Bompas & Parr’s Intoxicating Experiences.

Harry Parr on his approach to designing multi-sensory installation.

In a sweeping survey that canvassed Victorian cuisine, architecture made of gelatin, and a brief survey of the science of sense perception, Harry Parr of experience designers Bompas & Parr sought to gently undermine the illusion that taste is anything near objective. Bompas & Parr gained renown for immersive installation projects such as “Alcoholic Architecture,” where they filled a closed space with vaporized gin and tonic—visitors literally inhaled cocktails.

In a conversation with A/D/O, Parr talked about his early interest, as an architecture student, in jellies—not jam but the desserts made from gelatin that were popular prior to World War I. “They’re a kind of intrinsic design element,” he said. “It’s a form you can change, but there are also very tight parameters. So you can change the form, the color, the flavor — and within that there are infinite possibilities.” A stint selling architectural desserts in London’s Barrow Market led to an historically exacting recreation of a Victorian dinner. Choreography of the service was laid out like blueprints. “Ten years ago people had just started getting interested in food in the way they are now,” Parr said. The lay public began to have a more exacting interest in what it put in its mouth. Designing for the particular qualities of that interior space interested both Parr and his partner Sam Bompas.

They were interested especially in the “dirty senses” — taste and smell, the ones that get inside us. "There was a book written in the 70s about the senses that architects sometimes refer to quite a lot,” Parr recalled. “Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin. He talks about architecture not in terms of design, but in terms of how the human body engages with it. The way architecture is taught in design schools often focuses on design, function, aesthetic, but not really how a person connects to a space, and the power that space might have. So architecture is effectively designed from the outside in, whereas we're interested in work from the inside out.”

In his talk, Parr sought to emphasize how these inside-out sensory expeditions can reveal how fundamentally subjective impressions are: a demonstration with passed chocolates demonstrated how a backing track of children's’ laughter seems to increase the impression of creaminess. Parr emphasized how little is understood about the cognitive processing of sense perceptions: “We don't understand our senses enough. We're only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploring how they work, and how they interact. It's almost medieval, our attitude about the senses.”

Readily evident from the work shown at the talk, Bompas & Parr are interested in a form of sensory education, but it’s an education that, Parr stresses, has to be fun. They say that design is problem solving,” Parr said. Of their approach to problem solving, he described how they decided on a project: "It had to be two words long. And those two words had to be so compelling that you'd want to go to it. The way it often works with me and Sam is: Sam makes a problem, and then I solve the problem. But these, of course, are not real-world problems. We make the problem in order to solve it.” Even this playful, seemingly free-form collaboration in later projects they realized they’d adopted a kind of theatrical technic: “We put this framework together: anticipation, compression, risk, reveal, and reward.” The process is a kind of hero’s journey toward reclaiming the modalities of taste, touch and smell.

Images courtesy Bompas & Parr and A/D/O (by Gary He).