Reading Assignment: Atmospheres by Peter Zumthor


In Peter Zumthor’s ‘Atmospheres’, he talks about his insights on Architecture. He presents a refreshing comparison of Architectural environments as a work of art, comparing his designs to music that touched people quickly and deeply. He hoped to garner the spontaneous emotional response from the viewers and visitors of his Architectural works and to provide unobtrusive support to people living it in. In this reading, Zumthor summarises his way of approaching Architectural environment into nine chapters and three appendices.


Everything in the Architectural environment ‘speaks’ to the people in a way or the other. Through the interaction between the environment and people, emotions are evoked. Zumthor defines atmosphere as an important aspect of an architectural environment, in which the atmosphere includes the sound, texture, forms, and lighting of the place that the person is immersed in. Essentially, whatever that can be picked up by one’s five senses are factors that contribute to the atmosphere. Zumthor then likens an Architectural environment to that of a body. He posits that Architectural design does not stop at the façade of the environment but also things that are unseen just like what goes under the skin of a physical body. What we could all see in public and what should be hidden on in the inside the building could also portray a different ‘image’ of the building.


A&E at Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Wards in Tan Tock Seng Hospital

The interplay of different materials can result in many outcomes when used in an environment. Zumthor cannot emphasise more on the possibilities of how different treatment and combination of materials could give rise to different feelings. Not only should one imagine the effect of combining different materials in one environment, it is also important to go to actual sites to explore the actual effect of these materials. By doing so new possibilities could also be generated as one’s five senses work together to experiment with the best combination. Once the combination has been decided, the ratio of each material used has to be explored on depending on the distance between materials and the scale of the building in question. It is the job of the architect to achieve the most optimal material combination for his Architectural design. As I read this part of his explanations, I couldn’t help but think of a hospital. It is common to see metal and plastics used in hospital, giving off a clinical and sterile vibe. However, the ratio and colour of these materials used in the hospital differ amongst various departments. The Accident & Emergency (A&E) department is a temporary holding area for patients, thus the A&E building emphasis more on directing people efficiently, discouraging people to loiter around unnecessarily. Steel and plastics of colder hues are more commonly used in this department, giving off a less welcoming atmosphere to the area. On the other hand, the Wards aim to let patients rest and recuperate. As such colours and objects that are warmer and some new materials such as wood will be introduced to evoke a sense of cosiness, allowing patients to recover with ease. When the combination of materials coheres with the intended emotions proposed, the building environment will then be successful in inducing people to react in a certain manner instinctively through the atmosphere of the place. To detect the emotion of the place without a verbal explanation is the ‘highest compliment for a design’ in Zumthor’s view.


The sound and objects placed in an environment also determine the overall atmosphere of the place. As highly sensitive individuals, a person relates what they experience with similar memories or knowledge. The ringing of a bell reminds people of school while shelves of book emit an academic setting throughout the library. Using human’s nature in associating objects and sound to orientate themselves, Zumthor observed that the effectiveness of an Architectural environment also depends on the chemistry between the sound, objects and building environment of a place. Like a piece of art, every detail contributes to the eventual effect of the artwork. In fact, ‘spatial art’ was what Zumthor used to describe Architectural environments. In his example of the Bienefeld house, he was fascinated by the things that people put in their house be it the interior or exterior. To him, it is these details that create a holistic outlook of a place. The irony of this point is that anything that creates a sound or exists in the place affects the atmosphere of an environment, which also includes the people who visit the place. However, this atmosphere, in turn, provides feedback of the place to the people visiting it. The relationship between the atmosphere of an environment and the people becomes an infinite loop.


Towards the end, Zumthor mentions about the adjustment of lighting, scale, size, and dimension to suit the needs of the building environment. He encourages fellow architects to ponder carefully about where to ‘hollow’ out the shadows and what type of feelings different size and scale and induce in people. Simultaneously, he advocates on breaking away from conventional beliefs on issues of scale and to be bold about the choices made on these issues as long as it is in sync with the ambiance of the Architectural environment. Zumthor’s inclusiveness in his approach to Architectural environment shone new perspective to Architecture. In his thoughts, the definition of beautiful forms of a building or environment includes not only what the eye sees as aesthetically pleasing. In fact, the Architectural environment should not be seen as a standalone entity. All surrounding factors should be considered from the smallest details to the larger ecosystem encompassing the building.


All in all, if the optimal atmosphere is attained in the Architectural environment, by instinct, people will react to the place. Perhaps when the perfect harmony of all aspects that Peter Zumthor listed was achieved, a place will become memorable to many such that the emotions will be retained in the mind even if the site is demolished. If that is the true impact of an atmosphere, I could see the reason of how creating an Architectural environment captivates Zumthor.

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