Atmospheres, a book is a rather eloquent discourse by Peter Zumthor was published in 2006 after his lecture in the Wege Durch das land, a festival of Literature and Music. The book sheds light on the poetic yet circuitous process of the architect to make his buildings converse with their surroundings. Expanding their building’s beauty to evoke an atmosphere that is abstract yet much desired and felt by the people occupying the space.
Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect is well known for his tempered, atmospheric attentiveness towards his built form and their surroundings. A few of his famous structures are Therme Vals, Klaus Field Chapel, Kolumba Art Museum, Swiss Sound Box and Kunsthaus Bregenz. They encapsulate the enrichment Zumthor talks about, the seamless amalgamation of his personal and philosophical trials with architecture and its propinquity with vicinal landscapes.
The book poses Peter Zumthors’s understanding, values and biases about atmosphere and architecture and how construction is not just a physical or an aesthetic phenomenon but rather a philosophical one. Moreover, the book explains his style and approach as he negotiates with the physicality of the form and material to produce emotional sensibilities that stimulate and move people.
Atmospheres, written in an active voice almost seem like a dialogue in self-reflection and analysis, meandering through questions, answers, examples, thoughts and anecdotes. A free verse in elucidating Zumthor’s affinity for architecture, its presence and beauty. He uses Brahms’ music and Nietzsche’s philosophy to communicate the power of art, music and architecture as well as the intensity, mood, thoughts and magic they produce.
He catalogues his experiences with the craft in nine personal sensibilities that range from Materials, Sound, Temperature, Light to Composure, Seduction, Tension and Intimacy. His practice in phenomenology goes beyond appearance to a deeper understanding of the ambiance and presence of objects in their respective surroundings.
Furthermore, Zumthor gives the readers an account of what is the process to build—to assess different qualities and variants of elements and proportions—coalescing them to create seamlessly built sequences within the interior and the exterior.
In Atmosphere, Zumthor questions the “Magic of the Real” – enabling the craft of architecture to be understood and accessible by everyone. He makes architecture about emotions that envelop us and once we recognise them—the built form presents a personality that is so inherent and tethered to us that we feel different and sublime flowing along with space, appreciating its different forms, sizes, scales, and dimensions.
Zumthor also focuses his attention on Object and Material histories and the way human occupation informs and transforms architectural production. The relationships we develop change meanings and renegotiates the life and use of an object.
He explains the intricacies and tectonics of the slow movement in architecture, deliberately designing signals that guide one to a voyage. An exploration of space through sensorial qualities like sound, air, temperature and light, he makes the users associate with memory, familiarity and wonder as they navigate in between the tangible and the intangible.
The book is designed beautifully, an effortless compilation with images of projects built and in construction along with other illustrations that support the text. The simply produced book is minimalistic, yet carefully designed to embody the style of Peter Zumthor. The scale, layout and cover material of the book displays the atmospheric quality that Zumthor talks about.
The book is written as well as it is structured, an eternal love affair with architecture. From references to Goethe and Hopper, Zumthor uses philosophy, paintings, short stories and experiences to make people understand what architecture and atmosphere is, what it means to him and how he achieves them while designing his structures.
This book is made to be read and reread slowly, carefully—to enjoy, reflect and be conscious of our own decisions. A great book for architects but especially students who are trying to steer their way through architecture. This book almost acts like a bible, a manifesto from which one can learn about the salient beliefs and practices of a respected architect. Its poetic and simple approach is inspiring and challenging and allows the readers to peer more into the details of his works.
Zumthor’s poetics for spatial design attempts to build an exchange between the built, the surroundings and the users. For me, the book, though sparse, invites me to investigate architecture in a light that is more introspective and sensitive. It offers me the perspective to look at details that are mediated, personal and so infinite, with a mindful eye.
Reading this book helped me react to architecture the same way I would to music and literature, exposing the anatomy of the built form—methodically, persistently, and mainly intuitively. Zumthor’s work has always been a continual source of surprise and has brought me to appreciate the art of building that goes beyond form.