Tactile Architecture: Does it Matter?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

In 1958, Harry Harlow famously demonstrated, in a still controversial and haunting study, that tactile stimulation can be more desirable than food. Harlow raised infant rhesus monkeys without mothers and gave them a choice between two artificial surrogate mothers. Both were constructed of wood and wire mesh.The difference was that one had a bottle of milk while the other one was covered with cloth. To most psychologists’ surprise, the monkeys bonded with the cloth mother that lacked a source of nutrition. Since then numerous studies from baby rodents to neonates have shown the importance of tactile stimulation. Yet, 50 years on, few architects have studied how a design’s tactile experience might affect its users. In all likelihood, the effects of a design’s tactile properties are probably minuscule when compared to the studies mentioned above; they are categorically different in terms of tactile engagement. Still, the effects could be meaningful and measurable when it comes to a person’s social behavior, self-perception, enjoyment of, and comfort in a building.

It is obvious that tactile stimulation doesn’t matter: At the time Harlow conducted his study, Freudians and behaviorists dominated psychology. Freudians supposed that the baby monkeys would form a bond with the “mom’s breast” due to a lack of “ego-development.” The behaviorists maintained that attachment would arise solely from the positive reinforcement of food. Both were wrong, and yet this underestimation of touch continued in the medical community until the mid 1980s. Then a classic study from the University of Miami School of Medicine showed that premature infants, kept in near-sterile conditions, suffered from a lack of tactile/kinesthetic stimulation. The neonates who received daily sessions of body stroking and limb movements grew 47% faster per day, were more active, and were released from the hospital 6 days sooner than the control group, saving $3,000 per infant. The study illustrated how the correction of a simple oversight can improve healthcare and save billions of dollars a year.

Rhesus Macaques Courtesy of Wikimedia CC License Aiwok

Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa feels that most architects are making the same oversight. In his book, The Eyes of the Skin, Pallasmaa assails the hegemony that visual aesthetics hold over the profession. The hegemonic eye, he claims, suppresses all other senses. Pallasmaa writes, “Instead of an existentially grounded plastic and spatial experience, architecture has adopted the psychological strategy of advertising and instant persuasion; buildings have turned into image products detached from existential depth and sincerity.” Perhaps Pallasmaa is right, and architects are designing buildings to look good, but not feel good. But what guidance is there for producing high quality tactile/haptic designs?

Architects could start by looking at few intriguing studies that have come out over the last ten years. For example, one study found that the individuals who were asked to hold warm items, such as a drink, were more likely to perceive others and themselves as friendlier, more trusting, and more generous than those who held cold items. Another study found that individuals enjoyed the taste of water more if it came in a firm bottle than a flimsy one. Lastly, a study that presented individuals with hard or soft objects, resumes on heavy or light clipboards, and a puzzle with smooth or rough pieces found “Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations.”

Essentially, we are mixing up metaphors with real physical sensations. This goes both ways. When participants of one study were asked to think about ethical or unethical acts they committed in the past, the ones who discussed unethical acts were more likely to ask for hand wipes than those that discussed ethical acts. They felt dirty because we associate being dirty with being bad (wash out your dirty mouth). Conversely, unkempt spaces can make us think less of others and ourselves, regardless of any real differences. The studies mentioned here and above do not directly address the architectural environment, and may be difficult to extrapolate, but they do give architects a starting point. It would truly be surprising if the tactile environments architects design do not influence our tendency to mix metaphors with physical sensations.

For example, does a heavy cold smooth door with a warm wooden handle have a different effect than a rough light warm door with a cold steel handle? We associate heaviness with weightiness and subsequently seriousness. Does a door’s weight influence our perceptions of a space as we enter it? Could the tactile experience of the floors and walls influence people’s perceptions of and attitudes towards others, or is there not enough tactile engagement to be significant? Perhaps the right tactile mixture would make the building more conducive to its program. One room might need to expresses an air of seriousness while also feeling warm and welcoming. Another room might need to be conducive to concentration while another to collaboration, or both. These ideas seem simple enough to test, and the results might be invaluable to architects.

By overlooking the tactile experience architects might be limiting the power of their designs. If tactile stimulation has the ability to positively influence behavior it can also negatively influence behavior. Similar to the neonatal studies, this calls into questions the one-dimensional tactile experiences of many contemporary buildings. For example, do architects like Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind achieve the desired feeling in their visually provocative buildings? In many of their buildings, they almost exclusively use materials that are tactilely cold, hard, often relatively smooth and heavy. What are the physiological and social effects of these environments? Perhaps there is nothing to it, but it is better to study than overlook.

ROCA London Gallery / Zaha Hadid Architects Courtesy of ROCA

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.

Tverrfjellhytta / Snøhetta © diephotodesigner.de

Photographs: diephotodesigner.de Courtesy of ROCA Aiwok

Harlow, Harry. “The Nature of Love.” American Psychologist. Vol. 13, 1958, p. 673-685.

Schanberg, Saul M., Gary Evoniuk, and Cynthia M. Kuhn. “Tactile and Nutritional Aspects of Maternal Care: Specific Regulators of Neuroendocrine Function and Cellular Development,” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. Vol. 175, 1984, p. 135-146.

Field, Tiffany M., Saul Schanberg, Frank Scafidi, Charles R. Bauer, Nitza Vega-Lahr, Robert Garcia, Jerome Nystrom, and Cynthia M. Kuhn. “Tactile/Kinesthetic Stimulation Effects on Preterm Neonates,” Pediatrics. Volume 77 No. 5 1986.

Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping - Now Revised and Updated. Holt Paperbacks, 2004. Kindle Location 2241-71

Field, Tiffany M., Saul Schanberg, Frank Scafidi, Charles R. Bauer, Nitza Vega-Lahr, Robert Garcia, Jerome Nystrom, and Cynthia M. Kuhn. “Tactile/Kinesthetic Stimulation Effects on Preterm Neonates,” Pediatrics. Volume 77 No. 5 1986.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin, Wiley & Sons, (West Sussex, England), 2005 p. 30.

(I highly recommend reading the following studies. They are amazingly entertaining and interesting.)

Williams, Lawrence E. and John A. Bargh. “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth,” Science. Vol. 322 2008 p. 606-607.

Krishna, Aradhna and Maureen Morrin. “Does Touch Affect Taste? The Perceptual Transfer of Product Container Haptic Cues,” Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 34, 2008, p. 807-818.

Ackerman, Joshua M., Christopher C. Nocera, John A. Bargh. “Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions,” Science. Vol. 328, 2010, p. 1712-1715.

Zhong, Chen-Bo and Katie Liljenquist. “Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing.” Science. Vol 313, 2006, 1451-1452.

Schnall, Simone, Johthan Haidt, Gerald L. Clore, and Alexander H. Jordan. “Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol. 34, 2008, p. 1096-1109.

About this author
Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Tactile Architecture: Does it Matter?" 23 Nov 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/186499/tactile-architecture-does-it-matter> ISSN 0719-8884

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