Magic of the Real: Peter Zumthor and the creation of atmosphere

One of my favourite architects is Peter Zumthor. Averse to academic concepts and with a passion for craftsmanship he has produced high quality works that show a love for detail, materials and appeal to all senses. Specifically his works show a great interest in what could be called the ‘mood’ or ‘atmosphere’ of an object or space.

Magic of the Real
In 2003 Zumthor gave a lecture, later published under the title ‘Atmospheres‘, in which he tries to explain the elements that are important to him in the creation of atmosphere. Below I’ve tried to give an overview of the nine elements that according to Zumthor might give an answer to the question: ‘what is this Magic of the Real’.

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1. Body of Architecture
Think about the material presence of an object as a body, literally. Imagine how the materials and spaces create the sensual effect of a bodily mass, covered by a membrane, a fabric, a skin.

2. Material Compatibility
Imagine all the many possibilities that a material entails, how it can be crafted, how it’s used and how it weights. What reaction is going on when composed with other materials?

3. The Sound of Space
Interiors are like instruments; they are collecting sounds, amplifying, transmitting. What will the sound be of a space when you walk through it, and how will it be when you talk to each other. What is the sound of the building itself?

4. The Temperature of a Space
We all remember the coldness of when we touch steel and the radiation of warmth given from wood. But searching for the right mood entails more senses than only touch, it’s also about what we see and feel in a more psychological manner.

5. Surrounding Objects
You could consider buildings just as receptacles to house objects. Beautiful objects, books, instruments, etc. Imagine a future that happens when the architect is no longer there, with the spaces actually in use.

6. Between Composure and Seduction
Remember how a sudden light fall can attract your attention and direct you in a certain direction? Or refrain you from moving? Architecture involves movement… and it creates spaces where you can simply be. Architecture guides, prepares, stimulates, surprises, gives relaxation…

7. Tension between Interior and Exterior
There is a tension between the inside and the outside; enclosure vs. incredible sense of place, private vs. public spheres. How does this transition take shape? Also, think about what you want to see when inside, what you want others to see of you from the outside.

8. Levels of Intimacy
The contrast of the building to the body. Size, mass, gravity of things, proximity and distance, scale. What is it that one space can make you feel humble and small while another can make you feel proud and light.

9. The Light on Things
Imagine how the light falls, where shadows arise? Plan the building as a pure mass of shadow, then, put light in it as you were hollowing out the darkness, as if the light were a new mass seeping in. Look at the way each material reflects the light.

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So, what have I learned from this? I think it is that atmosphere is achieved by not only using your eyes but by thinking, imagining, using all of your other senses. I see the nine elements as described above by Zumthor as a good reminder of how the senses are addressed.

Cover of book 'Atmospheres' Reprint of lecture by Peter Zumthor on 1 June 2003.

Cover of book ‘Atmospheres’
Reprint of lecture by Peter Zumthor on 1 June 2003.