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Architecture for the Senses

A view looking up to the skylight at the Levitated Toy Factory in Albuquerque, where unexpected juxtapositions provide visual interest. The building won the 2014 AIA Albuquerque Honor Award for its adaptive reuse of the building that once housed the Albuquerque Journal reporters and the press association. DNCA Architects brought natural light into the heart of the building and included flexible gallery and education spaces.

Designing a beautiful, nurturing environment involves more than just visual appeal

By Nancy Zimmerman

Most of us perceive architecture as a primarily visual experience, reacting to how a space looks and extrapolating from there as to how it might feel to exist within it. But sight is not the only sense that is addressed by architecture; sound, touch, and even scent have an equally profound, if more subliminal, influence on how we react to being in a given space. Consciously or not, when we enter a room or building that addresses all these sensory considerations well, we often feel a sense of well-being and contentment that goes beyond the visual beauty or even the functionality of the place.

At DNCA Architects, led by principal and founder Devendra Contractor, a select group of architects explores such sensory intangibles as the spiritual and mystical nature of light, the importance of sound and touch, and other considerations one doesn’t normally associate with the building process: joy, compassion, and generosity of spirit.

The firm, which has offices in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, specializes in incorporating these concepts into their plans, designing spaces whose nuanced, minimalist aesthetic is unexpectedly warm and livable, unlike so many modern boxes whose ambience tends to be overly stark and predictable. Contractor’s group of like-minded professionals understands and celebrates the myriad ways that the built environment can instruct and inspire us to live our best lives, and they treat every new project as an opportunity to further that intention. The result is a body of work in which each building, whether residential or commercial, functions as a kind of sacred space that welcomes and soothes all who enter.

“Our work is very much a group effort,” Contractor says. “We spend a great deal of time thinking, discussing, throwing out ideas for the group to consider, and we’re able to adapt and refine our ideas with everyone’s input. I’m the principal because I founded the studio, but when it comes to the process, we’re all equal.” Equal in input and influence, perhaps, but each member brings a unique background to the projects, which allows for a broader discussion and a deeper dive into what architecture means and how it works, particularly as it relates to the senses.

Senior associate Deirdre Harris, for example, holds degrees in architecture and landscape architecture, and is a key catalyst in the programming and ideation phases of the group’s projects. A Saskatchewan native, Harris is involved in textile art and at one time had her own silk-screening business, so she brings a fondness for the tactile to her work as an architect. “Growing up on the plains also makes me sensitive to little details of the landscape,” Harris adds. “It’s almost like a fractal experience—when you get out of your car and look down at your feet, it’s a different world from what you see out on the horizon. That informs my point of view.”

Project manager Shane Williams spent ten years as an EMT before obtaining his master’s degree in architecture from the Pratt Institute in New York City. He works to reconcile what he encountered in that profession with a compassionate approach to architecture, such that personal, intimate spaces are given a special respect. “As an EMT I got to go into a lot of personal spaces,” Williams explains. “You’re not really invited into these intensely personal moments, and it’s a special place to be, a part of the built environment that most people don’t get exposed to. So that background informs a lot of things that I find important when we have design problems—I look at all those secondary, un-thought-about spaces in and around buildings.”

For Contractor himself, manifesting the divinity of existence in our everyday lives gives his buildings a sense of purpose that goes beyond the daily activities that take place within their walls. Born and raised in India as a member of a caste of temple builders, his understanding of the relationship between the sacred and the mundane is rooted in his DNA. “We can date our family back to the 5th century,” he says. “My paternal grandfather published a book on the rules of architecture based on Hindu tradition and scripture, and my father was an architect and engineer. My own first passion was archaeology. When you go on archaeological digs in India, you can put a spade in the ground and discover statues and coins and all kinds of incredible objects that are hundreds of years old.” New Mexico has a similar appeal, with cities like Santa Fe and Albuquerque layering themselves over centuries of human civilization whose artifacts are frequently revealed when ground is broken for a new building.

His mother, Didi Contractor, grew up in Taos, the daughter of German painter Edmund Kinzinger, who was part of the early Cubist movement and the director of the Hans Hoffman Institute in Germany before it moved to the US. Didi studied art and then went into interior design when she moved to India, where she eventually achieved widespread fame as an architect designing sustainable adobe structures. Contractor’s maternal grandmother insisted that Didi’s children go to college in the United States, so Contractor followed his older sister’s lead by enrolling at St. John’s College in Santa Fe upon completion of high school in India. He’s been in the area ever since.

Contractor’s experience as a “Johnnie” is key to how he runs his architecture studio. The college’s method of deep discussion and dialectic influences his group’s approach to architecture, with no topic or idea considered out of bounds when envisioning a new building, and the group’s conversations are far-ranging and as philosophical as they are practical. And it all begins with the light

“Much has been written about the spiritual nature of light, the mystical nature of what that represents,” Contractor says. “There’s a lot to be said regarding the nature of light in physics, in biology, in landscape, as something that nourishes and something from which we also seek sanctuary. Its importance is always balanced by the equal importance of shadow, shade, and respite. Light contributes to how we see form. The challenge in architecture is how to engage the human being within a contemporary, well-lit space in a way that’s not alienating or intimidating, in a way that brings joy through light to a space.”

One notable project that incorporates the many aspects of light is Vladem Contemporary, the new extension of the New Mexico Museum of Art that DNCA is designing in conjunction with Albuquerque-based Studio GP. The challenge involves refurbishing the existing building, a cube-shaped warehouse, and linking it to a new building that intersects it at a slight angle. The new building thus presents an opportunity for the team to introduce light in a controlled way, emphasizing the juxtaposition of the two geometries.

“Museums are tricky because they want to control all the light, and there’s an inclination to want the museum to just be a white box that has no natural light in it,” Contractor says. “We really felt that this was a disservice to the nature of place. People come to New Mexico because of the light, so we created one of the galleries, which we call the Light Gallery, upstairs on the north end of the building overlooking Montezuma Avenue with a view of the mountains. It has a sense of controlled north light, filtered through a screening element that engages you with the landscape.”

“Another consideration was that the original building had very little natural light, and we really hated the idea of having spaces that absolutely have to be artificially lit,” adds Harris. “So we created these openings in the floor plate where we use the upper mass of the building as a device for bringing light down into the lobby. It’s really important to us to be able to bring natural light into the heart of a building that has never had it before.”

Tracking the movement of the sun in all seasons is key to how the group positions a building on its site, something that earlier cultures paid close attention to as well. “Native American pueblos are rotated 30 degrees so that they open up to the winter solstice and the winter sun, such that the entries to the pueblo, the terraces—everything—celebrates the winter sunlight,” Contractor says. “We create a site plan on which we superimpose a diagram of exactly where the sun is rising and where it sets. We also address the summertime sun and how to screen it.”

It’s a part of passive solar design, he says, and it’s a challenge in New Mexico, where the light can be overwhelming if it’s not tempered and filtered. “You want a house to open up to a view, but if the view is to the east the space is going to cook if you open it up too much.” One way they deal with this is to design separate large windows to deliberately frame the view as if it were a series of paintings, rather than merely using a broad expanse of glass.

Harris explains that understanding how the body feels in a given space is essential to creating something that makes its inhabitants feel good. “We experience much of what’s around us with our brains and eyes, and we don’t think about the fact that there are other senses involved,” she says. “But in order for architecture to feel comfortable, the other senses have to be comfortable, and they do more for our perception than our eyes actually do.”

The group thus pays attention to light’s tactile quality, which affects how we feel in a space. “I tend to think about light’s application in buildings and how it feels on your skin, on your retina,” Williams says. “Sunlight in New Mexico is such a tactile experience. You feel it on your body, and it’s not entirely different inside a building. I don’t like to be in an air-conditioned box—I like to feel the air moving and the sun on my skin.”

It’s not just the light that can create a tactile experience, Harris points out. “Tactile elements are the things you’re drawn to touch, say, a mud plaster wall, or a fine piece of wood—something you want to get close to. If you’re in a house with floors with a radiant slab, for example, you’ll want to walk around on it barefoot in winter to feel that warmth.”

The sensory experience of a building includes the perception of sound as well. “Your body feels sound, it feels vibrations,” Contractor says. “So much of what we do as architects is subliminal. There’s an inclination in architecture to reduce all sound, to want to neutralize it,” he adds. “One of the things we talk about a lot with some of the buildings we’re designing is how to use the experience of sound as a kind of processional element within the space.”

Contractor points out that in a lot of art spaces or museums there’s a tendency to want to deaden the sound. “But there’s another way of looking at it,” he says, “which is to keep it live. There are spaces like places of worship or museums that are by nature live, and when you are in those spaces, where every footstep and sound is amplified, people develop a self-conscious instinct to lower their voices. When ambient sound is completely neutralized, people can have a tendency to not be aware of how loud they are speaking. Live sound forces people to whisper and behave in a more respectful way. It forces you to reduce your tone and alter the way you interact within the space.”

Adobe buildings in particular have their own kind of sound, Harris notes, because building materials affect the way sound moves. “One of the great things about adobe is that sound travels through it like you’re in the earth,” she says. “You can have a building that looks like adobe, but if you bang on the wall you can hear that it’s just hollow. That figures into how sound echoes, or doesn’t echo, which I think plays into how much reassurance and comfort you feel in a space.”

Water features within a courtyard or entryway have both auditory and tactile qualities that can affect our perceptions of a space as well. For one residence in Albuquerque’s North Valley, Contractor’s group blended the vernacular architecture of New Mexico with that of India, since the homeowners were from there. Architectural features common to both cultures, such as courtyards, trellises, and residential compounds, were abstracted using the interplay of light and shadow. “By introducing patterns of shadows we created a celebration of light, while a trough-like water feature evoked the vocabulary of water and acequias,” Contractor says. It also represents a symbolic cleansing for people entering the home through the courtyard, and the interior vestibule is lined with aromatic cedar to further the sense of purification introduced by the water feature as one enters the home.

How one enters a space is indeed an important aspect of a home’s design, one that continues to occasion serious discussion among the group. “The question is, how do you move from your daily experience outside into the sanctuary of a home?” Harris says. “How do we slow people down between the car and the front door? While we might not always be able to install a water feature, we usually try to work with some sort of sequence, or even just turn people along the path that they’re traveling so that each time they turn, it’s a subtle slowing of the pace. We think a lot about the event of the arrival at a space and its transitional zone, so it’s not just a door at the front wall where you’re either outside or inside. There’s some space between.”

Ultimately, the sensory way we experience the built environment has a direct effect not just on how we feel in a given space but also on how we arrange our lives there, and how that translates to the larger world. According to Contractor, it’s not enough to merely create beautiful architecture.

“The objective is to create beautiful spaces that improve people’s lives,” he says, “but there is a much larger objective, which is about human goodness and kindness, and how we interact with each other.” He cites a current project the team is working on for the University of New Mexico Hospital that involves two new clinics, where special attention is being paid to creating a nurturing, reassuring environment similar to one they designed recently for a renal clinic.

“We hate going to the doctor or to the hospital,” Contractor points out, “but we love to go to the spa. What is the difference? After all, they’re both about physical and spiritual well-being.” So how can a medical clinic become a more spa-like experience? Small courtyards within the building provide a natural green space that is soothing and relaxing, and the all-important natural light is directed and screened to provide both illumination and comfort.

“Our intention was to make the space appealing not just for the patients but also for the doctors and the staff,” he continues. “Sometimes we forget just how hard it is to be a doctor. Really good ones are healers, and they’re empathetic with their patients. But at the same time they have to maintain a certain separation, so they can be close but also somewhat detached. We created an environment where they have these zones of green, almost like a little oasis, within these large buildings. The doctors and care providers tell us, ‘We really love working in this building. It makes us happy to be there.’ It contributes to what they do in an intangible but important way.”

Contractor cites Williams’ ideas about paying attention to the less thought-about spaces as part of that approach to creating an environment that embraces its occupants and encourages happiness. “We need to make sure the little details that make a difference are understood and addressed.”

Ultimately, it’s all about intention, Contractor says. “Architecture is such an experiment because it’s about bringing beauty to what it means to be a human being, not just about looking good and photographing well for a publication—of course we want that also—but to really allow people’s lives to feel better in the space. It doesn’t mean everyone will always love what you do, but it means your intention should always be a good one, an honorable one.”

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