Design with the Senses and for the Senses: An Alternative Teaching Model for Design Studio
journal article
In the 1990s, Juhani Pallasmaa wrote a compact, yet, eye-opening book expressing his growing concern about the architectural profession’s waning ability to reference all the senses of the body in the design process. Bit by bit, the perceptive chasm between the architect and architecture was widening both in the design process and in the cognitive experience of existing architecture. More than a decade later, these concerns have heightened as the ramifications of this design divide appear in the form of architecture whose divorced virtual quality has spilled over from the design process into built reality. The illusion of virtual reality– as achieved by 3D simulation in all its glories – has pulled the architect into a zone of false confidence where he/she feels that the design has come to life before it is built and that every corner and detail can be simulated and therefore understood. But can it be touched, smelt, tasted or heard? In fact, is even what we see on the screen anywhere close to what we see as we move bodily through its spaces?

This phenomenon is addressed in a design studio run by the two authors of this paper. The purpose of the design studio, which is held in the Department of Architectural Engineering, of the Faculty of Engineering of the British University in Egypt, is to design a community centre linked to a place of worship within a residential compound currently under construction on the outskirts of Cairo. The graduating class of ten students is in the final and fourth year of a program that emphasized the engineering and project management aspects of architecture at the expense of theory and history of art and architecture. The university has no humanities or liberal arts program as yet, and students have minimal contact to arts within the university system. Contact hours in design studios are limited and design is mostly computer-aided. The need to re-emphasize the physical, tactile, polemic and holistic aspects of the architectural design process is urgent, especially that this was the first graduating class of architecture in this young, privately owned university.

The design brief lent itself easily to the purpose of reinstating the body and the senses both as design tool and design purpose because of the dual iconic intimate nature of the place of worship in particular. Spirituality, although a transcendental out-of-body experience is stimulated and enhanced through physical rituals of sound, taste, smell, touch, and vision, and the design process is only successful if it constantly refers to the senses as tool and purpose.

The design studio re-instates the role of the senses in a number of ways. In addition to preparing a standard comparative report after field visits to local case-studies, students are asked to convey the effect of their case-study on one of the sense through a series of five conceptual installations each addressing one building and one sense. Installation art in itself is a foreign concept to the students and in expressing themselves through an art form that uses holistic sensory stimuli to convey its ideas, students found themselves rethinking their own design process. Furthermore, the design is grounded in a real site that they were asked to visit and report on, and in a program that was arrived at democratically through brainstorming. Finally, designs are to be developed in a tactile physical manner through modeling and sketches. Traditional orthographic representation and computer aided design will be relegated from design tool to representational tool applied to the design after it is almost fully developed. Evaluation throughout the duration of the studio is not only transparent but focuses on the student’s ability to palpably grasp and express ideas beyond graphics. As this is a studio-in-progress it remains to be seen the developments, effect and impact this approach will have on the graduating class and their final product.
al-Ibrashy, May and Gaber, Tammy. "Design with the Senses and for the Senses: An Alternative Teaching Model for Design Studio," in ArchNet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, vol. 4, issues 2/3 (2010).
Parent Publications
May al-Ibrashy and Tammy Gaber