“We are spatial creatures; we respond instinctively to space” (Aronson, 2005)

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Narratives in Architecture_ Peter Zumthor

Architecture is more than just brick and concrete, it is more than a shelter or a structure, there is an invisible but omnipresent narrative that encompasses all spaces which transforms these spaces into places and thus, creates meaningful and immersive experiences. There is more that goes beyond functionality and aesthetics. Every Space has a narrative. A story that it speaks. Narratives surround Architecture so strongly and encompass every wall, material, shade of color, or any other element that the space is made up of. 

A space is an expanse existing at a specific coordinate and at a certain time. People create spaces to make a place out of them. Whether it is through design, art, conversations, or decoration, any kind of creation adds to its palatial quality. There is an exchange – a conversation, a give-and-take between people and spaces that is continuous and eternal. We try to define this conversation in the previous chapter through the various ways in which a human being perceives a space. Somewhere around touch and taste, the particles carrying memory were mentioned and thus, a definition of the perceptions of a space was starting to get highlighted. Communication is never one-way. It is always an exchange. A space listens to your stories but also yearns to tell you its.

Atmosphere of a Space

Every space has an atmosphere. Every space has a narrative that encompasses it. If you are in communication with your senses, it is quite inevitable to not recognize this atmosphere. Even if you are not, there is always a feeling you have of a space – almost a natural response. You just know it exists. And when you simply “know” a feeling, you make an agreement with yourself that it exists and then no other perception can come and alter it.

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Presence in Architecture (Photograph by Ivo Stani)

“I enter a building, see a room, and in a fraction of a second – have this feeling about it.” (Zumthor, 2006)

It is unthinkable to speak of atmospheres or Narrative-Driven Architecture without thinking of Peter Zumthor and the terminologies he uses to define this atmosphere. He begins by looking at the Body of Architecture – which comprises the material presence of architecture and compares it to the human body which is a very interesting analogy. For the body of an architecture functions quite similarly to ours. While some spaces are circulatory, some serve a very specific function, and somewhere in the midst of these lies the heart of the entire building.

He later elaborates on Material Compatibility – the way materials react with one another and radiate. Every tactile experience is different and even materials react to create this variance of experiences. There’s beauty in the way they react, a uniqueness. You never know what may become, or how they would react. The communication between matter through materials is almost euphoric and the possibilities are endless.

This is followed by the Sound of Space. Even materials have their own sounds. To be fair, even atoms make sounds. To add onto that, material surfaces will bounce off sound waves never in the same decibel. This is based on the material property as well as the tone of the sound in the room, which will also always never be the same. And even when external sound is cut off, the space speaks. Every space emits a tone.

Every space has a certain temperature. Zumthor talks of The Temperature of a Space through the tempering of the piano, the search for the perfect mood – comparing temperature to a psychological sense. How each material can be tempered to generate warmness or coolness in the environment.

Followed by Surrounding objects. Sometimes a space is defined more richly through its surrounding objects. For instance, a home is made of the familiar objects one keeps in a house to generate that feeling of homeliness. These also add to creating an atmosphere in a space.

Leading us to this gem: Between Composure and Seduction; an atmosphere of any space is defined so much by the involvement of movement. But this movement has less to do with directing people and more to do with seducing them. It exists in the way you enter a space and begin to feel you could stay there; it entices you to stay. It persuades you. It can feel like a voyage. This innate feeling of a space directs you. There is direction, seduction, letting go, granting freedom, guidance, preparation, stimulation – a pleasant surprise and eventually, relaxation.

There will always be a Tension between Interior and Exterior. It is an imperceptible transition of inside and outside that builds an incredible sense of place. Zumthor states thought-provoking questions that a space asks as it stands in between this tension of Interior and Exterior: “What do I want to see? Me or someone else using the building later when I am inside?” followed by “What do I want other people to see of me?” leading to “What sort of statement do I want to make publicly?”. The way a space says something to its surrounding spaces, a building says something to a street. It is the belongingness of the space.

Levels of Intimacy include proximity and distance. The size, dimension, scale, the contrast of the space’s mass to a person. These levels of intimacy can create varied and extreme atmospheres in a space. There is always an element of surprise existing in the transitions of these levels.

The light on things has always been one of the most important factors in creating spaces. The light is how one connects to the outside. All kinds of lightning – artificial and daylight create a hollow out of darkness and thus, strategically put can manipulate the atmosphere.

Spaces always become a part of their surroundings. This was briefly explained through the cycle of creation. Architecture as surroundings is another definition of a layer of atmosphere in a space.

Everything in this Universe comes together and finds itself. All spaces eventually become what they are set out to be. When everything refers to everything else and it is impossible to remove a single thing without destroying the whole, Coherence takes place.

The Beautiful Form. When all factors coherently come together, they assume a form. Every space finds its form. If a space’s physical and perceptive needs are taken into account while designing, the final form it results in is moving.

All these factors give rise to the Atmosphere of a space and physically define the Narrative in a space.

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Mass, Matter, and Light (Photograph by ArchNow!)

Narratives as Omnipresent Elements

To summarise, the narrative in architecture is not limited to words or tangible things; it evolves into an immersive experience shaped by the interaction of space, materials, sound, temperature, light, and surroundings. Peter Zumthor’s study of atmospheres in architecture reminds us that every environment tells a story, elicits emotions, and engages our senses profoundly. From the minute details of material compatibility to the dynamic tension between the inside and exterior, each factor helps to create a unified and relevant narrative in a space.

The beauty of narrative-driven architecture is its potential to compose a symphony of elements that speak to our human experiences and aspirations. It encourages us to engage in dialogue with the built environment, developing connections, emotions, and memories. As we continue to investigate and comprehend the power of narrative in design, we learn that every space has a tale to tell, waiting to be experienced, interpreted, and treasured by those who live there.

References:

Zumthor, P., 2006. Atmospheres: Architectural Environments, Surrounding Objects. s.l.:Birkhäuser. 

Aronson, A., 2005. Looking into the Abyss. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. 

Author

As an innovative Multi-Disciplinary Artist, Creative Director, and Architect, Mehr excels in intertwining diverse artistic forms—poetry, painting, music production, and design. Her work, deeply rooted in sustainable principles, showcases a unique blend of creativity and nature, crafting narratives that resonate with the essence of spaces and the broader artistic spectrum.