Essay: The Praxis of Architecture as Atmospheric Attunement or towards a Wohltemperierte Architektur

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This thesis will be a prolegomena to a theory of architecture as a practice of atmospheric attunement. It will highlight the qualities of the architectural work beyond their semiotic value, as ‘a more’ that escapes from a theory set in stone, or a buildings fixed meaning poured in concrete. We’re interested here in the affective qualities of the work of architecture. More than being performing a symbolical function, more than a work of architecture as an object to be understood by the intellect, this thesis will focus on the capacities of a work of architecture to be expressive and, in turn, impress us. Our main goal for this thesis is to find the potential for the concept of ‘Stimmung’ as both a critical and productive concept in architectural theory.

When we talk about a work of architecture that impresses us, we might express this sensation by stating that this particular work *moves* us, or *touches* us. It is remarkable that these expressions themselves indeed picture a physical sensation, namely that of being set in motion, or of a touch being felt. These sensations are not merely visual sensations translated into a conceptual understanding. They are bodily states, they are affects being felt. We feel the *intensity* of a certain experience.

For a discipline that is bound to work with remarkable precision in measurements and extensive qualities, we tent to forget that architecture is made by its intensive qualities just as much. As a practice of the measurable, what space do we leave of that which is immeasurable? This has been one of the main questions I have been dealing with in my thinking and making over the last few years. In this thesis we will try to uncover some of these intensive qualities, and think on the possible consequences for a theory of architecture.

Speaking about these intensive or immeasurable qualities of a work of architecture presents a risk of mystifying or mythologising exactly what we are trying to discover, since the qualities we are talking about are necessarily *vague* categories [^ the meaning of vague from the Latin *vagus* (p.23) as *wandering* and non-localised, Vlad Ionescu. 2013. “‘The Rigorous and the Vague: Aesthetics and Art History in Riegl, Wölfflin and Worringer.’” Journal of Art Historiography 9: 9–1.]
To find an opening into this subject matter, we will be focussing on the concepts of atmosphere or mood (Stimmung).

Ultimately, to think about architecture in terms of attunement and atmosphere would refocus the attempts to theorise the discipline towards a theory that deals with key notions of the architectural discipline itself. We could think of proportion, harmony, material and form. This would be a theory that surpasses the idea of architecture as an analogy of the visual arts or music, and ideas of semiotics or deconstruction as concepts that are borrowed from different practices. Thinking about the architectural experience through mood requires us to conceive of the recipient as more than an intellectual being, it emphasises the corporality of our experience. We find ourselves perceiving architecture as an embodied condition, yet often how often do we describe the design process as such?

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**How to integrate vague and intensive qualities into a theory of architecture?**

**Attunement and harmony** in Vitruvius

When investigating the concept and its origins in architectural theory however, we discover that theories around atmosphere and mood have been reoccurring in architectural theory, as early as in the writings of Vitruvius, dealing with theories of the beautiful and the harmonious.

Moreover, the concept of *Stimmung* possesses many more layers. As Leo Spitzer claims in his work, the concept of *Stimmung* lost many of its layers of meaning due to ‘the growth of analytical rationalism and the segmentary, fragmentary, materialistic, and positivistic view of the world’. It opens up a larger potential of thinking about architecture in terms of producing atmosphere, of creating mood, or the practice of attunement. Our main goal for this thesis is to find the potential for the concept of ‘Stimmung’ as both a critical and productive concept in architectural theory.

**Wöllflin**

We find a first ‘modern’ exploration of the term mood in German Aesthetics from the late 19th Century, in particular with Heinrich Wöllflin and Aloïs Riegl. As they were constructing these theories around art and architecture in a time of great changes both in artistic as academic production, these theories influenced by the emergence of psychology as a discipline and early phenomenological thought. At the same time we see Dilithey’s distinction appear between the Natural Sciences, as based on Positivism, and the *Geistenswissenschaft*, the epistemology of cultural disciplines based on a descriptive psychology. We should read and understand the work of Wölfflin within these dynamics of his time.

Wölfflin is of interest to us here, because he 1) deals specifically with the experience of an *architectural* work in stead of the artwork in general, 2) because he touches upon the bodily experience of the work of architecture (compared to a merely visual understanding) 3) we move from a concept of space as given to space that the result of the affective experience of the body. The architect thus is no longer seen as the one giving form to the spatial forms, but rather the space which is the result of form. We can see this as an inversion, in the way the photograph and the negative are opposites.

The architect builds with materials, creating objects in spaces. But what it is about is not so much these materials in themselves, but rather what results from it, in terms of spatiality, as a void, or the affects it produces, are what becomes the ultimate measure of the work.

Wölfflin, together with his colleagues at the time – among others Volkert, Vischer, Worringer and Riegl – were trying to establish a rigorous science of art (as Walter Benjamin would describe Wölfflins work in his text *Strenge Kunstwissenschaft*) which deals however the with vague aesthetic categories of the affective and bodily sensations. [^ I owe this phrase to Vlad Ionescu, who points out the meaning of vague from the Latin *vagus* (p.23) as *wandering* and non-localised, Vlad Ionescu. 2013. “‘The Rigorous and the Vague: Aesthetics and Art History in Riegl, Wölfflin and Worringer.’” Journal of Art Historiography 9: 9–1.] The work of art is an expression of mood, received / perceived by us through a physical sensation. On the one hand this proved to be an important new way of conceiving of the experience of architecture – which will be of importance for us here, while on the other hand they used it to conceive of a radically different take on art history in general. Each artwork or work of architecture expresses a mood, which in turn characterises its moment of creation. Without going into to much detail, it comes down to this, that reading Art History through the method of, what Wölfflin called, a ‘Psychology of Art’, we conceive of history no longer as a cumulative progression (Hegel), but rather as a coexistence of different styles and moods. That means that the Baroque is no longer thought of as inferior to the then seen as superior style of Classicism, or that primitive art could posses the same qualities or characteristics as Baroque art. Each period expresses itself through mood which, in studying these works of art, can tell us something about the relationship between form and the body in that specific period of time.

Wölfflins doctoral thesis *Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur* fundamentally deals with the question of how it is possible that an inanimate object, such as the stones of a building, can have an Ausdrück or Stimmung (expression) that leaves us with an Eindrück (impression). He finds the answer to this question neither in the Kantian judgement of taste nor completely in the theory on Empathy (or broader, that of symbolisation) as brought forward by Volkert and Fischer among others.

In Wölfflin, architectural form brings our body into a state of heaviness or distortion, in the way a column can bear a certain force or by way of asymmetry. Schematically he describes it as follows: 1) Each mood has its own expression, as a physical manifestation of a mental process, 2) when we imitate the expression of the emotion, we also experience this emotion, 3) we then unconsciously transfer this emotion to the person or object [^ Wölfflin, Prolegomena,(p.155)].

> Our own bodily organisation is the form through which we apprehend everything physical. I shall now show that the basic elements of architecture – material and form, gravity and force – are defined by our experiences of ourselves; that the laws of formal aesthetics are non other than the sole conditions under which our *organic well-being* appears possible. Wölfflin, Prolegomena p.157/158 [^ Vischer, R., Fiedler, C., Wölfflin, H., Mallgrave, H. (1994). Empathy, form, and space : Problems in german aesthetics, 1873-1893 (Texts & documents: a series of the getty center publication programs, 1994: 1). Santa Monica, Calif.: Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities.]

But how does this translate into architecture? Let us take the example of harmony and proportion. Where Vitruvius conceived of the classical proportions as numerical relations, Wölfflin provides us with a different reading. For him these proportions are not just calculated as harmonious proportions but felt as an emotional disposition, a well-adjusted level of tension. For Wölfflin, ‘instead of thinking that architecture organises space — as if space were a given — Wölfflin conceives space as a process where the affective experience of the body dictates architectural forms.’ [^Ionescu, V. (2016). Architectural Symbolism: Body and Space in Heinrich Wölfflin and Wilhelm Worringer. Architectural Histories. 4(1): 10, 2016, pp. 1–9]

‘well-adjusted levels of tension’!

Wölfflin’s proposal is therefore quite radical, much of which still remains as a potential for our current practices of architecture.

**What is an atmosphere? Affectivity and bodily presence – perception**

“With concepts such as spatial structures that are experienced by the body, architectural form as movement, and architecture as the design of emptiness from Wölfflin to Endell, a potential was identified for architecture that has by no means been exhausted.” OASE (Böhme)

Over the last few decades we have seen a reoccurrence of the term atmosphere in aesthetic theory, largely fuelled by the writings of the German philosopher Germot Böhme. ‘The Atmospheric Turn’ within the larger field of aesthetics can partially be ascribed to his work. He takes issue with the then dominant theory of semiotics in aesthetic theory [^Böhme, p.3]. There is a moment when semiotics in aesthetic theory fall short, prioritising symbolically mediated communication over affective and corporeal modes of experience. [^Böhme, p.3] Just as in buildings, there are abstract, non-representational artworks that escape semiotically oriented aesthetic theory, yet they do something, they affect us. An aesthetics of atmosphere would be able to explain those experiences, Böhme thus argues [^Böhme, p.3].

Atmosphere as a basic concept of a new aesthetics proposes a fundamental turn. What reason do we have to call it a fundamental turn? “p10 Classical aesthetics, from Immanuel Kant
to Adorno, was essentially an aesthetics of judgement which increasingly focused on a theory of the work of art. By contrast, reviving Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s perspective, the new aesthetics is above all a theory of sensory experience.

Böhme: p.16 ‘The primary task of aesthetics is no longer to determine what art or a work of art is and to provide the means for art criticism. Rather, the theme of aesthetics is now the full range of aesthetic work, which is generally defined as the production of atmospheres and extends in that sense from cosmetics to advertising, interior architecture, stage design and to art more narrowly defined.’ [^’In this context, autonomous art is simply regarded as a special form of aesthetic work, which, even as autonomous art, has a social function.’]

‘One could say that here space is not experienced a priori as a thing, and that architecture was grasped as designing in space.’

Topos and spatium

Mindful physical presence hinges precisely on the interplay between body and mindful body.

**Befindlichkeit**

The atmosphere is the space of mindful physical presence into which one enters or finds oneself, owing to the type of experience involved. This experience is mindful physical sensation. And that sensation elaborates the space of mindful physical as opposed to bodily space.

Mindful physical space is the modulation or articulation of mindful physical sensation itself. This modulation or articulation is caused by factors, however, that can be objectively enumerated and handled. We shall call them the generators of atmosphere.

What is problematic in Wölfflin’s work is that the experience of architecture is mainly approached formally. Although it is true that his theory deals with the affective and bodily experience of architecture, his conception of architecture is only that of form. His theory therefor quickly becomes a formalist theory, even though it speaks about mood and character. The movement suggested by architectural form in Wölfflin is generated by things, or bodies in space. But is the experience of architecture not more that perceiving a space or mood though architectural form? Our bodily presence in a space presents us with many more sensory impressions: that of sound, humidity, light and so on. With Paul Valéry, we could state that indeed this is what architecture and music share, namely that we are enveloped by it, there is no escaping it. [^ “*Nous sommes, nous mouvons, nous vivons alors dans l’oeuvre de l’homme! (…) Nous sommes pris et maîtrisés dans les proportions qu’il a choisies. Nous ne pouvons lui échapper*.” Paul Valéry, Eupalinos ou l’Architecte, 1921, p.31] Moreover, to us it seems that a space when full of people, or on a rainy morning, can express different moods. Expanding on Wölfflin, Böhme writes: ’there are also non-thing-like or non-corporeal generators of atmospheres, such as in particular light and sound. It bears emphasising that they too modulate mindful physical space by creating confines or expanse, direction, delimiting or transgressive atmospheres.’ Furthermore, ascribing the certain moods as qualities inherent to the object is problematic (as it would be to locate these qualities as mere subjective).

Böhme defines atmosphere as the “the sphere of felt bodily presence”. [^ p. 118] It must be palpable (tangible): one has to be exposed. Atmospheres are experienced through immersion an by the ways they affect our disposition, are impossible to locate directly: they are dynamic, diffused and pre- and inter-subjective, spatial carries of mood. They function as a horizon, not as an object. Taking his lead from Walter Benjamins conception of *aura* (greek: aura, latin aura, breeze, breath), Böhme emphasises the relational character of aura, as it is ‘indeterminate, spatially diffused quality of feeling’ in encompassing both the perceived and the perceiver [^Böhme, p.1]. Borrowing from Hermann Schmitz, who notes that perception is ‘affective and merging participation’, Böhme calls atmospheres ‘moving emotional powers, spatial carries of mood’s. Both the concept of aura and that of atmosphere, diverge radically in thinking about our relating to the world around us from the persuasive dichotomy between subject and object. This Aristotelean division has coloured much of modernities philosophical thinking, and has proven to be an important problem in the field of the aesthetic experience. In Wölfflin we find this difficulty too, where it seems that the experience of mood is always taking place on the side of the subject. But, the concept of atmosphere as defined by Böhme is neither objective or subjective. ‘p.8 Böhme draws attention to the quasi-objective qualities of atmospheric: p.66 they are neither subject nor object – yet not nothing’

**Thing-ontology **

Problem: ontological placelessness, they must be unleashed from the objective/subjective dichotomy. consequences for thinking about the subject: ‘human must be regarded as felt bodies (Lieber), that is, as in their self-givenness and self-experience as original spatial beings. To sense oneself bodily s to sense concurrently one’s being in an environment, one’s feeling in this place.’ (p21)

The object, in thinking about atmosphere, too would need to be re-thought (p.22). In classical thing-ontology the properties of a thing are what determines the object and makes us able to recognise it as a distinct object, ‘conceived in its [the objects] closure’. Böhme’s claim is that this thing-ontology is problematic for aesthetics, exactly because it separates what a thing is as a thing from its Dasein, which is then assigned to it by the subject. (p.22) Illustrating the problem, he proposes us to think of a blue cup. In classical thing-ontology, the thing possess the qualities of the colour blue, which differentiates this thing from all other things. The objects Dasein is further assigned by us, based on its location. Illustrating his alternative as follows:

> However, the being blue of the cup could also be thought in quite a different way, namely as the way or, better, a way in which the cup is present in space, how it makes its presence felt. The being blue of the cup is then no longer thought as something that is in some way limited to the cup and adheres to it but, quite to the contrary, as something that radiates out into the cup’s surroundings and in a certain way colours and ‘tinges’ it, as Jacob Böhme would say. The cup’s existence is already included in this view of the quality blue, for being blue is after all one mode of the cup’s existence, an articulation of its visibility or its way of being present.

This alternative view is what Böhme calls ‘the ecstasies of the thing’, indeed as the way in which the thing steps out of itself. Among these ecstasies belong sound or colour, those qualities that are secondary qualities in the classical subject/object dichotomy, but also primary qualities as form and extension. ‘It radiates into the surroundings, as it were, takes away the homogeneity of the surrounding space and fills it with tensions and movement suggestions.’

A thing-ontology modified thus makes it possible to think atmospheres in a meaningful way. Insofar as they are ‘tinged’ by the presences of things, of people or environmental constellations, that is, through their ecstasies, they are spaces. They are themselves spheres of presence of a something, its actuality in space. By contrast with Schmitz’ approach, atmospheres are then not thought of as free floating but, on the contrary, as something emanating from and produced by things, people or their constellations. Accordingly, they are not conceived as something objective (i.e., as properties of things), and yet they are something thing-like, belonging to the thing – insofar as things articulate their spheres of presence through their qualities, conceived as ecstasies. But atmospheres are nothing subjective, like determinations of a state of mind, either. And yet, they are subject-like, they belong to subjects insofar as they are sensed by humans in bodily presence, and insofar as this sensing is simultaneously the subject’s bodily being-located in space.

It is immediately clear that this modified thing-ontology favours aesthetic theory, even liberates it. Aesthetic work in its full spectrum comes into view. Even within the narrower sphere of art, for instance in visual arts, it becomes clear that, strictly speaking, the artist does not intend to endow a thing – be it a block of marble or a canvas – with particular properties (to be shaped and coloured in this or that way). Rather, it is about letting this thing step outside of itself in a certain way and thereby to let the presence of something become sensible.

Examples such as phases in days or seasons (sunset, spring, evening) an phenomena in nature (rain, wind, heat). ((Note: these are intensive differences, not extensive))
Tempered: finding their origin in temperature and weather conditions.

He discerns five characters of atmosphere: moods, movement suggestions, synaesthesia, atmospheres of communicative character, and social atmospheres.

Couter argument: Is stimmung something static? Are we not risking to become obsessed materialist, mystifying the architectural design process and experience into an alchemist whole?

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