Meghdad Sharif is founder and CEO at MESH office based in Madrid & Tehran. He is an architect, researcher and lecturer and holds degrees in Architecture & Environmental Psychology at University of Tehran. He is also the founder and CEO at Banamid research institute. With years of practice in cross-disciplinary studies and architectural practice, now he has focused the design practice in MESH office on a search for and praise of atmosphere in architecture.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #45 – Summer 2020
The word atmosphere originates from ancient Greek words atmos meaning vapor, and sphaira meaning globe.
Even this very basic philological glance at the word atmosphere reveals a lot about the reason why it is important to discuss it in architecture or any other discipline that relates to the space.
Atmos is vapor and scatters through the infinite space or the interstellar as it is called in astronomy unless it is affected by a strong field of gravity. Thus, not all globes – architectures – have a strong gravity around them to establish an atmosphere! On the other hand, there are very different atmospheres to imagine being established around a space or place. Some are vital, vivid and bright, while others even pestilential! It is in this philological sense that one could ask that if architecture is a globe, then what kind of architectural space can produce such a gravity that attracts and gathers all the vividness and life around it!
There is more to this philological parable: as the establishment of atmosphere around any planet is a most important basis for the formation of life, the planet does not produce life unless in synthesis with the atmosphere around it. Hence, we could see that the built architecture does not necessarily attract life around it. It is in this respect that we can assume the theory of atmosphere in architecture, as a theory that concerns withhow architecture comes to life, by organizing the life around it. When the theory comes to deal with the design process, then the question is how to create such a gravity, whereas architects famous for atmospheric architectures each have different viewpoints on this matter.
Another viewpoint for discussing atmosphere in architecture is the way atmos surrounds the sphaira. It is interesting that it is said that atmospheric architecture in 20th century was born only when Bruno Taut visited the Shoiken Tea House 2 and conveyed his interpretation of the place to others who adopted the Japanese style in their modernist approach. This led to the creation of masterpieces such as Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van der Rohe. Taut was astonished 3 by the way in and out were made relative, spectral and replaceable in Japanese architecture of space. This fact, which is known as a basis for atmosphere in architecture 4 , is defined by the way architecture fades into the surrounding landscape. This is the realm where atmospheric effects of the place become a thing; the same way atmos surrounds the sphaira. In other words if there is no mentionable design in an architecture defining in and out, and the thresholds in-between, then there is not much of atmosphere to talk about, although if one misunderstands this in terms of big openings and utmost glazed facades, then it would be helpful just to take a look at architectural works of ones such as Peter Zumthor, where the splendid atmosphere created in the space is never a straight relative of the openness of the building envelope or the amount of transparency, but a thing about the quality of how inside and outside are made relative and connected. Therefore, when talking about atmosphere one usually finds it common between different thinkers that atmosphere is more about quality rather than quantity.
It is helpful to have a review on approaches like structuralism, some branches of brutalism, soviet architecture, and some aspects of the Team10 group, where they also have made focuses on the relation between in and out, and the threshold as an important space of architecture to pay attention to. The defining difference is the fact that these approaches, despite their many differences, all were focused on social relations of human society as the criteria for evaluating architectural design in respect to the way it connects the inside and outside worlds.
A consequence was that the exemplary projects of these movements were mostly public spaces, public housings, urban zones, street life around dwelling areas, and city apartments. Some of these architects in their youth, 1950’s and 60’s, were even inspired by patterns they had discovered in middle-east and north African traditional dwellings, where the urban structure shaped by climate had no resemblance to what they already knew from Europe: the concepts of in and out, as well as public and private, closed and open were so interestingly relative that they tried to adopt some of them in their works of architecture. It is interesting that some of these works, Aldo Van Eycke’s Amsterdam orphanage being a best example, are masterpieces of their time. But this very project is a good example of how their discovery was not to be limited only to social aspects of architecture. It is just by looking at the photos of this orphanage that one finds there is something beyond human relations and human activities that frames the spaces and their views in this building, so that even without the presence of the children using the building, the images are astonishing; the way thresholds make a space between in and out, the way lintels are opened up to make the openings even more plastic, and the way cylindrical pillars define a space around the columns remind us of the atmosphere which is there, even without human presence. such a work of architecture not only succeeded in responding to the social needs of the project but also opened up a view to the theory of the architectural beauty in a way that was rarely seen at least during the century.
Where these earlier approaches rendered their discovery of the thresholds around social concepts, the atmosphere discourse generalizes it to an aesthetic matter. With the pre-mentioned philological preface, it would be helpful to refer to the flora and fauna of a place, especially a landscape instead of the humans of a mere urban context, to clarify the step forward that atmospheric architecture has taken in this matter. It is not coincidence that in later decades architects used urban landscape many more times than before, where they used urban context during the 50’s and 60’s when social aspects of architecture were topics of the day.
In this respect earlier events of the previous century, including Bruno Taut’s discovery of the Shoiken tea house and it leading to Barcelona pavilion by Mies, are better precedents of what architects like Zumthor are now practicing. It is to most extent because of the heritage that the traditional Japanese architecture left for the modernists to build upon. It is this tradition that respects the landscape and the flora and fauna as we know it in contemporary space of the 21st century.
The contemplation, absoluteness, basic senses, and self- presence one can find in this traditional theme is never comparable with any merely modern thought.
For this praise of the landscape, natural environment and senses activated by exploring the scene, it is usual to find the recent atmospheric architecture most resembling in spatial qualities to pre-modern architectures 9 of any era or culture, where the limitlessness of the time and nonexistence of modern life hitches resulted in architectural spaces where calmness, nature, light, sound and feelings played differently in defining the space. Despite this resemblance it seems that architects of atmosphere use very modern and contemporary architectural details, especially as for the material design, although they usually avoid mass produced market details and prefer modern understanding of the material rather than machine producing it. This reminds us of the contradictory example of Mies’s Barcelona chair that despite being one of the best examples of modernism, was produced as a handicraft while Bauhaus was mass producing things in the same period.
Modernization of construction technology during the last 150 years has made tremendous challenges and changes in different fields of architecture. Whereas constructing a Gothic church took sometimes even more than decades 11 ,it is now just a matter of how early the clients need their projects to be delivered.
The time taking process of traditional construction essentially resulted in a somehow atmospheric architecture.
That is because of the very nature of atmosphere, and how time matters in shaping it. Not only the constructors and many different people around the life of a building used to spent years on a construction, leaving traces of their lives to be seeds of an atmosphere there, but the flora and fauna also had a much better-balanced ground to grow upon and interact with the architecture.
The other aspect is how time gave the traditional designer the privilege to observe their design built in 1 to 1 scale, review it and redesign it in the further phases of the building. Maybe this is one of the reasons why architects like Zumthor prefer big scale moquette as their main design tool. Because it resembles in the best way to that premodern experience.
The role time plays in comparing traditional and atmospheric architecture, is not the only role it has in defining atmosphere in architecture. Many texts on time in architecture, especially the ones with more of a phenomenological approach like ‘the timeless way of building’ are as if they were written about atmosphere in architecture. Any viewpoint on architecture that focuses on the relativeness of the senses and the space, is somehow dealing with time. In this view one could say that atmospheric architecture is a place where time is experienced differently from the everyday and usual sense of it.
What makes atmosphere architecture a matter of discussion more than before in the 21st century, is the extents to which the technical aspects of construction industry have been developed during the last decades of the previous century. Data management and CAD design have given the architect a chance to leave many technical aspects of the design to be dealt with by technicians of various fields, so that the architect can once again focus on more essential aspects of the design: atmosphere.
There has been a concern among critics of the modern era, that designers no longer are dominant on their designs.
They believed, and some still do, that the fast growth of technical aspects of construction field no longer lets there be an architect who knows everything and can lead all acting forces of the field into a meaningful end. The ideal era for this kind of architecture is gothic architecture: an architecture that fully conveyed the sense of its epoch and dominated all aspects of arts and everyday life and was one of the most atmospheric spaces ever created.
The realities of the recent decades, nonetheless, revealed another side of this modern era, especially with introduction of data management into the field of construction and architecture, which in its most recent developments resulted in BIM industry. It is now known to us that these multibranch subfields of architecture industries not only don’t mislead the architects into unconscious design, but also give them an unprecedent possibility to master many aspects of their profession without a need for dedicating so much effort and time in learning them by themselves and in real-time. Modern catalogs and brandings of construction industry carry this burden and the architect is free to design.
Structural systems are dealt with specifically in structural design firms and design teams and the result is discussed and coordinated with the architect. Material brands give their catalogs and detailing data to the design team and support them with coordinated shop drawings. Mechanical systems are presented to the design team and implemented in architectural drawings. Lighting companies make any architectural scheme reachable to an architect and all these not only don’t make an architect confused or inactive in design process, but enables them to create more than ever , and to achieve timeless qualities of atmospheric architecture in a much faster way.
While all materials of a construction are provided by subfield industries, architects are now freer than ever to compose whatever symphony they want with them. Now the architect is the composer of tastes. Taste is then a very good viewpoint for understanding the theory of atmosphere in architectural design. Architects of atmosphere now are talking about the sounds of materials, their tastes, their smell and spatial effect, far beyond its very technical characteristics or texture.
If a symphony is composed of spectrums of sound and the harmony between them, an atmospheric space is now deploying all human senses; not the senses in its classic definition but all that there is as a spectrum between these 5 phases of cognitive senses. architects are now seeking to create spatial experiences that oscillate between a visionary image and a hearable symphony, they create textures with lights, spaces with sounds, and sense of place with smell.
Examples of contemporary atmospheres show that we are not concerned with providing the maximum light, as we were in the early decades of the previous century. Now it is the spaces we create with light that matter.
Luis Kahn was a master in creating spaces with light. He used geometry in designing ordinary architectural elements of space to achieve light-made spaces Shapes made from light were the results. Zumthor on the other hand does not seem to be much interested in processing the form in respect of its shape or geometry. He prefers the material as his concern for architectural space. how materials are detailed, especially in their conjunctions is how the architect can
express an idea or evoke a feeling in the user. Zumthor uses materials and their detailing to filter lights, to create effects rather than shapes. Effects usually result from repeating patterns some of which are moving and temporary, like the shadows cast by the flora of the near landscape, or lights reflected from moving waves of pools inside concrete boxes.
One could say that contemporary psychology of space has influenced our perspective of the architectural design, and as a result now we are not merely concerned with visible shape, as it mattered during the previous century. The architects of atmosphere are now searching for feelings that are experienced through using all human senses. The most recent major shift in built environment psychological studies was to recognize movement of the subject through the space as the base for cognition. Before that there was a static understanding of the process of perceiving things dominant in the field. This static understanding weights only on vision as the medium to realize the space. The recent dynamic theory that gives the privilege to the movement, makes the subject much of a relative nature. This introduction of relativeness challenges the vision as the only sense to be discussed when talking about the environmental psychology.
Atmospheric architecture not only reconsiders senses other than vision to play a role in designing architectural spaces, but also has redefined how vision should be dealt with. Whereas Kahn looked forward to create shapes with light, and defined clear and big zonings between light and shadow through the space, Zumthor creates place changing patterns of light and shadow which avoid any visionary defined experience and tend to more of a hypnotic effect, where vision is challenged and a more ambiguous sense of the place is evoked.
Ambiguity is an adjective many use in explaining atmosphere in architecture. More than that, it is common in everyday language to use atmosphere for explaining rather unexplainable feelings and affections. In cinema the term is used for movies of nonconventional spatial qualities. It is not surprising that we find such movies more related to theatre, especially in terms of stage design. Directors use stage like lighting and arranged stages to create more atmospheric effects. In a more general sense, it is common that people nowadays find the movies from early decades of the previous century very atmospheric and mysterious. A good reason for that is the use of early lighting techniques that were more of a theatrical nature and different from what one is used to experience in natural environment. Hitchcock mastered such techniques to create great atmospheres. It is interesting how he used architectural
references to make his atmospheric ambiences even bolder.
Using gothic architecture in the background, lighted up with theatrical spotlights that lack the shades and are defined by shadow and light only, is a good example of his atmosphere creating techniques. One could go further in following cross references between cinema, architecture and theater even back to Michelangelo and his Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana known as Michelangelo’s library, where he designed a theater stage in the stairs hall, creating that nonfamiliar feeling of being in a mis-placed place, having one’s sense of the place played with and tangled.
Today the theory of atmosphere in architecture has many results on the design process for architects. Some are focused on detailing as their main tool for creating atmosphere, others aim for integration of open space and indoor space in their spatial designs, many are trying to blur the borders between architecture and landscape, others are searching for unique spatial experiences.
The theory in practice, has influenced the design teams as well. Other than the real architecture produced and built, now there is a vast shift taking place in architectural presentation, from aiming for real 3d presentations to more atmospheric ambiences and new technologies beyond static images. Virtual reality is now becoming a common practice in architecture firms for giving the clients a better understanding of the space to be built.
1 Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/atmosphere
2 Gernot Böhme, ‘Atmosphere as Mindful Physical Presence in Space’, OASE 91, p.25
3 See Don Hanlon’s description of this history in ‘Compositions in Architecture’, 2009, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. P.24
4 Gernot Böhme, ‘Atmosphere as Mindful Physical Presence in Space’, OASE 91, p.25
5 See the book ‘Team 10: In Search of a Utopia of the Present 1953-1981’Jos Bosman, M. Christine Boyer, and others, 2006, nai010
6 See Don Hanlon’s description of this history in ‘Compositions in Architecture’, 2009, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. P.186
7 See the photos of the building in ‘Lessons for Students in Architecture’ Herman Hertzberger.
8 See Hertzberger’s interpretations of that space in his book ‘Lessons for Students in Architecture’
9 See Christopher Alexander’s theory on old constructions and their atmospheric effect. ‘the timeless way of building’ by Christopher
10 See a history of the chair in ‘1000 chairs’ Charlotte & Peter Fiell, TASCHEN, 2019.
11 See Helen Gardner’s description of Gothic architecture in ‘Art Through the Ages’.
12 Review the news on Leishenshan Hospital, famous in COVID-19 period, as one of the most rapid constructions ever.
13 See OASE 91’s editorial article by Klaske Havik and Hans Teerds and Gus Tielens, where they describe Zumthor’s designing expe-
14 See Peter Zumthor’s ‘Atmospheres’ Peter Zumthor, Birkhäuser Architecture, 2006
15 See Zumthor’s project: Thermal Bath Vals in Graubünden, Switzerland.