McSyn, San Francisco, USA, 2004

Mc Syn 2004

When a group of synesthetes goes to a McDonalds, the sensorial landscape changes...

“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 softer, indescribable kind of shock.  There were more shocks from metallic sounds of metal cookware and utensils being dropped on cooking counters ...” 

Laurie Buenafe,  Auditory to Proprioceptive syn.

Mc_Syn: Cross-Modal architectural portraits 


Marcos Lutyens


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Through cross-modal architectural portraits we investigate how the fabric of the city can change from a hollow, disembodied shell to one that defies stereotyping, as it constantly morphs and modulates to the inner pulse of the city’s inhabitants.

McSyn is a project that uses synesthesia to multi-sensorially and cognitively map the urban spaces around us, and McDonald’s in particular.  In a world of increasing global standardization we propose an angle of resistance through the singular filter of personal experience.  The synesthete ideates the world through an involuntary crossover of sensory and cognitive inputs, and thus builds a portrait of the surrounding landscape that defies the flattening stamp of corporate hegemony.  

 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    (1)



When we look at the urban fabric around us, we see a technological, social and cultural gravitation towards homogeneity, much as Jeffrey Inaba and Peter Zellner have pointed out in their project ‘Valdes,’ (2)  which is an insidiously ambiguous “celebration” of suburbia.  This homogeneity is achieved through media and coagulates like cholesterol in the landscape around us in the form of MediArchitecture, complete with its addictive pull on habit and behaviour.  This Mediarchitecture has a direct influence on patterns of behavior through the conscious mind: you see a billboard advertisement for Pepsi on the side of a building, so you buy the drink.  Some of this bombardment filters down through the conscious to the unconscious, and directs behaviour at a more automatic level.  This happens all the time, as very rarely do we respond immediately to corporate consumer cues: information grazed from the mediated landscape enters our minds and builds up intangibles such as product recognition or social consensus.  Of course there is a sliding scale operating here:

Media seduction as soft sell, media contagion as hardcore marketing, media infestation as subliminal advertising and media cooption as brainwashing.

Perhaps the most globally extended symbol of cultural uniformity embodied in architectural form is McDonald’s, 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. ìIt 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.

Our 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 experience, despite its strict uniform programmatic 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 synesthete, who experiences  an involuntary crossover of cognitive and sensorial perceptions. 

Synesthesia is an involuntary  mental phenomenon that primarily occurs when there is  a cross-over between any combination of the five senses.   Some synesthetic 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 entwined, but in many cases there is a cognitive/sensory linkage in which synesthetes 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 alternative branches are pruned. 


Color-letter syn

One of the participants in our study, a color-letter “synner,” Monica, was quick to point out that the colors of the McDonald’s 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 Monica’s white ‘o’ coincides with most other color-letter synners who almost universally experience ìoî 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” (hence the “arches” metonymy) 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 Monicaís 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 an objective code transmuted into  ‘qualia,’ the personal experience of sensory input.  In this case, the subjective response to color sensation  almost certainly varies from person to person (non-synners included) as a result of the cross-activation of sensory signals in a part of the brain called the “fusiform gyrus” which trumps more primary visual processing centers (3).  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 each letter does not happen through the “retinal” confusion of the color receptors in the retina, or indeed the color processing centers such as V4, but in other parts of the brain, 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,î as they appear to be generated purely through 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 associative 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 color of a food can greatly affect how its taste is perceived.  Brightly colored foods frequently seem to taste better than bland-looking foods, even when the flavor compounds are identical. Foods that somehow look off-color often seem to have off tastes. For thousands of years human beings have relied on visual cues to help determine what is edible. The color of fruit suggests whether it is ripe, the color of meat whether it is rancid. Flavor researchers sometimes use colored 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 colored 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.î (4)


Auditory-proprioceptive syn

Another core member of the group, Laurie, is an auditory-proprioceptive synner, which means that she internalizes sound within her body as a tactile experience.  She felt the sounds inside McDonald’s in a particularly singular and quite unsettling way, as the ambient noises of the space pierced, penetrated and punctured their way beneath her skin.  Reading this description, one can’t help feeling being immersed in some kind of force-feedback video-game, such as the Japanese video game REZ, (5)  in which sounds reconfigure the landscape as each sonic explosion sweeps through the senses.  Appropriately, the REZ video game comes equipped with a vibrator to stimulate inner sanctums, delivering the first-of-its-kind simulated and voluntary visual-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 my 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 in the torso and arms, like they were geometric.  It was annoying and ticklish.  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 servers 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 softer, indescribable kind of shock.  There were more shocks from metallic sounds of metal cookware and utensils being dropped on cooking counters and more.

The music coming from the speakers was more noticeable but, because I was not directly below them, it 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 synesthesia 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.”


Data-to-extended-proprioceptive syn

Perhaps the most curious of the syns, was that of Colleen who has a data-to-extended-proprioceptive syn, in other words, she projects data around her body, in a matrix of lines, shapes and vectors, including such information as tv channels, spatial dimensions, days of the week, months of the year, etc. She is known as a “higher” synesthete as her syn is driven by numerical correlation and not just sensory appearance alone.  This highly unusual type of data-syn was originally noted by Francis Galton, (6) a cousin of Charles Darwin. In Galton’s time, data-type synesthesia must have seemed to be curiously akin to the voluntary constructs of Simonides of Ceos and his method of loci, or science of memory (7). Currently, this type of syn seems to mesh with anticipatory visions of sci-fi neural worlds, such as in The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Total Recall.

This syn may also remind us of  William Gibsonís seminal  Neuromancer cyberpunk-novel, in which characters channel a  "...sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, [the] intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.”  (8)

In another scenario I have been working on, this psycho-topographical data-mapping approach was used in CychoPolis, a project in collaboration with Daniela Frogheri (8).  Our aim was to map the city of Cagliari, Sardinia from a vantage point that was uncontaminated by externally formed, mediated ideas,  30 engineering students in the city of Cagliari were asked to emotionally evaluate the terrain directly from their unconscious. The students were divided into groups and asked to choose 6 different points in the city of Cagliari. Each point corresponded to one of 6 different categories: commerce, circulation, public spaces, public buildings, private spaces and green spaces. Each student then listened to a short hypnotic induction in the selected locations. The audio hypnotic induction allowed the students to undergo a temporary lapse of acquired knowledge and memory, followed by commands to open up the senses to the location: in essence these engineering students were cast into an unconscious synesthetic mode. In trance, the students drew, or imprinted their impressions on paper, and upon awaking, precisely described their experience. 

Although the individual experiences were interesting in themselves, often revealing surprising and synesthetic or narrative emotional textures of the locations, what we were most interested in was finding common patterns, or emotional nodes or vortexes throughout the city. In order to build up a psycho-sensorial map of Cagliari, we asked the students to evaluate each location according to the four basic parameters of experience as established by Carl Jung: sensing and intuition, feeling and thinking, as well as whether the experience seemed embedded more in the past or the future.(9) The students were also asked to grade the impact of their experience on a scale of 1 to 10. This gave us an enormous set of data which could then be mapped back into the city of Cagliari. We began to see that certain areas or zones elicited a strong, intuitive response, whereas other areas or zones seemed to arouse feelings. In this way, the map of Cagliari begins to distort itself, with larger values or topographical "humps" emerging where students responded most strongly, and locations of weaker psycho-sensorial response begin to shrink. This type of mapping seems to mirror the idea of the "homunculus" (homo + unculus = little man), or the mapping of the senses onto the cerebral cortex. Just as hands and feet have more processing power devoted to them in the brain than, let us say, the shoulders, and as an extension our hands and feet occupy a larger sensorial terrain than our shoulders, so our mapping of Cagliari, inaccurate to the eye of the surveyor and the theodolite, seems a more accurate measure of how the city is experienced.  This way of mapping the world according to the weighting of experiences is what I call the “Geunculus” (geo + unculus = little world).

When transferring this data-mapping approach back to the McSyn project, we rendered the “geuncular” topologies from Colleen’s experience at McDonaldís by processing the data into a projected, invisible, yet tangible domain.

The image shows how Colleen involuntarily senses these invisible and yet almost tangible vectors around her body: a date line or calendar with relevant moments of interest, a weekday map, and a number line that includes prices, the McDonald's street address and the dimensions of the restaurant.  

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 perhaps  more  precisely “per-sensives.”

There is also evidence to suggest that a form of synesthesia exists in all of our brains, lending a transferability of this ìsyn-formationî 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.  (3)

This mental restructuring  may actually have led to humans being able to develop the sense of abstraction, as the different senses come together within a part of the brain called the “angular gyrus,” 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.  

One can envision a training camp for non-synners called “the Syn Lounge” in which trainees become syn-responsive, and later reincorporate themselves back into the urban landscape and dissolve the oppressive uniformity of the MediArchitectural hegemony.  The Syn-Lounge, partially inspired by the hyper-excitation of Nigel Coateís book “Ecstacity,” (11) is a boot-camp for multi-modal experience and its mission is to embed cells of syn-corporated people back into the urban fabric.  The Syn-Lounge is a space in which temperature, taste, smell, sounds, rhythms, light etc come together to extrude the sensorial horizons of those who take part.  The different environments within the space cycle through extreme scenarios pushing the emotional palette of the visitor to such an extent that involuntary sensory crossover begins to take root.

A complementary approach is Second 2kin, a project developed by Tania Lopez Winkler and myself that aims to generate an architecture that mirrors the inner self.  Second 2kin is a project that involves architecture students and professionals from around the globe with the aim of generating a new approach to architecture. The project began in June of 2001 as an experimental project with some students from the Architectural Association in London, and has extended to workshops, exhibits and performances most recently at Millenium Point in Birmingham, UK, which was organized by the Fierce Festival and RIBA. 

Second 2kin starts by examining patterns, qualia and structures seated within the unconscious that relate to conceptions of shelter and dwelling. Following Jung's ideas on unconscious archetypes, we flesh out what could be termed “intratypes.” Intratypes may be defined as recurring dynamic patterns of our unconscious interactions and mental programs that give coherence and structure to our experience, and manifest as conscious thought, intelligence and actions.

These modules of mental processing are coaxed out through an application of a hypnotic induction technique and projected into the terrain of architecture. Following suggestions of amnesia (lack of memory) and agnosia (lack of knowledge) which disengage the subjects from conscious, mediated tendencies to apply filtered external conceptions to their thought processes, such as contamination from media or indirect peer pressure, they are asked to extend their consciousness to envelop a ìSecond 2kin.î The Second 2kin is an architectural space that corresponds to an enlarged self, that comprises aspects of memory, brain function and deeply rooted notions of protection and shelter. Essentially, Second 2kin uses the processes of mind as a model for architectural approaches that resist the tendencies towards global standardization and at the same time uses architecture as a metaphor for housing the collective ìspace of mind.î

The data is then fed into a ìfitness functionî program that sorts the collective results into a general architectural approach that is drawn from within the self, rather than endlessly self-replicated through cookie-cutter culture.

Ultimately, whether through the examination of multi-modal synesthesia or through measuring the pulse of the unconscious mind, it is imperative to find an angle of resistance to the psychological and behavioral template imposed on us by what I earlier termed ìMediArchitecture.î In both cases, whether examining natural syn or induced syn we can begin to find clues as to how to retain a personal “umwelt” or “self world” a notion that was first defined by the scientist and philosopher Jakob von Uexk¸ll.(12) The only way to do this is by prioritizing the corporal over the corporate.


Marcos lutyens   2004  ©

1) Phenomenology of Perception an Introduction: Merleau-Ponty,  Maurice 

Taylor & Francis Books Ltd : 0415278414  May 2002


2) ValDes


3) Neural cross wiring and synesthesia

V. S. Ramachandran and E. M. Hubbard

Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD, La Jolla, CA, USA  ISSN 1534-7362 December 2001


4) Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal Is Doing to the World  

Eric Schlosser

Penguin Books  ISBN: 0141006870   2002


5) Rez

Genre: Action>Shooter>Rail Designed By: UGA 

54KB Memory, Dual Shock, Dual Shock2, Trance Vibrator 


6) Galton, Francis.  1997/188.   "Colour Associations." In S. Baron-Cohen and J. Harrison (Eds.); 

 Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings; Oxford, England: Blackwell.  Pp. 43-48.  Blackwell Publishers  ISBN: 0631197648  December 1996


7)Teaching for the two-sided mind   Linda Williams

Touchstone; Reprint edition (May 15, 1986) 

ISBN: 0671622390 

8) Neuromancer (Remembering Tomorrow)  William Gibson

Ace Books; Reissue edition (May 1, 1995) 

ISBN: 0441569595 

9) Collected works of C.G.Jung, Volume 6: Psychological Types Bollingen Series 

ISBN: 0691097704 



11) Ecstacity Nigel Coates

Princeton Architectural Press, 2003  ISBN:1568984243


12)Von Uexkull, J. (1934).  A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men. In C. Schiller (ed.), Instinctive Behavior, New York, International Universities Press, 1957. ISBN:0823628809


Special thanks to Laurie Buenafe, Daniela Frogheri, Oliver Hess, Tania Lopez Winkler, Colleen Silva.