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posted May 13, 2011, 3:28 AM by Patricia Martin
(Article posted on on May 13th, 2011: )

Among other factors, the way people use public spaces is highly influenced by their environmental conditions: temperature, light, humidity, sound, odours, textures, pollution, wind speed… Thus, proposing a broader view of the environment in relation to the climate and human body becomes particularly significant in order to improve the quality of the urban space. The continuous urbanization process has changed not only the environmental properties of our surroundings, but also our relationship and interactions with it. As the artist Olafur Eliasson states:

“Our senses have been manipulated during the past hundred years, so that we believe the world is organized in a certain way. Ideally we would see things much more individually, but the acculturation or commodification of the senses prevents us from doing so. Our senses are not natural, they are culturally produced, and the commodification of our senses has generalized the way we see the world.” (Eliasson 2007)

                Olafur Eliasson & Ma Yangsong, Feelings are facts, installation UCCA 2010

During a set of radio talks in 1948, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty stated the idea that “rather than a mind and a body, man is a mind with a body, a being who can only get to the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things.” (Merleau-Ponty 2004). In his work, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the foundational role of perception in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world. Our body becomes the medium to know and experience our surrounding physical environment and therefore, the experience is dependant to each individual. According to Ittelson and Cantril, “perceiving is always done by a particular person from his own unique position in space and time and with his own combination of experiences and needs.” (Ittelson and Cantril 1954). Not only our particular body with its own characteristics, but also previous experiences, expectations, and cultural background influence significantly our environmental perception. In addition, the environment is temporally and spatially dynamic, as well as its perception changes continuously in space and time.

During the last decade, the study of perception has acquired special attention and has been addressed by physiologists, anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, urban planners and architects among others. For example, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has supported this idea within the architectural and urban realm:

“I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the facade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections; my body weight meets the mass of the cathedral door, and my hand grasps the door pull as I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and the body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.” (Pallasmaa 2005).

With that, I am proposing a new perspective to the design of public spaces taking the human body as point of view. The perceptual experience of the space represents a key issue in the success of any urban intervention. Temperature, light, humidity, sound and smell influence the way in which we use the space. In addition, individual’s culture, past experiences and expectations, together with the dynamic condition of the urban environment, as it changes during the day and the year, offers a wide range of possibilities for alternative design approaches.

Eliasson, Olafur, interview by Artinfo. (09 07, 2007).
Ittelson, William H., and Hadley Cantril. Perception: a Transactional Approach. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1954.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The World of Perception. London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2004.
Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.