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Multisensory Experience: A Spatial Study of Indoor Climbing and Artificial Climbing 

Indoor climbing, including bouldering, lead climbing and top-roping, has been gaining popularity since the late 20th century. The sport first appeared as an alternative for outdoor climbing out of environmental preservation as well as health and safety concerns. [1] Accordingly, indoor climbing differs from outdoor climbing primarily by the use of artificial climbing walls and indoor climbing gyms. After decades of development, indoor climbing now has its own international competitions, specialised climbing techniques and unique spatial designs. 


Most climbing centres in the UK use a consistent grading system while featuring unique walls and routes. An artificial climbing wall normally consists of a blank base wall, volumes/blocks and climbing holds. The base wall comprises structural frames and panels cladded onto the frames. The base wall can tilt and fold at different angles and volumes are screwed onto the base wall to add more variations. Climbing holds are then added to the wall surface, forming different climbing routes.  Once constructed, the base walls typically remain unchanged. In contrast, routes are regularly reconfigured by unscrewing holds and volumes and resetting them into different positions to form new routes. Most route setters are good climbers themselves, who, like other climbers, have unique abilities and climbing styles. Consequently, routes set by the same setter may exhibit a distinct style that emphasises specific movements or techniques. 


This thesis argues that indoor climbing and artificial climbing walls can promote inclusive spatial experiences by encouraging sensory engagement among individuals with varying abilities in the welcoming social atmosphere of climbing gyms. The research looks into two aspects of indoor climbing. The first aspect is multisensory engagement and its significance in shaping climbers’ experiences of visiting indoor climbing centres. The second aspect is the inclusivity of the sport and its spatial context as recognised by regular climbers, which emerges from the non-visual-centric nature of climbing and the diverse climbing community. 


By challenging the dominance of sight and recognising the contributions of other senses, climbing as a sport is less likely to discriminate based on visual abilities. This emphasis on inclusivity highlights the welcoming and accommodating nature of the climbing community, fostering an environment that embraces individuals of diverse backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives. The thesis aims to contribute to the larger, long-existing topic of what is an inclusive space and how to make a space inclusive. It is not modernism, nor any ‘style’ of architecture because it is more than the physical space and the intended spatial activities that come into play in spatial experiences.


In order to better understand the role of (dis)ability and senses in everyday spatial engagement, the thesis starts by reviewing literature and projects that explore the understanding of disability and the functioning of senses in spatial experience. The thesis then investigates climbing and climbing walls from a spatial aspect by examining the physical composition of climbing walls and the bodily movements the walls trigger, which are of variety, using climbing and paraclimbing competition videos. The analysis of the video clips shows that while climbing routes offer a general sequence for navigation, they concurrently permit a degree of flexibility in how holds are utilised. This freedom is essential for empowering climbers to fully engage their bodies and creativity in the ascent. Moreover, some physical conditions become factors that can be coped with and shape a climber’s unique climbing style, rather than diminishing a climber’s skill. Still, this does not prove the non-existence of talents that are more natural than nurtured or that of the physical and social issues that might be met by the climbers in their life. Yet the meaning of that freedom is to allow more chances for non-versatile climbers to excel.


Following the visual analysis of climbing videos, interviews with five recreational climbers of varying abilities are qualitatively analysed to build an in-depth understanding of climbing not only as a spatial activity but also as a lived experience in which a multitude of factors come into play. The semi-structured interviews, each lasting between 30 to 60 minutes, were conducted within or in close proximity to climbing centres that the interviewees were familiar with. The climbers are recruited either through my personal connections, with invitations extended at the climbing centres I frequent, or through introductions by mutual friends. 


In the end, the interviews allow a more intricate understanding of the internal activities during climbing which are essentially an interacting web of physical attributes, sensory engagement, past experiences and temporary external factors, which complement the superficial and third-person understanding of the climbing experience generated from the visual analysis. Moreover, these interviews serve the dual purpose of shedding light on how the spatial activity of climbing and the architectural context of artificial climbing walls are enjoyed by individuals with diverse mental and physical conditions. They provide insight into the dynamic interplay between the climbing environment and the personal efforts of climbers in creating such enjoyment.   


By analysing the interviews, the research found that climbing challenges climbers to creatively utilise what they have in their bodies and minds, and practises inclusion as it embraces diverse solutions of the route. Yet the generalisability of such inclusion is limited by the specificity of the space as it serves an intensively multisensory activity. 


More specifically, climbing routes share some similarities with deliberate spatial design due to their physical, three-dimensional elements enabling unique interactions with climbers. However, climbing fundamentally differs in spatial engagement from other mundane scenarios like grocery shopping, commuting, or healthcare visits. The activities involved in practising indoor climbing routinely, including visiting the climbing centre, climbing itself, engaging with fellow climbers, and maintaining friendly social distances, are active, intentional choices driven by a desire for rewarding physical activity. This extends Belova’s argument on the ‘reversibility’ between sensing subjects and sensed objects, highlighting the two-way, continuous interaction between climbers and the climbing space, including climbing walls and the larger environment of centres. [2]


In contrast, many everyday scenarios involve passive spatial engagement that does not encourage active sensing or creative uses of sensual information in decision-making. This difference between climbing and other everyday activities, though poses a limitation in transferability, brings the critique of ocularcentrism back, that the importance and potential of non-visual senses have long been overlooked. 


Still, the inclusion of the multisensory activity of climbing does not prove other multisensory spatial engagement inclusive, since this thesis is a case study dedicated to recreational indoor climbing. Rather, with this case study, I make an attempt to employ multisensory as a lens to rethink disability and inclusion in the context of the built environment.


Through this dissertation, I wish to emphasise the pivotal role of human factors in climbing and hence other spatial experiences. In the case of climbing, collaborative route-setting, involving decision-makers who understand how the space will be used, presents a design approach bridging the gap between information users and end users. While high-degree user participation in design has yielded positive results in research projects, it remains less common in large-scale commercial architectural projects. Moreover, the supportive environment within climbing centres, as observed in this study, exemplifies the value of recognising and celebrating differences, reducing the marginalisation of individuals based on abilities. Combined with the personal efforts of climbers in overcoming challenges, this underscores the significance of human involvement in creating an inclusive space, equally important as the physical environment itself.

Tian_fig 1.JPG

Fig. 1: Different types of climbing holds trigger different physical interactions between climbers and the walls. 

[1] Aram Attarian, 'Artificial Rock Climbing Walls - Innovative Adventure Environments,' Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 60, iss. 7, (September 1989): 28.

[2] Olga Belova, 'The Event of Seeing: A Phenomenological Perspective on Visual Sense-Making,' Culture and Organization 12, no.2 (2006): 105. 

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