Sense of Places
Reviewed by Bobby Open, January, 2005, page 88

SENSORY DESIGN
By Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2004.
$29.95 paperback, $82.95 cloth bound

Sensory Design is an excellent book, although I have to admit to being slightly confused by its title. Initially, I expected a rather prosaic discussion of why designers should concentrate as much on, for example, smell and soundscapes as vision and form. True, the book does exactly this in chapters called 'Sensory Cues' and 'Sensory Schematics', offering methods of understanding and designing architecture based on the full range of human senses. But there is so much more besides.

In fact, it's as much 'Poetics of Space' and 'Phenomenology of Perception' as 'Sensory Design'. Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty have been merged with Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Freud and Jung to create a literary, poetic and scientific analysis of how and why we experience spaces and places in the way we do. This involves personal memory and cultural grounding, as well as perception and sensory experience; sense in this instance notably including the expanded notion of hapticity, regarding touch, muscular tension, spatial compression and expansion, and awareness of temperature and humidity. The authors' train of thought is wide-ranging and engaging, all the while bringing us back to hard facts concerning real design elements like material, light, colour, threshold and decoration.

This is a serious body of work, and a rewarding object of study. Following a methodical path, the authors move from theoretical grounding (the difficult early chapters), to applied understanding (the most interesting middle chapters), and practical advice on how we could all design better buildings and places. Lip service is paid to Steven Holl, Herzog and de Meuron, Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor, so we instinctively know we are in safe hands. Students of architecture and urban design should read it, and it has the empirical content to be relevant to planning authorities and the formation of their legislation. Sensory Design is an important and thoroughly considered design polemic.

(COPYRIGHT 2005 EMAP Architecture COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group)


Joy Monice Malnar, AIA, is associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Frank Vodvarka is professor of fine arts at Loyola University Chicago. They are the coauthors of The Interior Dimension: A Theoretical Approach to Enclosed Space.