Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, October 9, 2009

Essay on Haptic Perception

Detail of Tim Hawkinson’s painting. Web download.
In his book “The eyes of the skin. Architecture and the Senses”, Juhani Pallasmaa emphasizes the significance of the tactile sense for our experience and understanding of the world, where architecture articulates the experiences of being-in-the world.

He explains the important difference between focused vision and peripheral unfocused vision. The first one, as in classic perspective, confronts us with the world. The unfocused vision immerses us in the world. “The very essence of the lived experience is moulded by hapticity and peripheral unfocused vision” (Pallasmaa,p. 10, 2005).
I’d rather clarify the concept first. Pallasmaa refers to the tactile sense, which has become more important in time.
Hapticity is a term related to organometallic compounds. “The term hapticity is used to describe how a group of contiguous atoms of a ligand are coordinated to a central atom” ( In this text, it would be correct to say “haptics” or “haptic perception”, both terms related to the sense of the touch.

“Tactus, le Touche” by Abraham Bosse. Wellcome Images Collection.

J. Gibson, in “The senses considered as perceptual systems” (1966) defined the haptic system as "The sensibility of the individual to the world adjacent to his body by use of his body", concept evidently related to body movement.

Touch has the highest rank among senses, though philosophers have ranked it differently. This contradiction goes back to the variable status proposed by Aristoteles who ranked it at the fifth order. The Arab scholar Avicenna (980-1037) provides an explanation of this conflict: Aristoteles meant that sight was honoured with the primacy, but from a point of view of natural aptitude, the sense of touch merited priority. (Martin Grunwald. Human Haptic Perception: Basics and Applications. 2008).

This is a picture of a house and a woman in Mongolia that I've downloaded from National It's an excellent example of the sensibility in textures and the drama of shadows on the walls. A shot so simple and complex at the same time. I'm sorry I didn't write the author's name.

A man in a workshop with a hand over his eyes in anguish while dropping a sharp tool with the other hand. Wellcome Images Collection.

Haptic interaction could rely on a real or virtual environment. In the last one, mechanical variables (haptic signal) will be needed to provide haptic stimuli. In architecture, any building containing mouldings, colors, textures, provide stimuli for peripheral vision, in consequence, we are integrated with space in a body experience. The best example is the barroque building, opposed to the perspectival representation, where the eye was the center of the perceptions, in a concentration of the self.

Depending on the building, there will be a hierarchy of senses and the architect should emphasize those he considers more important, according to the users; for instance, the tactile sensitivity of the blind should be enhanced by textures, but also sounds could help them. In some cultures, the senses of smell, touch, and taste have collective importance for memories, behaviour and communication. Indigenous clay and mud constructions, with their plastic properties, seem to be generated more from the haptic senses than the eye.

Mishongnovi Pueblo.

On the contrary, Le Corbusier’s famous credo, “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”, defines, without any doubt, an architecture of the eye (Pallasmaa, p. 27, 2005), it reflects the hygiene of the optical; in Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, though he uses a central perspective, the richness in details make them haptic. A contemporary city, with so many freeways, is therefore, the city of the eye, where the body is detached of the tectonic city while being inside the car in movement.

Los Angeles freeways. Picture by Ron Niebrugge.

But, tectonics –as an expression of the materials properties- has become a term with a blurry definition, when affected by humanism. Let us illustrate the concept with the Jewish Zarco family’s house description, in the words of Berekiah Zarco’s manuscripts (1507-1530 AD): “Can a house possess a body, a soul?…….As manuscript illuminators, Uncle Abraham and I had often modeled biblical dwellings on our home. For its walls we applied a milky ceruse, and to approximate the low and sagging chestnut wood ceilings which creaked alarmingly…….we applied the rich brown made from vinegar, silver filings, honey and alum. The sandy floor tiles which scratched one’s feet were given a moderated vermillion obtained from a marriage of quicksilver and sulphur”. (Richard Zimler. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, page 27). It is clear that for him –and his Master uncle- the house was a privilege for their five senses and had a mystical meaning even in its organic materials.

There is a paragraph of O.V. Milosz’ novel “L’amourese initiation”, cited by Gaston Bachelard in his book The poetics of space (p. 141. 1994 edition), that clearly shows that the spatial sensation depends on one’s cognition also, and is independent of the scale. It is an interesting example of haptic description for details in combination with time, the environment is a simple corner, -it could be any corner- between the chest and the fireplace: “you find countless remedies for boredom, and an infinite number of things that deserve to occupy your mind for all time: the musty odor of the minutes of three centuries ago; the secret meaning of the hieroglyphics in fly-dung; the triumphal arch of that mouse-hole; the frayed tapestry against which your round, bony back is lolling; the gnawing noise of your heels on the marble; the powdery sound of your sneeze…and finally, the soul of all this old dust from corners forgotten by brooms”. A tension between conscious and unconscious intentions is necessary to trigger the emotional participation of the observer. Without tactility and considerations for the human body and its senses, the buildings become unreal.
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