Revisiting Atmosphere in Architecture

Marina Tabassum Architects, Biat ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2012 [© Sandro di Carlo Darsa]

The Modernist tradition has bequeathed us a narrow definition of air in inhabited space; in The Radiant City (1933), Le Corbusier formulated the ideal of “exact air” as a specific mixture of gases at optimal temperature and humidity.1Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a Doctrine of Urbanism (London: Faber, 1967). In contrast, in The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (2018), Gernot Böhme argues that atmosphere functions as an affective, sensual, and meaning-giving substance.2Gernot Böhme and Jean-Paul Thibaud, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (London: Routledge, 2018). The hermetically-sealed Corbusian environment separates its inhabitants from the outside world and de-sensualizes them, amputating the embodied perception of atmosphere that Böhme describes. Architecture as an expressive language — one that creates a sense of belonging and speaks to the observer with a sense of affect — is often lacking in today’s discourses. I would argue that contemporary architects must strive to reconceptualize the idea of air and atmosphere as more than simply a germ-free, comfortable medium, and instead make it a vital, inspiring facet of living spaces — one with meaning and spirit.

The ancient concept of air understood it as a life-giving, inspirational medium to which we are elementally connected.

In pre-industrial architecture such as the Renaissance Villa Aeolia in Veneto, Italy, no strict separation was made between air and atmosphere.3Villa Aeolia was built in the 16th century by Francesco Trento and is named after Aeolus, Greek god of the winds. See Barbara Kenda, Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited (London: Routledge, 2006). The pneumatic architecture of this period understood air as an animated spirit that could create a positive presence within a building and that explicitly promoted “spirited” wellbeing. As the architectural historian Barbara Kenda explains, spirit or spiritus in this context refers to the interconnected notions of air, breath, and spirit, all terms that have their origin in the Greek pneuma. Variously defined as “to blow,” “breath,” or “wind,” pneuma is simultaneously material and immaterial. The ancient view of air as pneuma and/or (a)ether thus made it cognate and contiguous with atmosphere — a life-giving, inspirational medium to which we are elementally connected.4Abraham P. Bos, “‘Pneuma’ as Quintessence of Aristotle’s Philosophy,” Hermes 141, no. 4 (2013): 417–34.

David Mayernik, Analytique of Villa Eolia, n.d., watercolor, in Barbara Kenda, Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited, (London: Routledge, 2006) [David Mayernik]

By promoting the sense of air as spirit, architectural space can be understood as what Paul Emmons and Marco Frascari have described as a “meaningful plenum” rather than an “irrelevant vacuum.”5Paul Emmons and Marco Frascari, “Making Visible the Invisible,” in Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited, ed. Barbara Kenda (London: Routledge, 2006), 87.  This sense of air as an emotive aura is achieved through the balancing, or intermingling, of inside and outside in a designed space. In Villa Aeolia, the natural air-conditioning system employs a tunnel that circulates cave-cooled air through a cryptoporticus. The passageway’s secondary use as a wine cellar gestures towards another aspect of the balanced life that was sought after in the design of the building.6Paul Emmons and Negar Goljan, “The Contrasting Atmospheres of Cave-Cooled Villas in Modern Virginia and Renaissance Veneto,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the South East Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Greenville, SC, 2019.

The spiritual dimension of air as atmosphere is also embraced in more recent architecture, such as the San Paolo Church (2009), Bait ur Rouf Mosque (2012), and The Shadow House (2017). In these buildings, atmosphere stimulates multi-sensorial responses to space through the use of light and shadow, along with plentiful air. These poetic constructions employ simple elemental substances — air, brick, light, wood, concrete — to create spaces that produce moments of sensorial reflection and promote wellbeing as an attuned state.

Fuksas Studio, San Paolo Church, Foligno, Italy, 2009 [© Moreno Maggi]

San Paolo Church, for instance, designed by Fuksas Studio and located in Foligno, Italy, creates a sense of elemental sacred immanence through the use of light beams and a suspended volume. In the process, the design manages to borrow formal languages from both Boullée and Le Corbusier.7For more on this idea, see Marcia F. Feuerstein, “‘In the sky with diamonds’ of Ronchamp’s East Wall: Constellations of Thought,” Montreal Architectural Review 6, (2019), 29–43. Its design advocates for the re-narrativization of architectural design to consider modern spirituality. The pinnacle of its architectural achievement is in provoking emotion — a fusion of pure design and emotive necessity.

The understanding of air as atmosphere is also practical.

The understanding of air as atmosphere in these buildings is also practical, and is used to help control for humidity, odor, and temperature. In the Bait ur Rouf Mosque, designed by Marina Tabassum Architects and located in Dhaka, Bangladesh, calligraphic perforated Jali bricks create a welcoming sense of atmosphere that reverberates throughout the complex. The space functions almost as a transitional zone between the internal and the external; the bricks facilitate ventilation by providing a refreshing breeze and create an airy, elemental synergy between inside and outside. In the Shadow House, designed by Samira Rathod Design Associates and located in Mumbai, wooden shutters provide controlled lighting while also encouraging cross-ventilation, which reduces heat build-up in the rooms. This, and the juxtaposition of the courtyard and a wooden balcony, help to light the residence from within, in terms of affection as well as illumination.

Samira Rathod Design Associates, Shadow House, Maharashtra in Alibaug, India, 2017 [© Edmund Sumner]

Right now, the treatment of air and atmosphere in architecture tends to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Architects, designers, and urban planners are urgently being challenged to respond to new hygiene- and isolation-based paradigms, and measures such as social distancing, self-isolation, and sanitation may bring to mind the highly controlled interiors of Modernist space. However, post-COVID, I believe it will be important once again to think of air as atmosphere, and to create spaces that balance elemental human connections and health-based necessities for our holistic wellbeing.

Notes

  1. Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a Doctrine of Urbanism (London: Faber, 1967).
  2. Gernot Böhme and Jean-Paul Thibaud, The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (London: Routledge, 2018).
  3. Villa Aeolia was built in the 16th century by Francesco Trento and is named after Aeolus, Greek god of the winds. See Barbara Kenda, Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited (London: Routledge, 2006).
  4. Abraham P. Bos, “‘Pneuma’ as Quintessence of Aristotle’s Philosophy.” Hermes 141, no. 4 (2013): 417–34.
  5. Paul Emmons and Marco Frascari, “Making Visible the Invisible,” in Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited, ed. Barbara Kenda (London: Routledge, 2006), 87.
  6. Paul Emmons and Negar Goljan,“The Contrasting Atmospheres of Cave-Cooled Villas in Modern Virginia and Renaissance Veneto,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the South East Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Greenville, SC, 2019.
  7. For more on this idea, see Marcia F. Feuerstein, “‘In the sky with diamonds’ of Ronchamp’s East Wall: Constellations of Thought,” Montreal Architectural Review 6, (2019), 29–43.

About the Author

Negar Goljan

Negar Goljan is a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, studying architectural history and theory. She received her M.Arch with distinction from the University of New Mexico and was awarded the AIA Henry Adams Medal. Her research concerns the realm of poetics in architecture, in particular the atmospheric drawings of Étienne-Louis Boullée as conduits for architectural-existential meaning.