In this post I will comment on Peter Zumthor’s Atmospheres.
Atmospheres is the transcription of a 2003 lecture given by Zumthor at the “Wege durch das Land” Festival of Literature and Music in East-Westphalia-Lippe. That is to say, it is the exact text of his lecture, word for word.
Now, having only read the transcription, I cannot say whether Zumthor is a good orator or not. It’s possible that he sounded great on the day of the lecture. But the written word is not the same as the spoken word, and in writing, this text is an absolute donkey’s arse to read through.
Did Frau Labs-Ehlert actually read the words she was committing to the page and think “Yes, this is a booklet that people will want to read”?
Atmospheres is so full of disjointed sentences and tangents that it invites comparisons to the ramblings of President Donald Trump, or perhaps the mumbled fever-dreams of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum. Labs-Ehlert writes in her preface: “To preserve the spontaneity and immediacy of Peter Zumthor’s words, editing of the lecture, delivered to more than 400 listeners, was kept to a minimum.” Unfortunately the only thing that has been preserved here is Zumthor’s inability to talk about the same topic for more than three seconds at a time. Truly a gripping tome of knowledge for the generations.
Now, on to the actual content of the reading.
Zumthor’s lecture is basically about how buildings and spaces can be designed to evoke an emotional response. This is what he means by “Atmosphere” – the intangible feeling created by the design and placement of tangible objects. He spends six pages’ worth of words trying to explain this groundbreaking concept, using such avant-garde terms as “Magic of the Real” to explain the novel phenomenon of feeling a certain way when you look at something.
The rest of the lecture is devoted to ways in which “atmosphere” can be crafted. He lists nine ways:
- “The Body of Architecture,” also known as “the way things are put together”
- “Material Compatibility,” or in other words, just “materials”
- “The Sound of a Space,” or “acoustics”
- “The Temperature of a Space,” self-explanatory
- “Surrounding Objects,” or “people and furniture in the space”
- “Between Composure and Seduction,” which is an incredibly pretentious term for “a space that makes people feel like doing something”
- “Tension between Interior and Exterior,” or “being aware of what is visible to the people inside and the people outside”
- “Levels of Intimacy,” or “how big or small things are compared to the viewer” or literally just “scale” except he complains it doesn’t sound right
- “The Light on Things,” or just, you know, “lighting”
He also lists three bonus things, just in case you thought the lecture was over:
- “Architecture as Surroundings,” or “Did you know that buildings are not only artistic objects, but things that people use in their everyday lives?”
- “Coherence,” which as far as I can tell means “don’t stray from the original point of the design”
And last of all, my favorite:
- “The Beautiful Form,” which means “Design good designs that look good, not bad designs that look bad.”
I think that Atmospheres is, at its core, actually a decent foundation for architects and other makers of spaces. It lists good fundamental principles for aspiring designers.
The problem is, as with most things emerging from the fine art world, that the author spends pages and pages trying to explain simple concepts as if they were much more deep and convoluted than they actually are. I can’t figure out if he has an ego the size of Wendlinghausen Castle, or he is just that bad at public speaking.
The entire contents of the lecture could have been written as a series of basic guidelines:
- Have a clear goal in mind for the experience you want to crate.
- Be mindful of how the space is laid out, how people will move through it, and what people will want to do in it.
- Be mindful of how large or small things will be in comparison to the viewer.
- Different materials and furniture evoke different feelings.
- Remember that the space exists in a larger context of its surroundings. People outside the space will be able to look through windows, etc. Likewise for people inside the space looking outside. How will this affect the experience?
- Don’t forget about lighting, sound, and temperature, which are a big part of the experience but not always obvious from a scale model.
See, I just wrote a more useful reading than Atmospheres and in 1/150 as many pages. Clarity is important and never more so than in a lecture. If you assign one student to read Atmospheres and one student to read the six bullet points I just wrote, who do you think will walk away with more useful information at the end of the day? Who will spend 2 hours trying to digest an artist’s disjointed ramblings, and who will spend 15 minutes comprehending the same ideas?
The amount of architectural knowledge I took away from Atmospheres is dwarfed by the amount of pain and suffering it inflicted on my psyche. No one should have to be subjected to such an atrociously written text. I finally understand why Grammarly exists, and pray that the authors of Atmospheres are now using it, for the betterment of the English language and humanity.