Embodied – A Multisensory Experience

I remember vividly the task I had at hand in my first semester of architecture. It was in the unit of Drawing History, which required a redrawing of two notable works of architecture through a comparative analysis. My two just so happened to be the Chartes Cathedral south of Paris and Alvaro Siza’s Leca de Palmeira Pools in Porto of Portugal.

Two years later and I would be standing at the entrance of these pools, giddy at the thought of the physical realisation of a building I knew, by hand, so well.

The winter’s day was remarkably cold. Unloading out of the deceptively warm bus into the chilled air of the Atlantic coast, I was immediately stuck by the force of the wind and my ill-equipped Australian dress sense. The first visuals of the sight were not of any relief.

A sunken concrete structure, divisible into a set of masses overlapping their patina copper roofs, abutted against the loose gravel of an empty car park. The site paralleled by the major Avenue Liberdade which on the opposing side serviced endless industrious looking multistorey buildings all of beige pigment.

Spurred on by the rapid wins, our mass quickly moved towards these rough cast forms, finding ourselves descending into the landscape as we entered. This ramped entrance was marked by a maze like feeling, as the walls begin to tower above and around us, breaking us away from the force of the wind. I felt my scale shift as we reach the base of the ramp, from looking over and above, my body was now completely encapsulated within this rough mass.

The tour guide begins his spiel.

Ahead, a sharp contrast of dark and light emerges. The cast concrete with its residual shutter markings, gives way by cantilever to a void filled with intense natural light from the other side. Below this a set of dark black timber partitions, creates a deep obscured cave-like space.

Hesitantly, we enter the darkness, transitioning from open air to a lowered ceiling characterised by the repeating timber rafters. Accentuated by the low light, the details of the strong wood grain and the meticulous bolting connections appear. The materials now seemingly tactile, our group consciousness finds us reaching out to connect with the rough, cold concrete comparing and paring directly with the richness of the aged timber structure.

A moment of pause reveals to the end of the corridor, a ray of light illuminating a simple basin and circular mirror. Rendered inarticulate and completely immersed in the space, the sounds of the ocean in its rhythmic roar and tumble draws us through these stable like changing rooms towards the promise of the Atlantic.

One by one we pass through the compressed space of the individual partitions, landing on the other side with a portal to open air once again. Re-emerging into the light we find ourselves in front of a large concrete wall, shielding any visuals of the coastline from view and replacing the horizon with one artificial in nature. A heightened sense of the ocean accumulates as the air thickens with the smell of the sea.

Our journey continues.

As we walk along this bounding wall, we come towards a final portal, double in height but mimicking the dark, intimate structure of the changing rooms. With a step down and bench space on either side, this open shelter alludes to the reaching of our destination. A transition once more.

We stop, the guide continues his explanation. The anticipation becomes too much for some of us, breaking away from the shelter, met by the end of the wall and the framed view of the expanse of the sea.

The wind hits once again. We traverse from concrete to sand, to rock, to concrete once more as we make our way towards the rough seas that have claimed the pools at this time of the year.

Far from my imagination now is the industrious built urban form that lays back beyond our journey through light and shadow, scale and material. The wonder of the ocean encapsulates my focus.

Never before had I experienced an architecture, a space, that acted so heavily on my senses as so to bridge and transform my focus from that of the mundane world through to an embodied experience of the ritual of bathing. Through this path in which the body’s scale is manipulated, its senses engaged by the reduction and play of light, its wayfinding encouraged by sound and smell and its narrative changed underfoot through levels and material.

Alvaro Siza’s pools provide what Juhani Pallasma, in his book Eyes of the Skin (1996), describes as an embodied experience. Siza stages a set of multi-sensory acts on the body in this work, eventuating in a linear journey which mitigates the site and experience towards a focus on the ritual of bathing. A tender transition between urban and natural.

Pallasma quotes C Bloomer and Charles W Moore with ‘what is missing from our dwellings today are the potential transactions between body, imagination, and environment… To some extent every place can be remembered, partly because it is unique, but partly because it has affected our bodies and generated enough associations to hold it in our personal worlds.’ [1]

It is these affects on my body that even three years later I can still envision so clearly.

Perhaps my experience of the pools was enriched by the materialisation of an idea into matter. Turns out that my naïve analysis which identified procession as a characteristic in both Chartes Cathedral and Leca Pools was not so far off after all. In the words of my younger self, the pools ‘speak of a ritualised cleansing, perhaps not in a religious sense but one that is embedded in community and domestic routine’ the ritual of the body, bathing.

‘Architecture is essentially an extension of nature into the man-made realm, providing the ground for perception and the horizon of experiencing and understanding the world. It is not an isolated and self-sufficient artefact’ [2]


/ references + see more

[1] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, Third ed. (Chichester: Wiley). 44

[2] Ibid.

Images –

[1] “AD Classics: Leça Swimming Pools / Álvaro Siza Vieira,” digital image, ArchDaily, August 6, 2011, accessed May 3, 2019, https://www.archdaily.com/150272/ad-classics-leca-swimming-pools-alvaro-siza.

[2] Beth Litjens, Entrance: Leca Pools, 2016, Summer Studio Portugal

[3] “AD Classics: Leça Swimming Pools / Álvaro Siza Vieira,” digital image, ArchDaily, August 6, 2011, accessed May 3, 2019, https://www.archdaily.com/150272/ad-classics-leca-swimming-pools-alvaro-siza.

[4] Kirill Jedenov, “Alvaro Siza’s Leca Pools,” digital image, Facebook, January 30, 2016, accessed May 3, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/kirill.jedenov/photos.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “AD Classics: Leça Swimming Pools / Álvaro Siza Vieira,” digital image, ArchDaily, August 6, 2011, accessed May 3, 2019, https://www.archdaily.com/150272/ad-classics-leca-swimming-pools-alvaro-siza.

[8] Kirill Jedenov, “Alvaro Siza’s Leca Pools,” digital image, Facebook, January 30, 2016, accessed May 3, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/kirill.jedenov/photos.

[9] Beth Litjens, Pools Meet the Atlantic, 2016, Summer Studio Portugal

[10] “Alvaro Siza’s Leca Pools,” digital image, Sorbus Aucuparius, accessed May 3, 2019, http://sorbusaucuparius.blogspot.com/2012/04/whats-your-favourite-building-01-siza.html.