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Atmosphere makes architecture memorable. Places that possess a compelling form of it outlast their designers. Every built intervention sculpts the atmosphere around it. Since the attitude of architects towards atmosphere affects their work, what role do they have in shaping it? Can it be guided? Atmosphere defines the experience of architecture. It is a multi-sensory experience and describes the first impression left by a space. When observers enter a space, they perceive the qualities of mood, aura, tone, and ambiance without even thinking about them. Atmosphere is space-specific, and any description falls short of actual experience. The human body is a measure of atmosphere, and to that end, it can only be understood through physical presence. A well-crafted atmosphere must be experienced to be appreciated and leaves a resonant impression. There is something innate and immediate to the understanding of atmosphere. It is appreciated fully in the first impression of a space, divorced from any analytical and critical understanding of how it operates. Perhaps this is why words fall short of conveying the feel of a place, regardless of how much time an observer has spent there.


Accruing Atmosphere  ·  Impressions




Justin Miller


Thesis Essay


Auburn University  ·  ARCH 5991

Full Text

Thesis Book Award



Texture as a collector of light and patina. Kenzo Tange, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo.


While some of the magic of atmosphere lies in its innate unexplained impact, the desire to experience and create certain conditions necessitates a definition. Some of the muddiness of the term is due to its conflation with related words. The word “atmosphere” is used conversationally to encompass a wealth of related and equally evocative words. Although a holistic definition of atmosphere as it relates to architecture may not encompass all its traits, a point of reference is necessary. Atmosphere is a cocktail of qualities present in a space, surrounding an object, defining an experience. It is composed of multiple aggregated qualities of a space or place. These ingredients are present in differing quantities in every environment imaginable, but certain mixtures produce greater emotional and physical effects. They come together to produce a tone, aura, ambiance, and a host of other tangible and subjectively quantifiable qualities, which in turn compose an atmosphere.


Why should we study atmosphere? Every space and place possesses an atmosphere, and that atmosphere shapes memory and human experience more than any single component or building will. Designing a building with good atmosphere in turn designs the space around it. Instead of designing to erase the impact of the contingent, architecture should accommodate it. Architects must consider not just the built form but the design of how it will be touched by both its inhabitants and surroundings. Architecture will age, decay, and be replaced. Through designing environments which age well, architecture can provide spaces in which atmosphere can accrue, and construct places where a legacy can develop. The construction of atmosphere may be thoughtfully guided, but its ongoing generation is ultimately beyond human control. Our challenge is to design architecture with the slack to evolve and grow as its atmosphere develops.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1810. Image in the public domain.


Caspar David Friedrich, Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, 1823. Image in the public domain.


Primitive atmosphere occurs independent of designed space. It is clearly observed in dynamic spaces in nature. Primitive atmosphere invokes acute awareness of the relationship between self and place. This often manifests itself as a feeling of insignificance and humility in comparison to one’s surroundings; a recognition of one’s role in nature. Romantic painters during the 18th century explored this awareness, describing the qualities of nature as “the sublime.” The German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, active and prolific during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was particularly interested in how to recreate and evoke the sublime in his own work. Primitive atmosphere is characterized by the relationship between self and place. The concept of “the sublime” is just another component of atmosphere, and could be co- opted for use in describing architecture with little effort. The terms that describe the qualities of atmosphere deal with awareness of this relationship. There is an aura of mystery, awe, and scale which accompanies primitive atmosphere. There is a desire to appreciate atmosphere which supersedes the need to understand. The experience of atmosphere comes with an awareness of one’s place in an environment.


The connections between spaces can form their own resultant atmosphere. Wires outside of Hotel Paradise, Kolkata.

The floor as a canvas for light. Yoshio Taniguchi, Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo.


Atmosphere is partially a byproduct of design, regardless of intent. Resultant atmosphere occurs when spatial quality is not the result of design intent. It occurs in architecture where it is unconsidered, between projects where it is, and in the fabric connecting all spaces. Every sense is engaged when a space is entered, but some spaces send signals telling human senses to turn off. Sensory stimuli which compete with each other without rhythm or reason can discourage engagement. Visual busyness, flat materiality, sterile scent, acoustic clutter, glaring light, lack of shadow, erasure of depth and scale, can alternately overwhelm and underwhelm our senses, discouraging awareness. In his 2006 publication Junkspace, Rem Koolhaas points out that the collective of man’s rampant production results in unintentional relationships. This web that connects crafted and unconsidered moments alike is characterized by its lack of intention and haphazard links, blurring together into an identifiable but thoroughly unfulfilling mass. The unintentional space between architectural landmarks possesses an atmosphere all its own. Resultant atmosphere is not wrong or even necessarily unappealing. There is intrigue and character to spaces whose intent is purely utilitarian, in unintended and untended relationships. Not considering atmosphere still constructs an atmosphere. Resultant atmosphere is a byproduct of design, regardless of intent.


When considered, atmosphere in architecture can generate an experience greater than the sum of its parts. If the appreciation of atmosphere is intuitive rather than analytical, how can architects intentionally design spaces with a compelling atmosphere? The discussion of atmosphere in architecture tends to fall under one of the following three separate categories: emotive, literal, and psychological. The following sections will break down these different philosophical strategies employed by architects who consider atmosphere in their work. Designers cannot control all of the ingredients which generate atmosphere. They can, however, guide its creation through careful craftsmanship, attention to existing rhythms, acknowledging the past, and designing with flexibility for the future. Atmosphere guides the perception of a space. They can attempt to identify elemental characteristics of atmosphere, which shape the physical lens through which it is viewed. There are components that can be identified as integral to atmosphere: the sensory stimuli that alert a visitor to the presence of something special. The entrance of light into an environment, the surfaces on which it accrues, the shadows where it does not. The smells of materials, deposits, objects. The texture of surfaces, worn smooth by contact or left rough by design. And time...both in its passage and the mark it leaves. Considered atmosphere maximizes sensory experience, and it has the potential to leave a lasting impression.

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Atmosphere makes architecture memorable. Places that possess a compelling form of it outlast their designers. Every built intervention sculpts the atmosphere around it. Since the attitude of architects towards atmosphere affects their work, what role do they have in shaping it? Can it be guided? In the built world, atmosphere is either considered or it is resultant. Every intervention in the existing atmosphere leaves a trace, and the marks architecture leaves last longer than most. The network between built structures is tangible to inhabitants, visitors, and even unwilling observers, as it is the stage for most of human life. If atmosphere is an awareness of one’s place in a larger picture then the architect should be aware of their role in shaping that picture.


Tangible Warmth. Yoshio Taniguchi, Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, Tokyo.

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