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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Tactile is an adjective to describe something that appeals to the human sense of touch. In architectural discourse, it is usually employed to describe how materials relate to a user’s experience when felt. Having that said, we do not necessarily need to touch an object to know what it feels like. As presented in “Experiencing Architecture” by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, we build an enormous library of tactile memories. We remember touching materials like stone and brick at a very young age, and cognitively store the feeling of these things in our minds.  We can tell by the visual texture of an object how it’s going to feel when we touch it. Therefore, there may be a difference in how we experience a wall made of concrete, which we would perceive as cold and rugged compared to a wall made of wood, which we would perceive as warm and somewhat smooth. These perceptions are extended to include weight and hardness as well, which also have bearing on how we experience materials. The implementation of the tactile senses in architecture has purposeful uses as well. A widespread example of tactile design is the use of dimpled sidewalk pavers at train stations and pedestrian crossings. The change in the feeling of the ground surface signals to the user that they should stop or pay attention. This kind of design can also be called haptic architecture. Haptic, coming from the greek word, ἁptik-os, meaning “to come into contact with”. Unfortunately, much like any word, the word tactile can be abused or overused in an architectural discussion. Some use the word to wrongly describe anything that has texture. However, the sense of touch implied in the word tactile is not synonymous with the physical structure of a substance implied in the word texture.

There are several root words, tact, tang, tig, tag and ting, which all mean touch.  All these variations come from the conjugation of the Latin tango, tetigi, and tactus. From these roots, we are able to form words such as tangent meaning the straight departure from a point of contact, tangle which implies a contact that results in a mixing or jumbling, and contagious meaning the spread of something through contact. Even the word contact itself shares the same root, which, obviously also implies touching in some form or another. The use of the word tactile can be traced back to French literature in the 17th century. It was used by a biologist named Helkiah Crooke in his description of the human tongue. “Beside the sapour (the ability to taste), it hath also many tangible or tactile qualities”. Given this etymology, it is interesting to note the contemporary usage of the word tact. Today, it is most frequently used to describe a sensitivity toward how our words or actions will be interpreted by another party. Indeed, we have to be aware of how what we say or do will touch other people. In this sense, the word tact means a metaphorical sense of touch.


Oxford University Press, "Oxford English Dictionary." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 17, 2012. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/view/Entry/196968?redirectedFrom=tactile#eid

Interaction Design Foundation, "Tactile Interaction" Last Modified 2012, Accessed November 15th, 2012 http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/tactile_interaction.html

English for Students, "Tact". Accessed November 17th, 2012. http://www.english-for-students.com/tact.html

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