Historical evolution of the atrium has seen it gain significance, from a transitory space in the Roman household to a congregation arena in Christian basilicas. 

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Ancient Roman atrium © www.ancientvine.com
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Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, Milan © Mario Gabrieli 

1. Book Palace in Helsinki | Atriums

Location: Helsinki, Finland
Year of Completion: 1969
Architects: Alvar Aalto
Project Type: Commercial – Retail

The deep and brightly-lit 3-storey atrium of the bookstore makes a warm and welcoming interior. It features three geometric diamond-like skylights that penetrate down into the volume, veritably funnelling the light into the space. 

The white marble cladding provides a backdrop for the multitude of colourful books displayed across each floor. The intimacy of the space is elevated by the atrium that connects the many users navigating the bookshelves.

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The atrium and its geometric skylights © Ariel Kalil via Instagram
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Building Section showing the Atrium © greatbuildings.com

2. Class of 1945 Library, Phillips Exeter Academy 

Location: New Hampshire, USA
Year of Completion: 1972
Architect: Louis Kahn
Project Type: Institutional  – Library

Kahn’s sensitivity towards light and material shines through the atrium of this library designed in 1972, named after late Principal Dr Lewis Perry. He envisioned it not just as a space for storing and displaying publications, but one to facilitate quiet reflection and curiosity.

The 70 feet high square atrium is accessed from a staircase to the first floor, the top of which a clerestory opens to receive ample daylight. The deep cross beams at the clerestory level are structural elements that additionally diffuse and distribute the light into the atrium.

Large circular openings puncture the atrium walls to lend visual connectivity, and bookshelves surrounding the atrium and are perceived by users through the openings. The concrete structure is softened by natural wood to give the space additional warmth. 

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The grand piano in the atrium where the library often sponsors lectures and concerts © Iwan Baan
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Building Section showing the Atrium © https://www.architectural-review.com/

3. DZ Bank Building

Location: Berlin, Germany
Year of Completion: 2001
Architect: Frank Gehry
Project Type: Mixed – Commercial (Bank) and Residential (Apartments)

The large 5-storey atrium is accessed through the foyer, with an intricate composition of curved glass ceiling and floor. The light entering the atrium fills the space and adjoining offices with windows facing it. 

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The Atrium with sculptural glass ceiling and flooring © http://moderni.co/

The steel-wire framework of the skylight breaks its sculptural form into a triangular grid. A stainless steel-clad conference room sits as a sculptural focal point in the atrium, with two winding pathways around the first floor banquets and a conference area are visible through the glass ceiling below the atrium.

The organic shell and crystalline atrium are contrasted by the wood-covered rectilinear interior façade.

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Building Section showing the Atrium © Gehry Partners

4. Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart

Location: Stuttgart, Germany
Year of Completion: 2006
Architects: UNStudio
Project Type: Public – Museum

The museum is a homage to Stuttgart’s pioneering manufactures and automobile innovators, with a trefoil building structure equally manifested in its atrium. The 8-storey void houses the elevator system and is flanked by two spiralling ramps that cross each other like the DNA spiral. The visitors take the elevator to the topmost floor and begin their descent through the ramps across each of the three display sections.

Each of the platform levels that is a part of the chronological narrative is one “leaf” of the trefoil organized around the “stem” of the atrium. The fenestrated walls add to the display bringing visual connectivity.

The in-situ concrete structure has a skylight at the top along with a bespoke ‘tornado’ system of 144 air nozzles to expel smoke from the building in case of a fire.

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The atrium with the skylight and featuring the world’s biggest artificial tornado system © Mercedes-Benz Museum via Twitter
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Building Section showing the Atrium © www.miesarch.com

5. BBC Scotland Headquarters | Atriums

Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Year of Completion: 2007
Architects: David Chipperfield Architects
Project Type: Commercial – Office

To satisfy the client’s requirement for a private yet accessible office space, the building facilitates the broadcasting technology the new addition required. 

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The atrium with the “boxes”  and “street”  with a system of skylights © David Chipperfield Architects

The broadcasting studios or “boxes” are accommodated in an ascending area beneath the atrium’s staircases that weave across to form the “street” composed of steel and concrete structure clad in wood. The 6-storey central atrium features a cascade of generous landings along a sequence of steps that serve as a spill-over for each level, also providing additional meeting and broadcast spaces. 

Steel trusses form a grid for the glazed skylight that multiplies the incident light into the atrium. The more traditional office spaces along the atrium are accessed by the corridors surrounding it and integrate circulation centrally.

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Building Section showing the Atrium © David Chipperfield Architects

6. Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital 

Location: Michigan, USA
Year of Completion: 2009
Architects: Hobbs & Black Architects
Project Type: Institutional – Healthcare

One of the greatest design trends in sustainability comes in the form of Biophilic design in healthcare. The Henry Ford Hospital features a three-story atrium, partly landscaped with over 2,000 live plants and trees while also incorporating an ample waiting area and a small bakery.

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The atrium with landscaping and system of skylights © Ted Eytan
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Organic softscape and Landscaping in the Atrium © https://planterra.com 

The freeform curves and softscape of the atrium aim to create a stress-relieving environment, complementing the efforts to integrate the family-centric design of common spaces with treatment zones. 

7. The Atrium, Canada

Location: Victoria, Canada
Year of Completion: 2011
Architects: D’Ambrosio Architecture & Urbanism
Project Type: Commercial – Office

The 7-storey atrium introduces into the office space a beautiful play of light and shadows, with large glazed windows facing inwards for visual connectivity between the spaces. The culturally-oriented approach to its design has allowed various public events to unfold in the atrium.

The stone mosaic floor, large salvaged-wood seating and plants break the atrium into smaller spaces for interaction.

The skylight is supported by wooden trusses spanning the entire atrium, which is an efficient ventilation system and delivers air quality and cooling that greatly improves the building’s microclimate.

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© Sama Jim Canzian
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© D’Ambrosio Architecture & Urbanism

8. Grundfos Kollegiet Dormitory 

Location: Aarhus, Denmark
Year of Completion: 2012
Architects: CEBRA
Project Type: Residential – Student Housing 

The student housing project is developed around a 12-storey atrium, and the entrance to each of the apartments is through the corridors around it. The mirror-clad balconies and the brightly coloured doors create an unending kaleidoscope.

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The skylight at the top of the atrium brings in a large amount of diffused light, which gets reflected along the mirrored atrium, reducing the requirement for artificial light in the large atrium and surrounding corridor.

9. Harbin Opera House, China

Location: Harbin, China
Year of Completion: 2016
Architects: MAD Architects, Beijing
Project Type: Semi-Public – Recreation

The atrium reflects the sculptural form that resounds throughout the structure, with winding staircases and spill-out spaces at each level, clad in Manchurian Ashwood.

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© MAD Architects

The grand lobby houses the atrium covered by an undulating diagrid structure housing the skylight glazing, each segment of which is a glass pyramid that harkens back to the ephemeral snowflakes abound in the city sky. Through an organically articulated space, the lobby atrium becomes a preamble to the two theatres, blurring the boundary between the light-filled volume inside and the expanse of the landscape outside.

10. The Commons, Bangkok | Atriums

Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Year of Completion: 2016
Architects: Department of Architecture
Project Type: Commercial – Retail

The idea of a retail space breaks away from the monotony of serial escalators and turns into a public realm at the Commons. The atrium is designed as an extension of the street level, which turns into a play of levels as the user progresses further into the building.

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© Ketsiree Wongwan

The seating and kiosks along the steps of the atrium add functionality to the circulation. The skylight is a key source of light, with two sets of industrial fans to facilitate ventilation throughout the core.

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© Department of Architecture

Through its people-centric approach in integrating the street to the building’s circulation, the atrium makes the retail experience more engaging.

11. One Microsoft Place, Ireland

Location: Dublin, Ireland
Year of Completion: 2016
Architects: RKD Architects, Gensler (Interiors)
Project Type: Commercial – Office

The 35,000m² campus housing 2,000 employees of Microsoft drew inspiration from the “harbour” that is Ireland itself. The 4-story atrium is central to the circulation and features a very on-brand digital waterfall and lake composed of 125,000 LEDs running down an abstract mountain crafted from wood. The bespoke skylights with the glazing make the atrium a light well, especially for the workspaces organised along the central staircases.

With a multitude of activities organised across the ground floor, the atrium essentially becomes an oasis for stress-free interaction. A majority of the offices have windows along the atrium, encouraging visual connectivity across all levels.

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© Gensler
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 © Gensler

12. New Central Library, Calgary

Location: Calgary, Canada
Year of Completion: 2018
Architects: Snøhetta
Project Type: Public – Library

The building progresses from informal to dedicated study spaces articulating the transition from the bustling adjacent transit areas to the quiet and contemplative interior through an equally engaging central atrium.

 © City of Calgary via Twitter

The 5-storey atrium is a pointed ellipse inspired by a canoe and is a key orientation and navigation device for incoming users. The vertical circulation dominates the atrium, with a series of staircases, Hemlock wood slat soffits accentuating its sinuous form.

The skylight atop the atrium brings in more natural light, filling the surrounding study areas with pleasant reading light.

© Snøhetta

13. Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, New York

Location: New York, USA
Year of Completion: 2019
Architects: Gensler, Dan Kiley (Landscape architect)
Project Type: Commercial – Office

The built space occupies a portion of the site, leaving a large part to form a massive 12-story atrium that is landscaped as a 10,000 sq ft indoor garden. The garden has been open to the public, and its renovations completed in 2019 make it universally accessible. 

To further the health and safety efforts, greater access to it provides a biophilic environment for the offices, also providing informal spaces for interaction.

 © CurbedNY

14. Axel Springer Office, Berlin

Location: Berlin, Germany
Year of Completion: 2019
Architects: OMA
Project Type: Commercial – Office

The new office building for Axel Springer publications features a large central diagonal atrium that reimagines the workspace transitioning from print media into its digital era. The 10-storey atrium with skylights and massive glazed facades is full of natural light, and 13 bridges interconnect various levels across its volume.

The terraced floors create a central void or “valley” which is manifested as a space to broadcast ideas to the company as a whole. © LaurianGhinitoiu
© LaurianGhinitoiu

15. Leeza Soho, Beijingn | Atriums

Location: Victoria, Canada
Year of Completion: 2019
Architects: Zaha Hadid Architects
Project Type: Mixed – Office & Retail

The iconic tower by Zaha Hadid Architects completed in 2019 features the world’s largest, 20-storey atrium in a 45-storey skyscraper. The building is divided into two halves in response to the subway tunnel directly under it, while the atrium winds 45 degrees to afford light, and panoramic views of the city through the convex opening on either side. 

Direct connection to the transit network and the proximity of a myriad of businesses in the same space makes the atrium of Leeza SOHO a remarkable addition to the business district. The built halves also help shade it to create areas for public spaces. The elevated walkways connecting the two buildings at various levels accentuate the dynamic form while providing key connectivity.

The twisting with the skylight and panoramic views © www.archiscene.net
Building Section showing  © Zaha Hadid Architects

The key concerns with the design of large atriums are fire-safety and the volume of space that is rendered unusable per floor. Maintenance of its skylight and its servicing can be additional costs. However, as is clear from the above instances, it can help break the monotony of dense spaces to infuse them with light and a breath of fresh airquite literallyproviding a stage for social interactions and even indoor greenery. 


Sagarika Latwal is an architect based in Bangalore exploring creative outlets and entrepreneurship within the industry. An armchair expert in art history, film and - oddly enough- ornithology, she is in constant search of hidden ideas to inform her designs. With her inclination towards architectural journalism, she hopes to make the beautiful complexities of architecture accessible to all.