Sensing the Built Environment Through Time

What is the relationship between vision, sound, smell, taste and touch, and the built environment? How have people perceived, experienced, and as a result used, their environment over time, and how have they designed their environment as a result of, or for specific sensual experience?  How has sensual perception and experience been a critical source for design interventions? In this seminar class we will address these and other questions that revolve around the five senses using a variety of interpretative media.

In 1961 the Canadian landscape architect Michael Hough asserted, “… there is a desperate need to create new spaces where the senses may be revived.” He considered it the “responsibility of landscape architecture to revitalize the dormant senses, and teach people to see and enjoy their surroundings through them.” Furthermore he pointed out that landscape architects had at their disposal “the forces of nature, the man-made building materials, and our five senses which can become tools in the designer’s hand to shape and mould the environment to suit social and spiritual needs.” While taste, smell, sound, and touch still often fall behind vision when it comes to the design of our built environment, there have been a number of moments throughout history when these senses have been influential for how our living environment has been shaped. Historians and anthropologists like Alain Corbin, Mark Smith, Constance Classen and David Howes have in these last two decades argued that our histories lack attention to sense perception, and they have tried to approach the subject by writing histories that focus on the sense perception in specific locations and periods. While these works and the recent development of fields like sound studies by now have provided a substantial body of work, the explicit relationship between sensory perception and the built environment has received comparatively little attention in historiography, so far.

This seminar seeks to address this lack of knowledge by introducing the current state of scholarship, determining the overlap between sensory studies and studies of the built environment, and by researching selected designs, objects, and phenomena of the built environment that have a particular relationship with sense perception.