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Martin Bressani & Aaron Sprecher
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Atmosphere is a term of protean elusiveness, describing a phenomenon so evanescent and devoid of borders that our best instinct when involved with the practical world of architecture might be to avoid it as much as possible. Yet, the word imposes itself on all aspects of architectural criticism that describe the way space affects the beholder. Atmosphere, understood in the broad sense of a psychosomatic climate, is the overall perceptual, sensory, and emotive impression of a space or a situation. Philosophers of atmosphere describe it as the effective power of feelings, the spatial bearer of mood. As an analytical concept, atmosphere gives some measure of objectivity to our grasp of feelings in our surroundings while avoiding a conception of moods as mere projections of private mental states.

To be sure, architecture’s impact is not limited to the transmission of effect. Buildings protect and connect, open and close spaces, set directions, frame outlooks. We have learned, thanks to fifty years of spatial criticism in the wake of Michel Foucault, how architecture regulates and manages our bodies—how it divides and allocates space, reifying protocols, rules, codes, and institutions, to mold our conduct and determine our spatial practices. None of these dynamic forces necessitate the implication of emotional influences. What buildings “look like” or “feel like” is often considered mere gloss in or, rather, on the face of the surreptitious apparatus taking hold of us underneath. There is always a special pleasure for the critic to unveil what lies hidden beneath, demonstrating that what appears to be one thing is, in fact, another, favoring depth over appearances.

Atmosphere, in contrast, is a surface phenomenon. To appreciate architecture in terms of mood and ambiance is to sustain our attention on the foreground of sensations, drawing our focus away from buildings as fixed, cohesive objects with discrete forms and, often, discreet sociopolitical mechanisms. Perception, or the way space emits sensations, becomes the sole concern. Taking the user’s or the beholder’s point of view, atmospheric analysis has the advantage of relying on immediate experience, providing an accessible way to speak of architecture. A rich colloquial vocabulary exists to describe it: a space can be gloomy, murky, somber, gray, impersonal, indifferent, jovial, lively, sunny, uplifting, and so on. But the conversational character of these qualifiers should not make us conclude that atmosphere is inconsequential. On the contrary, our propensity to talk about it points to the fact that it has powerful and lasting effects on us. Perceiving space as a bearer of feelings is one of the most important ways that we orient ourselves in our daily lives. Thus, atmosphere is often our strongest memory of spaces we have experienced sensorially because it is inextricably bound to our first impressions of those spaces. It constitutes architecture’s most immediate communicative dimension, partaking of all sensory perceptions: sights, sounds, smells, textures, even tastes. It is impossible to turn off atmospheric influences, even if they are banal and we lose awareness of them. Furthermore, because they are inescapably present, atmospheric influences provide the basic expressive orientations in our environment, which is never devoid of meaning.

Even if a wealth of descriptive terms is available to characterize these influences, atmospheres remain elusive. Visible things may partly generate these influences, but atmospheres are themselves a complex manifold as invisible as the wind: “quasi-things,” as the Italian philosopher of atmosphere Tonino Griffero labeled them. From our interview with Griffero, we can gauge how complex atmospheric perception can be, both ontologically and phenomenologically. An atmosphere may generate impactful impressions that seem to precisely require no deciphering, yet to develop a knowledge of “how one feels” requires a special science of the phenomenon that is not entirely reducible to conscious cognition. One of the thorns in the side of atmospheric knowledge is the difficulty of disengaging it from the reigning mode of psychological explanation. Atmospheric effects may be subjective facts, but they are not pure creations of our mind as so many pathetic fallacies. They are transmitted affect; they exist in space. This spectral quality is at once atmosphere’s most fascinating and most elusive character. We feel strongly its effects, but not unlike Saint Augustine when confronted with the problem of defining time, as soon as we try to seize it, “we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.”1 This is one of the subtle forms of power that atmospheres wield: they inflect behavior and regulate mood.

As such, they may be as surreptitious as the Foucauldian “apparatus.” But whereas the latter is usually conceived in terms of knowledge structuring relations (institutional, technological, and spatial), atmospheres are precognitive, effective, and immersive. They are conspicuously direct and unmediated, yet evanescent and subject to change, like fashion. If we find it difficult to describe the precise character of a given atmosphere or to explain how it affects us, it is because, being neither objects nor information, they fall outside our inherited ontologies. We are less competent at capturing what lies hidden within the surface, rather than beneath it.

In its positive aspect, atmosphere is the essential ingredient that attunes or situates us in a meaningful social world, marking space as effective sites that makes us active and engaged in ordinary human situations. But atmospheres are not only experienced; they are also deliberately produced, which is the true subject of this issue of JAE. The flip side of atmosphere’s orienting function is that it can also be deliberately constructed to manipulate, engineering effects of suggestive enthusiasm or somatic escapism. Two articles in this issue of JAE offer greatly nuanced takes on this point: Lori Smithey’s essay on Philip Johnson’s breathtaking Crystal Cathedral is an analysis of architecture as a platform for Reverend Dr. Robert H. Schuller’s entertaining televangelist delivery of a self-help-styled ministry. Susannah Bieber’s essay is a historical account of architect Victor Lundy’s 1960 inflatable pavilion to house the Atoms for Peace traveling exhibition in Latin America, part of the US arsenal to convey the benefits of capitalist democracy abroad during the Cold War.

Every constructed atmosphere is to some degree manipulative, but not always as mass propaganda. It is probably fair to say that architects who work with a bare minimum of responsive design to anticipate a certain reception, including certain bodily responses. In most cases, architects seek to create an atmosphere suitable to the social situation that they are called upon to house. As Austrian satirist Karl Kraus famously wrote in 1913, “there is a difference between the urn and the chamber pot and culture plays on this difference.”2 In other words, the atmosphere of our funeral parlors must differ from that of our washrooms, lest they are disconnected from the life contexts to which they each belong. It would be foolish to resent an architect’s diligence in building for decency, conventions, and customs, all aspects that influence us on an atmospheric level long before we become cognizant of their sociopolitical mechanisms. Constructing an atmosphere that respects decorum may be a form of manipulation (and perhaps at times reification and consolidation), but this is necessary to keep our environments meaningfully oriented.

The integration of a building into a life-world, however, cannot be reduced simply to purposeful propriety, especially if that propriety is understood as the thoughtless repetition of conventions. Any life-world is historical in nature and, therefore, implies a future. In our interview with architect Miroslav Šik, the latter emphasized that to construct Stimmungen, the architect must proceed from historical references but that a measure of estrangement (Verfremdung) must be introduced into them as if atmospheric acuteness and awareness are strongest when historical references become uncanny. Šik conceived of the procedure in Brechtian terms because distanciation affords a space of critical reevaluation while avoiding utopian fantasies or escapism. David Shanks, in his provocatively “theatrical” reading of the courtrooms in Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Courthouse, described Mies van der Rohe’s technique of minimization, omission, and erasure of the court environment precisely in terms of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. The trial is cast as mere representation rather than as reality itself.

The construction of atmosphere can thus play a critical role in our self-evaluation. In his careful taxonomy of “activist” environments, David Goodman even speculated that a turn from activism as performance (as is it usually conceived today) to activism as the creation of immersive atmospheres may be a more effective agent of change while being more productively tied to the architect’s disciplinary tools and capacities. Perhaps Andrea Branzi’s paradoxical and slightly ironic Agronica—described with great acumen by Jason Rebillot as an at once pre- and post-industrial, artificial and agrarian, playful and sedating environment—is an example of what Goodman had in mind. Yet an ambivalence remains: Agronica is based on Branzi’s commitment toward more diverse, nuanced, and inclusive sociopolitics while retaining the spatial behaviors of post-Fordist capitalism.

Such ambivalent readings of architectural atmosphere, oscillating between emancipatory and reactionary politics, runs through most of the essays in this issue of JAE. Atmospheric perception may be an immediate, holistic, and emotional “being-in-the-world,” but it doesn’t exclude the need for interpretative intervention on the part of the beholder.

In our interview, Griffero gave the example of an impressive banking hall that may, for a loan applicant, express an aggressive atmosphere of power, while, for an employee, may express a quiet atmosphere of proud belonging. Both responses are generated by the same spatio-emotional atmospheric quality. The multiplicity of readings of the same space raises questions very familiar to the field of literary criticism and reception theory: how can a work imply the free interpretative intervention on the part of the “reader” while limiting the reader to describable “structural” characteristics that stimulate and regulate the possible interpretations? A “cooperative” activity between the work and its reader is necessary, as the latter must fill in the gaps, assigning value to a work that merely presupposes, implies, or promises fulfilment. In the case of the monumental banking hall, there may be nothing explicit to determine a domineering or inclusive intention; users must decide for themselves.

Linda Zhang and Biko Gray’s essay on the memorialization of the Canfield Drive site in Ferguson, Missouri, where Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, radicalizes this sort of question: how can the beholder not only freely interpret but also cooperatively generate space? Their point is that the commemorative atmosphere lingering on Canfield Drive does not express fixed historical narratives that reflect collective sentiments. Rather, those narratives always carry within them the fact that the past is prey to contested affective economies via various modalities of recollection. “Sympathize with Brown,” they wrote, “and the asphalt feels like it’s mourning … Sympathize with Wilson, however, and the asphalt feels tragic, though overcome with a feeling of justice served … ”

Atmospheres may make an impression on us involuntarily and bodily, but they remain open to radically different readings when precognitive impressions become cognitive statements. They refuse to be co-opted in the name of total manipulation (for example, when architectural atmospheres are carefully designed to achieve specific political objectives). As Griffero observed in our interview, a manipulated person is “always co-responsible for their seemingly irresistible involvement, and … no one is ever really involved in feelings that they clearly see as manipulative.” Atmospheric design, no less than architecture in general, is intimately tied to power. It orients our effective investment in particular spaces and thus seeks to restrict the possible field of action, as is the case with an imposing banking hall or a solemn funeral parlor. Whether or not such effective orientations destroy collective values that we feel we must protect remains an open question. Atmospheric construction emerges through ethics of situations, where abstract standards are less important than the particular (at times distancing) context in which a construct operates.

The guest editors wish to thank Cameron Macdonell, Research Associate at McGill, for his thoughtful editing help.

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A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 176, quoted by Tonino Griffero, Atmospheres: Aesthetic of Emotional Spaces (London: Routledge, 2016), 14.
Karl Kraus, “Nachts,” in Die Fackel vol. 15 (1913), 389, quoted and translated by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin in Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 89