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 Architects who consider atmosphere in their work tend to describe it in relation to one of the following three categories: emotive, physiological, and psychological. Designed atmosphere is greater than the sum of its parts. There is no formula that generates atmosphere, but there are recommended ingredients. Even a well-considered initial vision cannot predict all the qualities the final atmosphere will possess. Consideration, craft, and intention leave their mark, and create an environment. The final atmosphere is always partially resultant because its perception is influenced by personal factors. Nostalgia, memory, and anticipation play an important role in the way we perceive. However, the atmosphere of a space is also dependent on its environment and its details.

Emotive atmosphere in architecture attempts to create an immersive, multi-sensory experience. It does not need to be understood to be effecting. Spaces under this category strive to evoke a sense of awareness. Architects practicing under this philosophy craft spaces which are tactile, solid, and whose details bear close inspection. Emotive atmosphere emphasizes sensory immersion. The greater the number of senses engaged, generally the more moving the experience. Emotive architectural atmosphere has been explored in the works of Peter Zumthor and Kengo Kuma, and in phenomenology, especially as described by Steven Holl and by Juhanni Pallasmaa. The works of these architects are significant in their hyper-specificity and in their intentionality. The details, character, and spaces in these buildings are custom to each project, resulting in unique atmospheric qualities. Because few elements within these buildings can be found in other projects, visitors and inhabitants cannot rely on muscle memory. They must pay attention to the surfaces and spaces with which they are interacting in order to orient themselves.


Accruing Atmosphere  ·  Precedents




Justin Miller


Thesis Essay


Auburn University  ·  ARCH 5991

Full Text

Thesis Book Award


Isolation & Immersion


Architects discussing emotive and phenomenological
atmosphere tend to focus on individual buildings, and on the sequence leading to the interior. There is a point at which an observer notices the generated atmosphere, thereby crossing over the threshold from the exterior world. From here on, the observer exists in a miniaturized universe where all experiences are colored by the architecture. Here, the architect crafts an insular experience, in which time stands still. It is a dialogue between visitor and building, where the interactions between the two and the new memories formed are framed by the spaces in question. Emotive atmosphere in architecture is conscious of its place in time, and seeks to transcend, blur, or enhance that relationship. These attitudes towards this fourth dimension are expressed in careful craftsmanship, material selection, and purposeful lighting conditions. Custom details disguise a building’s age, prompting further investigation. These spaces can possess a contemplative attitude towards the passage of time. They project an aura of timelessness which still values the qualitative patina of age.

The fixtures in the Kolumba Museum are framed as objects of artwork.

Every touching experience of architecture is multi-sensory; qualities of matter, space and scale are measured equally by the eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, skeleton, and muscle. 

Juhanni Pallasmaa⁴

Emotive Precedent . Kolumba


In his writings and his architecture, Peter Zumthor is a practitioner of emotive atmosphere. Some of his most notable works exploring the topic are museums or archaeological structures, designed to mitigate the relationship between the modern world and historic artifacts. Built in the year 2007 to house a collection of contemporary and religious artwork, his monolithic Kolumba Museum is a carefully controlled sequence of intentional moments. Visiting the Kolumba is an insular experience. Its influence extends nearly a full city block around it, beginning where its monolithic facade is first observed. Aside from a stark and intentional door, it turns its back to the outside world. Even this back is carefully choreographed, composed of multiple brick types reflecting both the building’s connection to the past and its place as a monolith in the larger urban fabric. As visitors move up and into the galleries, heavy, noise isolating materials and minimal apertures shut out the surrounding city.

Objectified Function

The museum is built around the remains of an earlier church, and it pulls its material palette from the ruins.