McSyn: Cross-Modal Architectural Portraits


Presented at Art Electronica

Published in 

What People Want: Populism in Architecture and Design

Michael Shamiyeh, DOM Research Laboratory   Birkhäuser Basel 2005

McSyn is a project that uses synesthesia to multi-sensorially and cognitively map the urban spaces around us.

McSyn: Cross-Modal architectural portraits

McSyn is a project that uses synesthesia to multi-sensorially and cognitively map the urban spaces around us.

Synesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we unlearn how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962)


When we look at the urban fabric around us, we see a gravitation towards homogeneity, much as Jeffrey Inaba and Peter Zellner have pointed out in their project “Valdes,” which is an insidiously ambiguous “celebration” of suburbia. Perhaps the most globally extended symbol of cultural uniformity embodied in architectural form is McDonalds, which operates in 116 different countries, with over 30,000 branches, and in which consistency is the core doctrine not quality. McDonald’s recently released their new slyly worded “i’m lovin’ it” global packaging campaign, which translates as yet another flattening mechanism on the horizon of cultural diversity. “It is the first time in our history that a single set of brand packaging, with a single brand message, will be used concurrently around the world."said Larry Light, McDonald's Executive Vice President and Global Chief Marketing Officer.

The McSyn challenge was to find a personal angle of approach towards a monolithically homogenous corporate imprint, in other words could a given McDonald’s franchise be experienced by the individual as a singular and unique building, despite its strict uniform design code? If one asked a hundred people to describe the McDonald’s logo they would most likely describe the same thing: yellow logo on a red background. Their spectrum of experience would have been very narrow indeed. Not so with a synesthetes, who experiences an involuntary cross-over of cognitive and sensorial perceptions: One of the participants in our study, a color-letter synner, was quick to point out that the colors of the McDonalds logo were “wrong.” To her mind, the letters should be colored according to the logo shown below, and hence McDonald’s should be called the “Red Arches.” It is important to emphasize that this is not an aesthetic, poetic or whimsical choice but an involuntary predisposition of her mind to see certain letters as given, constant colors.

As a color-letter synner her white “o” coincides with most other color-letter synners who almost universally experience “o” as white or transparent. Other letters such as “m” and “d” differ in color among the syn population. The simplicity of the font generally elicits a strong and clear synesthetic response from synners. Having said that, the letter “M” in the logo is more of a “grapheme” (physical appearance of the letter) than a neutrally transmitted letter as in the case of an “m” in an Arial or Helvetica font. The McDonald’s “M” does, however, maintain its “m” redness in Monica’s case even though the letter is arch-like, and may elicit other structures, shapes or metaphorical forms and hence colors.

This color-letter syn also raises the question of how, from a subjective standpoint, we experience shapes and letters not just as standardized symbols, but as code translated as “qualia.” In this case, the subjective experience of color sensation almost certainly varies from person to person (non-synners included) as a result of cross-activation of sensory signals in the fusiform gyrus which trumps more primary visual processing centers. Through observing this type of syn, we can begin to elucidate how meaning, sound and symbols interact within the mind, and thus generate singular subjective experiences despite exposure to a mono-cultural homogenous input. There is also evidence that the color seemingly embedded in the letters does not happen through the “retinal” confusion of the color receptors in the cornea, or indeed the color processing centers such as V4, but in other parts of the mind, that are not directly linked to the visual apparatus. As an example of this, V. Ramachandran (Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego) worked with a color-blind patient who could nevertheless experience colors when he saw letters. The patient designated these colors as “martian colors,” as they appear to be generated purely by mental processes.

There is no doubt that color impacts fast food chain design, and whether it is urban myth or calculated consumption strategy, yellow and red have been rumored to provoke hunger, acting on a kind of inbuilt synesthesia rooted deep within the unconscious.

The following is an extract from Eric Schlosser’s revealing study of fast food engineering “Fast Food Nation: What The All-American Meal Is Doing To The World.”

“Studies have found that the colour of a food can greatly affect how its taste is perceived. Brightly coloured foods frequently seem to taste better than bland-looking foods, even when the flavour compounds are identical. Foods that somehow look off-colour often seem to have off tastes. For thousands of years human beings have relied on visual cues to help determine what is edible. The colour of fruit suggests whether it is ripe, the colour of meat whether it is rancid. Flavour researchers sometimes use colured lights to modify the influence of visual cues during taste tests. During one experiment in the early 70s people were served an oddly tinted meal of steak and French fries that appeared normal beneath coloured lights. Everyone thought the meal tasted fine until the lighting was changed. Once it became apparent that the steak was actually blue and the fries were green, some people became ill.”

Another core member of the group, Laurie, who is an auditory-proprioceptive synner experienced the sounds inside McDonald’s in a particularly singular and quite unsettling way, as the ambient sounds of the space pierced, penetrated and punctured their way beneath her skin. As one reads this description, one can’t help getting a feeling of being immersed in some force-feedback video-game, such as being immersed in the Japanese video game REZ, in which sounds reconfigure the landscape as each sonic explosion impacts the visual play-scape. Appropriately, the video game comes equipped with a vibrator to stimulate inner sanctums, delivering the first-of-its-kind simulated and voluntary sound-kinesthetic experience.

Laurie @ McDonald’s

“I walked under the ceiling speaker near the cash register, and this created less fuzzy, more velvet spike fireworks inside my chest and upper-back, in tempo to the music. My upper arm and hands were ringing, maybe from all the voices surrounding me of customers and employees. Occasional screams of children were like domed fabric that went through one side of my torso, and out the other. A man's ringing cell phone moved more angularly about and inside my shoulder, and side of torso”.

Then later:

“The order counter was exciting. My heart rate sped. The coins dropping and

being shuffled in the cash register made lots of precise hard sensations

moving inside, like they were geometric. It was annoying and ticklish, this

was felt in the torso and arms. Its motion was fast, like an instant swarm

of big hard polygon carpenter bees or rats. (Maybe I don't feel in the legs

so much, because I am standing or walking. When I am sitting on a chair or

laying in bed, I feel more leg sensations, though they are not as frequent

as torso, back and hands). There were two types of ringing to alert cooks

that food was cooked. One of the rings hurt, it went inside my head like a

cone, then shrunk and jumped into my neck, clavicle, upper right chest and

arms, in seconds. The other ring just shuddered my head and back, in a more

soft shock and indescribable way. There were more shocks from metallic

sounds of metal cookware and utensils being dropped on cooking counters and


The music coming from the speakers was more noticeable but because I was not directly below them, they felt more like soft and liquid columns inside my torso. I was getting more arm, hand and some back buzz drone sensations from voices. As I was eating my burger, biting, chewing, tasting and swallowing took precedence, as it was instantly calming and pleasurable, and my tactile synaesthesia perception became irrelevant and less noticeable.

When I was done, we walked outside and the sounds immediately felt

different. It was like changing channels. Like coming out of a swimming

pool, it took a minute or two to adjust.”

Perhaps these syn portraits of an extremely familiar urban setting are too singular and bizarre to be used in general design processes, and yet they hint at the fact that even the most standardized space can be experienced in a myriad of unfolding “perspectives,” or more accurately “per-sensives.”

There is also evidence to suggest that a form of synesthesia exists in all of our brains, lending a transferability of this “syn-formation” to a general assessment of the topographies that surround us. For instance, there seems to be a fundamental cross-over between smell and taste, and it is not uncommon to assign a taste to something that we would not naturally consume, such as when we describe acetone or nail varnish as sweet. As V. Ramachandran points out : “This would make sense functionally--e.g., fruits are sweet and also smell sweet like acetone. But it also makes sense structurally, because the brain pathways for smell and taste are closely intermingled and they both project signals to the same parts of the frontal cortex during sensory processing”. This cross-sensing spills over into the gestural and verbal worlds, as for example when we say that someone disgusts us, and accompany that with a sour expression on our face. According to Ramachandran this is probably due to the evolutionary pressure of remapping lower vertebrates’ frontal lobes of smell and taste with emerging social modalities such as territorial marking, aggression and sexuality.

This mental restructuring may actually have led to humans being able to develop the sense of abstraction, as the different senses come together within the “TPO” and the angular gyrus within it, and thus enabling high-level associations to form. Perhaps an unscrambling of the processes of the angular gyrus could form the Rosetta stone of equivalence between visual art, music, architecture and other creative practices. Until that time, the best attempt at deciphering multi-sensory processing is to watch the synners spin.


Synesthesia is an involuntary mental phenomenon that occurs when there is a cross-over between any combination of the five senses. Some couplings occur more often than others: sound–sight synesthesia (colored hearing), is common whereas combinations involving taste and smell are quite rare. Not only do the senses become entangled, but in many cases there is a cognitive/sensory linkage in which synesthetes (AKA “synners”) automatically assign certain colors to letters and numbers, or even map data inside or around their bodies, in a kind of extended proprioceptive matrix.

There are many different theories on why synesthesia occurs, ranging from the “inhospitable” hypothesis that claims that a migration of sensory functions takes place from one part of the cortex to another due to some local damage, the “neonatal” hypothesis that pin-points synesthesia as developing in the uterus as a result of minimal sensory differentiation that later on leads to this cross-modal condition, as well the “cognitive fossil” theory, that suggests that synesthesia stems from a sensory system that once proved adaptive, much like the phenomenon known as “blind sight.”

Recently, and possibly what seems the likeliest explanation, Hwai-Jong Cheng and Elva D. Diaz, researchers in neuroscience and pharmacology at the University of California, Davis have discovered that synesthesia may be linked to a process they call “axonal pruning.” Once connections in a developing brain have been made, excessive branches must be removed or “pruned” away: Synesthesia, it appears, happens when the wrong branches are pruned.

Diaz’s laboratory uses DNA microarrays to look at thousands of genes at the same time, then focuses in on individual genes and proteins to work out how they act at different stages of development, and thus find the root cause of neuro-developmental disorders such as synesthesia and autism.

Synesthesia affects roughly 1 in 5,000 people and

seems to affect women more often than men according to a survey done to test for synesthesia within a population (Baron-Cohen 1996)

Marcos lutyens 2004 ©




Center for NeuroScience UCDavis

Richard E.Cytowic, MD

Special thanks to Laurie Buenafe, Collen Silva, Oliver Hess

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