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Embracing Architecture and Atmosphere

The second seminar in the series of three, as part of the forthcoming centennial celebrations of artists Tapio Wirkkala and Rut Bryk, addressed the topical theme of architecture and atmosphere. The seminar, held on 2 June 2014 at the Finnish Film Foundation and organised by the Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation and the Alvar Aalto Academy, asked two simple questions: How is the atmosphere of a space created? How do architecture and design contribute to the atmosphere? Esa Laaksonen, director of the Alvar Aalto Academy, phrased the topic pragmatically in his opening words: “When designing a building, how can one create an atmosphere that is homely and safe?”

The comprehensive replies by the distinguished invited speakers – professor Jean-Paul Thibaud from Cresson, the Centre for Research on Sonic Space and the Urban Environment; professor Tonino Griffero from the University of Rome Tor Vergata; and professor Gernot Böhme from the Institute for Practical Philosophy in Darmstadt – were far more challenging than what one could have expected from the seminar’s modest initiative. Architecture and atmosphere certainly form a theme that deserves to be explored both from design pragmatics and from the viewpoint of philosophy, social studies and aesthetics.

Jean-Paul Thibaud.
Jean-Paul Thibaud replying a question from the audience; behind Esa Laaksonen. Photo: Archinfo / AV.

“Humans are in the process of becoming designers of urban atmospheres”, professor Jean-Paul Thibaud argued and addressed the topic from the socio-aesthetics of lived spaces. Thibaud coined a phrase “installing an atmosphere” and called for the importance of understanding how an atmosphere – or an ambience – cannot be forced. Rather, following the ideas by Merleau-Ponty, Kafka, Spinoza and François Jullien, atmosphere is only “seconding the world”. For him, architectural ambience is no less than giving life to a setting. Thibaud proposed three stategies to come to terms with architectural atmospheres: the art of accompaniment;  the art of impregnation; and – following Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie – the art of tonalisation.

Professor Griffero’s enlightening approach preferred to discuss architecture and atmospheres from the viewpoint of qualities and “atmospheric affordances” or “encounters“.  “Man is surrounded by things that connote”, Griffeno argued and underlined the vaguely definable, faintly identifiable and contextual character of an atmospheric sensation. Establishing his speech on convincingly analysed phenomenological philosophy and aesthetic theory, he concluded that “architecture does not produce atmospheres, but only evoke them in the users”.

Tonino Griffero. Photo: Archinfo / AV.
Tonino Griffero. Photo: Archinfo / AV.

Both Griffero and Thibaud coupled architectural atmospheres with aesthetics and thereby politics. In Gernot Böhme’s lecture, the political aspect rested on his reading of architectural design as a form of stage setting. Ambience in architecture can come close to commodities’ aesthetics where the purpose of design is to make things attractive and to sell them.

According to Böhme, we should rather speak of designing in terms of Ancient Greek philosophy and “the ekstasis” of things: not to give things various properties, but to give them qualities that make them stand out and extend the value of use. “Design endows things with ekstasis”, Böhme argued and gave illuminating examples of the transparent Volkswagen production plant in Dresden, where marketing the brand begins already before the industrial manufacturing process, and The Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne by architect Jean Nouvel, where the functionally purposeless extension of the roof is meaningful by the way it embraces the breathtaking landscape.

Gernot Böhme. Photo: Archinfo / AV.
Gernot Böhme. Photo: Archinfo / AV.

Grounding on a reading of postmodernism as new humanism against the old Vitruvian one, Böhme concluded that “architecture is not about bodies but about space – space as you feel it”. He accompanied his argumentation with an image of Peter Zumthor’s seminal design for Therme Vals. As Böhme seemed to see it, architecture is an envelope or a backround for life, not a language and not an object. The attentive audience was rewarded with a philosophically demanding, yet intellectually exciting seminar closing with Jean-Paul Thibaud’s witty remark: “Is there an atmosphere if there is no people?” We can all agree with Juhani Pallasmaa, the chair of the panel discussion, that this seminar hopefully marked only the beginning of an expedition to the topic.



Gernot Böhme, Juhani Pallasmaa, Jean-Paul Thibaud and Tonino Griffero at the panel discussion. Photo: Archinfo / AV.
Gernot Böhme, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Jean-Paul Thibaud listening to Tonino Griffero at the panel discussion. Photo: Archinfo / AV.
Gernot Böhme, Juhani Pallasmaa, Jean-Paul Thibaud and Tonino Griffero at the panel discussion. Photo: Archinfo / AV.
Gernot Böhme, Juhani Pallasmaa, Jean-Paul Thibaud and Tonino Griffero. Photo: Archinfo / AV.