are even made to interact with their surroundings. Juhani Pallasmaa believes tactility leaves less room for mistakes than sight, no illusions, no trickery.  

Let’s consider all the factors: texture, weight, density, heat, are all related to the sense of touch. That leaves a lot of room for architects to experiment with materials and stimulate our senses.

One architect in particular is known for his instinctive approach to materials and attention to detail: if you haven’t already, meet one of the most enigmatic architects of the 20th century, Carlo Scarpa.

The work of Scarpa is a prime example of multi-sensory design. Bringing together time-honoured crafts and modern manufacturing processes, the Italian architect has embraced contrasts and made them his trademark. His renovation of the Castelvecchio museum in Verona, completed in 1964, is an ode to materials and tactility.

Everything, from the walls adorned with various shades of Prun stone, to the sophisticated combination of steel and concrete throughout the space, reflects the architect’s love for materials.

castelvecchio by Carlo Scarpa

Justine Bourland reminds us of the influence materials have over our perception of space: “The design process should follow questions such as what the user will touch, and so what kind of material will be used?” Such design process does not stop at the sense of sight and in the case of the Castelvecchio Museum, pictures struggle to do it justice because our eyes are not enough to comprehend the space.

3.   Smell –  the untapped design resource

Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center
Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, by Perkins + Will

Scents trigger memories, we associate spatial qualities to them: "it smells like home", "it smells like a hospital". If cleverly used, these associations could be utilised in architecture to increase certain emotions, to create a complete brand experience or even, like the Chinese used to with beautifully engineered incense clocks, to tell the time.

Using our olfactory sense in architecture goes beyond plugging in an air freshener. It means tapping into fragrant construction materials to create a naturally scented environment: some trees emanate a resinous perfume and much of the wood used in construction or furniture, like juniper wood, cedar of Lebanon, Atlas cedar, cypress, Thuja or Laurel emanates a particular scent.

So ask yourself – what would a modern office reception smell like? Or a luxurious washroom? Now push the boundaries of this default smell. What materials could you use to create an entirely uplifted olfactory experience for your clients or tenants?

4.   Sound - the invisible that can change a space

Low ceilings can be heard. Open doors, nearby walls, tall columns all have their own reverberation time, their own resonance, and their own low or high-frequency energy.

A change in acoustics can have an impact on the entire space. Deep pile carpets create an aural sense of warmth while marble floors and glass walls convey an aural sense of coldness. It is all about reverberation time. 

I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture

So how can our hearing be stimulated in architecture? Ambient music is an obvious example. Water is an underrated one. Acoustics is key. In the words of acoustic consultant Julian Treasure, “It's time to start designing for our ears”. In a 2012 TED talk,  Treasure talked about "invisible architecture", stating that poor sound affects our health, our education and our productivity in the workplace. And it doesn’t cost a leg and an arm to fix this – acoustic treatments, sound absorbing materials, clever space planning, are all viable solutions to minimise noise levels and improve our behaviour.  

5.   Taste - the bitter and the sweet

Meeting room inside Cision's Chicago office
Cision's Chicago office, by Eastlake Studio

"There is a subtle transference between tactile and taste experiences. Vision becomes transferred to taste as well; certain colours and delicate details evoke oral sensations. A delicately coloured polished stone surface is subliminally sensed by the tongue" says Pallasmaa.

Yes, the sense of taste is strongly related to spaces such as grocery stores, restaurants or bakeries but can’t we use those associations we make in other environments? What do bitterness, sweetness or saltiness look like? Using colours to recall tastes can add depth and character to a space. Paint the wall a bitter chocolate brown, punctuate the space with zesty orange accents… It's all about associations.

Five senses or more?

Rebecca Maxwell is a writer who lost her sight at age three. In a radio broadcast called “Beyond Appearances – Architecture and the Senses”, Maxwell invites those of us who see and design only with our eyes to experience our surroundings in a different way by considering a series of additional senses.

“I believe that there are a lot more senses. We haven't identified them and we don't use them. I think by identifying them we would begin to turn them on, as it were. You see, I think there is a sense of pressure, a sense of balance, a sense of rhythm, a sense of movement, a sense of life, a sense of warmth, even a sense of self, which psychology is beginning to recognise.” That is a lot of senses and a lot of factors for landlords to consider when renting a space. Is it oppressing or is it comforting? Is it inviting?

Human experience is multi-sensory

Maxwell highlights what most of us forget: architecture can impart feelings that will vary from one person to the next. Why? Because we perceive certain architectural atmospheres differently and that is an important aspect to keep in mind when leasing a commercial space.

The hands want to see, the eyes want to caress


It is not necessary to design for all senses at once of course but landlords should understand a space can be stimulating in more ways than one. Envision your space like a finely tuned instrument that can interact with its occupants through a wide array of senses. Who is your target and what can you do to find satisfied tenants faster? Design for the senses.

We asked Justine Bourland what building she would like to bring her Time Machine into and she said the Opera House of Sydney. “I can imagine the device would reveal a certain calmness at the start of the visit and excitement at the end, when the user finally walks into the main hall while listening to the musicians play, surrounded by this architectural masterpiece”.

If the Time Machine were yours, would you dare to use it in the commercial property you are renting? What do you think the results would be?

Made in Bulgaria, raised in Morocco, "matured" in the UK, Elissaveta is our Editor-in-Chief. Her career started in the field of architecture and design where she developed a talent for creative thinking and an eye for aesthetics. In 2014, she found her calling in design journalism and now has over three years’ experience in writing about design & architecture.