An economy of senses

December 4, 2013


I believe there is an economy of senses at work in architecture. Like any economy, it affects processes, optimizing certain outcomes that are considered to produce a certain utility. An economy is not inventive as long as conditions for its actors are unsecure. The economy of senses is under the influence of the normal economy of money in society, and the economy of time, learning and credits in the academic context. The economy of senses is a building block in the systems that create most architecture.

In my studio, we work exclusively with abstractions. Some create models of the site and try out geometries and volumes, expressions of card and foam. They search for the sightlines, for volumetric relationships to please the eye. Others do schematic diagrams of activity and spatial relations at hand, constructing a complex but yet simplified idea of how reality works. Others again draw plans and sections, counting the square decimetres in search for a perfect arrangement for the presumed function. The tools at use are all concerned with the eye and the brain, working smoothly into the tradition of western thinking.  

Because the economy credits certain outcomes, it influences our behaviour. Given what is scarce (= what does cost, that is time), those things tend to be foreseeable solutions, clear organisations, which in its turn lead to abstractions and the use of tools that easily and quickly communicate the abstractions, with minimal disturbance of pre-existing shared values and rules. The subject is less economic than the object. We abandon tools that can bring sexed relationships into design.

In my studio, there is a constant lack of time. The mind constructs things bigger than time will let us express, which leads to disembodiment of ideas. We try to express much with means we have learnt through, knowing that sight is an efficient sense to use. Through this forced decision – rational in relation to demand – some qualities cannot be communicated and lose their influence on the result. Under the circumstances, we do not want to change – as in all power relations, the current state is convenient to those in power.

The limitation of choice is at one hand both a prerequisite and a limit for architecture. Just as the brain of a child react to responses by removing some possibilities and promoting others, our understanding of what we create need a common ground of methods for communication – that is, communication cannot be individual, even if we can have ambivalent or differentiated interpretations – but must also allow for the dialogue with the self, independent of this economy.

In my studio, we develop a sensory relation to our abstractions – a kind of meta-tactility. We talk about the qualities of the materiality in a model, which is perceived to have both representational value but also a value in itself. We develop a sense for knowing how our computers – themselves a proof of the dominance of visual means in the current economy – work and ascribe them feelings. We carefully tune the graphic style of our drawings and filter our images to express something more than what the show technically. Those abstractions are given a value on the “market” of architectural critique. Maybe it is filling in for the missing sexed tools in our process?

I see this “phantom tactility” as proof for our receptive capabilities towards sexed modes of interaction and with our design process. So much so, that we tend to keep it even if it is not required in a certain project – it has become a habit that itself brings us utility of stability, predictability etc. – a kind of private economy often thought of as method. Thus, the method does not depend only on the economy, but also on habit or culture. It reflects Irigarays theories of “a new positive “economy” of touch and sensation which is created through shared intimate spatial relationships and histories”. I think it is this delay of adapting to economy that we must use to bring in new methods into design. Just as Irigaray, I also think that this is the best argument for the architectural education to be separate from commercial or institutional practice. In an environment where the values of outcomes can be modified, we can achieve methods with the potential to challenge the dominant architectures and unsexed modes of communication.

In my studio, we need to learn again to design from smell and sound and touch. We need to build methods and competence so that our next action when we feel the park bench or hear a door close is equally obvious to us as when we see a drawing. We need an institution that puts out the light.

–       Johan Alvfors

Reading: Rawes, P. (2007). Irigaray for Architects. Abingdon, UK.: Routledge. Chapters “Introduction” and “Touching and Sensing”

Inspirational practice: arqbauraum,


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