Sensory Approach: Walking into Alto’s Houses
Carol Clouse, Grad Student 2011
Department of Architecture
Penn State University
A b s t r a c t
Phenomenology is architecture’s acknowledgement and response to the human capacity of sensory experience. Although this multi-sensory perception encompasses all the surfaces and forms of architecture, this paper focuses on the materiality and phenomenology of the approach toward and into the building. This aspect of architectural engagement inherently involves movement and the physical act of walking. Walking, one of our most primal connections to the earth, is influenced and alerted by the materials upon which we traverse.
Can the materials upon which we walk serve to evoke awareness in us as we traverse these surfaces to approach and enter our homes? Can the phenomenology of the entry path into architecture soften and slow this entering? Looking at various residential works of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, we see this transition masterfully executed as the everyday act of walking into ones home is attributed due design detail and attentiveness. The application of Aalto’s humanistic philosophies generates a gentle consciousness to the act of walking – approaching and entering.
The way of walking
Into Aalto’s Houses
Walking on earth’s forgiving floor - spongy with layers of moss, mycylenium, and colorful composting leaves of fall foliage – the morphing fertile soil moves and responds as the foot rolls its toe-heel dance on the earth. “Walk lightly in Spring; Mother earth is pregnant” speak the words of the Kiowa. Consensual Native American wisdom echoes this repeated call, cautioning us to walk softly upon the earth. The heel-toe kiss of the shod modern sole presses harder on the soil, and as the left then right repeated pattern continues its gate a hard unforgiving surface is encountered.
Concrete is our most popular and traveled exterior walking surface. This static impervious material leads us swiftly into the boundaries of our homes, where the transition from outside to inside can be often abrupt, if not disenchanting. Can the phenomenology of the materials that lead us toward a building and sub sequentially into the architecture, serve to slow and soften this entering? And, can this movement across these materials serve as a source of awareness to the earth beneath our feet?
Inclusive to this investigation is the consideration of the elements and materials that embrace the act of approaching and entering into an architectural dwelling, as well as the sensual human interaction and responsiveness to the surfaces upon which we trod. The earths’ natural floor, of un-manipulated materials of dirt, debris, grasses, clay, rock, and such, lies as the primal point of reference for the architecture of the walking experience into a home – the transitional path that leads into the architecture.
The Way of Walking
Walking is the primal way that we as humans traverse the earth. With each and every step our soles touch the ground as our stride carries us along our path of life and along paths that lure us into architecture. Although we have historically shod ourselves with multiple means of protective foot-wear, the materials upon which we walk still serve to evoke a response to the senses that can even change our walking gait.
Barefoot and light footwear promoted toe-heel walking, as the foot touches down first gently with the toe area and then rolls down onto the heel with little applied pressure. The more heavily shod sole can tend to encourage heel-toe walking, where the heel makes the initial contact with a more direct strike and then the toe and mid-area follow. The surfaces upon which we step effect the way we walk and can direct our movement and even our pace.
Movement in architecture can be indicative of movement through architecture or press further into the area of kinetics, where there expands a more interactive movement and dialogue between the architecture and the human occupant. Truly kinetic architecture promotes an engagement where perhaps in this regard, people “should not be thought of as users but as participants”. FN Organic natural surfaces interact to our engagement with more response than do static materials, and kinetics play only this subtle role in our comprehensive walking experience.
We respond first visually, judging the perceived materials in texture, tactility, and solidity. Surfaces viewed as slippery can affect our speed and the nuances of how we purposefully place our footing. As we begin to walk we feel the material respond, and subconsciously calculate for friction. “In locomotion, friction is necessary for balance and forward propulsion.” Harder surfaces encourage a faster pace, whereas softer surfaces can result in a slower walking gait. We respond simultaneously, albeit subconsciously, to the sound of our steps as “hard texture sounds lead to more aggressive walking”.
We hear the sound of our own footsteps marking time to our own gate. There is the muffled sound of steps on dirt or the crackle of dried leaves beneath our feet. The soft crunch of snow, the quietness of wood, or the more staccato sound of steps on rocks or tile, all contribute sensationally to our comprehensive experience of the walk towards and into a building. There is also the pattern of the movement itself, as the design of the material placement can influence patterns and rhythms in out gait.
Sight, feel, sound, and smell, all merge to tell the tale of the character of the surfaces beneath out feet. The organic materials of earth, transform as we traverse her, and afford us a variety of surfaces. And, as we move from the natural variables of the earth’s surface onto the man-placed and created pathways our senses follow on the journey, allowing a comprehensive dialogue to ensue with earth beneath our feet.
Advocates of Phenomenology purport that architecture is becoming a form-driven art, relying on – and playing to – the singular sense of sight. The acknowledgement of the comprehensiveness of the total sensual engagement was disregarded and suppressed, as architecture was left to the realm of the “detached and summative” visual perception. The common communicative portrait of architecture through photography, surmises a capturing of the architecture. But. as Juhani Pallasma suggests, the photographic image “is usually an unreliable witness.” Architecture is not an object to simply view from a distance. It is rather a physical creation witnessed by all of our senses, as well as it is experienced in the dimension of time through movement.
In The Prestige, a 2006 film by Christopher Nolan, the magician presents his act in a series of movements referred to as: The Pledge; The Turn; and The Prestige. The Pledge is the introduction of something familiar or ordinary which is then transformed through ‘The Turn’, into something unexpected – something extraordinary. The Prestige completes the act by grounding us back into the familiar but within a newly established context, as set forth by the Turn. Architecture, I believe, in its “sensory invitation and discovery” also presents itself in a series of movements, in what we might refer to as: The Approach; The Entering; and The Arrival. We walk towards the building and enter the story. We are introduced to the magic of the man-made path, seduced by the architect through materials and textures, into the movement of entering. Eventually we engage in the magicians’ ‘Turn’, wherein moving from outside to inside, our world transforms as we engage with the architecture proper. Arriving, we find ourselves inside a new context of space – inside the architecture – where we settle into the grounded and humanistic nuance of the home.
As Pallasmaa contends, “the visual image of the door is not an architectural image,… whereas entering and exiting through a door are architectural experiences.” The spirit of this paper extrapolates further to say that the visual image of the path - toward and into a home - is not an image of architecture, but rather the inherently critical and comprehensive engagement of architecture, is the act of walking on the path itself.
One proponent of this humanist engagement was Alvar Aalto. A Finnish architect of prominence in the early-mid twentieth century - referenced and regaled often by Juhani Pallasmaa - Aalto ventured away from the starkness of modernism and functionalism, moving “towards a multi—sensory engagement” in his approach to design. Aalto contended that the human condition was a paramount consideration in the architectural design process. Avoiding the prominent tendency of a visually driven architecture, Aalto looked to nature and materiality to create an experience for the senses.
Nature is full of variables and constant change, and so, deemed Aalto, was also the plight of humanity. Humans hold an organic quality as well, characterized by variability and vulnerability. Bestowing much focus on the critical connection of the outside and the inside, he deemed the intermediate space between a home and it’s surroundings as “refined ceremony” Everyday tasks, Aalto believed, were the very humanistic things that should be addressed and elevated architecturally. The platform for simple acts, such as walking into one’s home, should be a conceived with consideration and awareness of the humanistic scale and sensibilities. Director of the Alvar Aalto Museum, Markku Lahti indicates that Aalto did not believe architecture to be complete if it did not take into serious account the components of the human condition - variability, vulnerability, and sensuality - in the design process.
A prominent theme of Aalto’s work is the notion of discontinuity, a theory of design translated again from the random and often fractured aspects of nature. It is suggested that this discontinuity is a sublime representation of the human condition, and that it is this aspect of Aalto’s work that has maintained its universal appeal. As described by Radford and Oksala in an article for the Journal of Architecture (2006), the discontinuity in architecture, “projects an ambiguous duality of incompletion and ruination that strongly connects with nature and echoes the essential condition of human life.” A composition or order is established and gives way to expectations which are then “disrupted” as Aalto creates a stage of rules and then proceeds to break them. Nature is after all unpredictable and variable and Aalto’s design theories follow suit.
Aalto, it can be summarized, is a “humanist who loved nature”. His designs reflect a soft casualty, as he applauded discrepancies and disconnection. Through application of the characteristic of nature’s variability, Aalto promoted a freedom in the design, nurturing growth, flexibility, and adaptation. “Build naturally”, as Aalto’s words speak, and “don’t do anything without good reason”. 
Into Alto’s Houses
Beginning with a genuine respect for the building site and surroundings, Aalto’s designs pay due heed to the impact of the architecture on the landscape. Approach and flow on the site hold equally measured regard, as he took great care in the calculated placement of the structure on the site.
Exploring the walk towards and into an Aalto home - Casse, Maison, or Villa as Aalto preferred to so entitle them - we sense an immediate repertoire with the landscape. Initial views through trees and forests create a lure of mystery, and intermittent glimpses often give way to deceptive interpretation, revealing seemingly modernistic, almost functionalistic, architecture. As our walk brings us closer, the play of detail and materiality reveals itself. Pathways meander in organic array and materials emerge from their earthly origins to soften yet enliven the approach. We move along the transitional lure towards the home, and embark on the steps that eventually lead us from the outside to the inside.
As there are rhythms and randomness in nature, so did Aalto believe in incorporating these organic rhythms in the flow of the exterior and interior spaces. The first encounter with a building suggested Aalto, occurs at “the moment when the building receives the person.” The entrances to Aalto’s homes were never overly decorated or embellished, nor were they presented as grandiose gateways into the architecture. Instead they were doors and thresholds of natural materials designed to appeal to the domestic and humanistic scale inviting, welcoming, and beckoning.
Villa Mairea is possibly the most documented and reviewed residential work of Alvar Aalto. Well known is the entry canopy, supported by bark covered spruce poles - sometimes several young saplings bound together – which serve as a reflection of the surrounding forest. Stone pavers are traversed and lead to stone slap steps. Hard static surfaces are countered to a degree by their random organic shapes, the disruption of steps, and the surrounding wood ‘tree’ dialogue. Entering into the home, the ‘forest’ continues to be reflected in the poles that align the stairs to the second floor. The interior floor materials, though they change in organic delineations, are themselves rather rigid in application. Grid tile patterns and plank wood flooring weave alternately throughout the ground floor level.
Situated on a cliff side on the Island of Muuratsalo, Aalto’s Experimental House is, as Markku Lahti indicates, not an easy approach. Lahti elaborates this to mean “not only physically, but also in terms of interpretation”, though he does not elaborate on the interpretive aspect. The approach is from the northern slope and one can extrapolate that emerging visuals of the white courtyard walls from points of lower elevation, are likely distorted and partial. Moving from the natural landscape into the courtyard is a strong delineation of entry, as the white-washed brick walls firmly define the point of entry. In one single step we move from ferns and fertile soil to earths red clay, fire baked into a blanket of bricks. The natural floor of island earth is covered with a myriad layer of brick pavers. This expanse of hard surface is deteriorated by the moss and white clover that has been encouraged to sprout and thrive in the joints between the pavers.  In this we see the “disorder and incompletion; the decay and ruin,” which is another way of reflecting on nature and the human condition. The brick pattern is not one continuous (and thus monotonous texture), but like the walls of the home, has been broken into smaller quilt-like increments of various methods of brick laying. A walk across this decadent design of variables, leads to the wood-slatted entry door where a break in the brick paving allows foliage to flank the entry stoop; a reminder of the earthen soil and the ever encroaching play of nature.
At a ‘Maison’ in France, grassy terraced steps swell out of the ground, echoing the contours of the landscape. Designed for a Parisian art dealer, Louis Carre, the residence sits on a knoll surrounded in part by woodlands. Moving from beneath natures canopy of tree tops where the path of walking is littered with leaves, the terrain transforms into a grassy slope, where concrete curbs form terraced plateaus of steps that rise towards the pool area and then up to the rear court of the home. Pavers of random shaped stones begin as paths, which then multiply into patios. The front entry, though also of random stone pavers, leads into a small somewhat formal entry area of grid tile flooring. It is at the side entry that we experience the outdoor floor of stone following us inside, before again changing to Aalto’s tendency toward tile and wood plank interior flooring.
But Aalto’s residential designs were not always and only afforded the luxury and expansive ambiance of wilderness like settings. The Maison Aho is located in an urban-like street setting, with the building access ensuing directly from the sidewalk. A simple and typical approach would lend to a concrete walkway extending from the public walkway directly to the front entry door of the new home. But Aalto, as he professes, tends to the detail of the mundane everyday acts, and addresses this entering with care and compassion. The short journey from the street to the home is designed to give pause to the walk. At the termination of the garden wall, there is a transitional gravel path that denotes the beginning of the entering. Stepping up onto red brick pavers – that match the brick of the home – you turn to your right and take two steps up on stone pavers, to a stone entry patio. You are then drawn toward the wood plank entry door, turning left to walk beneath a cantilevered canopy which appeals to the human proportion and hints to the sense of enclosure, and then you walk inside.
Whether walking on stone pavers beneath foliage laced trellises, or promenading up terraces of contoured grassy steps, it is the playful changing of materials, the reference to the natural landscape, and the attention to the human engagement, that culminates to provide an architecturally sensual approach.
It has been pointed out by others, that Aalto’s house designs were at times overlooked and under-estimated, because they are (to put it one way) not overly photogenic subjects. The precept of Aalto’s philosophies and conceptual design processes, pave the way for human experience and movement, an ethereal quality which does not photograph well. This being said, it affords this paper a limited platform of supposition, as I have never physically walked into an Aalto house.
These understandings are then interpretations of others, which have been extrapolated and analyzed in order to formulate speculation of the impact which the role of phenomenology plays in the act of approaching and entering a home.
This act - of approaching and entering - is a process that encompasses both phenomenological, kinetic, and organic theories and understandings. The architectural design of the approach toward the architecture and the transition from outside to inside can turn a mundane act into a ‘magic’ act. The conscious efforts of Aalto to incorporate outdoor motifs and materials into interior space, no doubt draws attention and awareness to this transition of entering. The slow morphing of the natural landscape into the manner and materials of paths and walkways brings forth an ease and awareness of the earth and materials upon which we trod.
The materiality of Aalto’s indoor floor materials, though natural products of wood and tile, do not however similarly address this design transition in the manner that do the surrounding building materials and spacial elements. The initial interior walking surfaces are mostly of square tile, laid in grid-like patterns that are unsympathetic to the often random stone pavers right “outside” the door.
It is intriguing to discover that although Aalto explicitly and emphatically sought application of exterior materials inside, both literally and conceptually, he did not with much fervor interplay this design expression with the flooring materials. Interior floor materials were as if from a different palate than the exterior walking surfaces. This aspect aside, the approach to Aalto’s houses remain compelling and appealing.
The most popular and traveled exterior walking surface into our twenty first century American homes, is concrete. We walk often from asphalt to concrete, and in a fast linear unconscious walk, arrive at the entry door threshold, mundanely entering the inside of our homes. It is a path of traverse that offers no compelling call to pause and take account. The phenomenology of the approach and entry into architecture can instead give cause to awaken the walk, and call attention to the movement of approach and to the earth beneath our feet. As Aalto contends: “Architecture cannot save the world, but it can act as a good example”.
For Bibliography and endnotes, contact Ms Clouse through website contact page