"We experience architecture with our whole body"

Text: Beatrice Widmark,

Behavioral Scientist

Architecture is a central part of our everyday experiences. Buildings and other architectural creations surround us pretty much everywhere and affect us both consciously and unconsciously, our movement patterns, thoughts and feelings. This makes architecture a more influencing phenomenon than we may have previously given it credit for.

An architect who talks a lot about architecture as an active player that should take on more philosophical and existential questions is Pernilla Wåhlin Norén, urban architect at Borlänge municipality. We had a chat with her about what the architecture industry is focusing on right now, how the field can be used as a tool for change, how the discipline can appeal to more senses than just sight – and more.

Hi Pernilla! What would you say is talked about in the architecture industry right now?

– Personally, I feel that the Swedish architecture policy "Policy for Designed Living Environment”, which came out in 2018, is still up to date and radical as it makes it clear that architecture is a tool for community building. Architecture is thus not only focusing on facades, it also deals with more existential issues. You have to think about context and understand that it is much broader. That it’s also a tool to counteract segregation and solve environmental problems, for example. This is something that the policy document is acknowledging and something that I, as an architect, work towards.

What do you wish that the field of architecture took more into account?

– Last spring I spoke about the built school environment at a seminar. The seminar itself was about architecture in school and it was quite philosophical. Besides me there was also a choreographer present. I talked about how one way of thinking about architecture is that you “choreograph” surroundings and also behaviors. Using the term "choreography" means that you see architecture as an active phenomenon and not passive. That is perhaps the challenge right now, that you don't see architecture as an active actor today.

– The architecture debate is often first and foremost about the surface. About the design and looks of buildings. But you have to understand that architecture is our tool to, for example, create the feeling of safety and security in a place. It's not just about the building, but also about the movement around it, how it sounds, how it smells, how it feels.

Seeing architecture as a more active player, how can the industry get better at that?

– We could create a form of "choreography model" adapted for the architecture industry. New principles and guidelines that you as an architect can relate to and which take into account all senses, behaviors, feelings, but also human value and the environment. A model that recognizes and describes how architecture affects people movement and how it is experienced through all the senses.

“Right now we mainly rely on one sense: the sight. It becomes very lacking in spirit when it is primarily the visual aspects that are in focus”

As you have mentioned, the architecture industry takes our vision into account a lot. What more senses does the field consider?

– Right now we mainly rely on one sense: sight. It becomes very lacking in spirit when it is primarily the visual aspects that are in focus.

– As far as sound is concerned, there is a rather one-sided picture of it. Within the field it’s a lot of talk about noise values, that something should have less than a certain noise value. But there are no guidelines that say, for example, that you should at least hear bird songs from this many birds. It often becomes very one-sided. There is a lot of "as long as you don't hear the sound of cars, you have achieved your goal".

– With the aim of creating a living urban environment, sound has a vital function. Some may want to hear the clink of cutlery from a nearby restaurant, cheers from a nearby soccer field, or conversations between people outside. Some think it's great, others don't.

You often refer to wanting the existential to have more space in the architecture industry. Can you elaborate what you mean?

– When I spoke at a dance seminar a while ago, I referred to Paul Ricœur. He is a french philosopher of the hermeneutic and phenomenological school and describes the relationship between architecture and the story, i.e. a story model. If you tell a story, it's about time. And architecture tells a story with the help of rooms. There are stories about all architecture, who lived there before and what the building was intended for in the past.

– In architecture, you often rationalize away the existential and often rely on laws and rules. A building meets all the requirements of the legal space you are in, which you think is enough, but where does the existential find its place in the whole? Other values are ignored, in other words.

What do you think are some strengths and weaknesses in the field of architectural knowledge?

– Strengths within the design process, I think, are that you always try to put yourself in another person's shoes. Empathy and understanding the needs and circumstances of customers takes up a lot of space in the process. That is one of its greatest strengths according to me, whether you plan to create a piece of furniture or build a larger urban area. Another strength is that we have a national architecture policy, which gives us a common way of looking at and working with architecture.

– Although the architecture industry is getting better and better at citizen dialogue, there are still some weaknesses in the type of questions that are being asked. There is a built-in citizen dialogue in the democratic planning process, which for instance says that there must be consultation when a detailed plan is drawn up. But that process can become very rational.

“The aim is not to become a big, famous architect, but to create a built environment well adapted for whoever is supposed to stay and thrive in the place”

Do you see other industries where architectural knowledge or processes can be applied?

– The handling of architectural issues looks quite similar across a range of design fields, whether you create a chair, a house, a landscape or a city. One starts from needs and a location. You have to focus on the architecture and not on you as an architect. That's what architecture and design processes are good at – thinking beyond yourself and the core. The aim is not to become a big, famous architect, but to create a built environment well adapted for whoever is supposed to stay and thrive in the place.

Pernilla is soon (14th April) releasing a new book in Swedish called "Skogen & slöjden" (Eng: "The Forest & the craft"). With the book, Pernilla wants to emphasize that learning and caring about the forest comes from being in it, and experience it with all our senses. It's when we truly understand the forest that we can take care of it.

Read more about the upcoming book here:

Skogen & slöjden - Natur & Kultur (nok.se)

Pernilla Wåhlin Norén - Natur & Kultur (nok.se)