May 23rd 2005 Mood and Atmosphere in Architecture -seminar at TAIK
An architectural discourse about mood, atmosphere, affects and dramaturgy has emerged in recent years in American academia. It has its origins in schools such as The Ohio State University and UCLA, and people like Jeffrey Kipnis, Sylvia Lavin and Robert Somol. The MoA architecture seminar and this brief text are designed as introductions to the discourse.
“It’s all about the relationship between our inner and outer worlds!” the Architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has told me on countless occasions. What I think he means is that the power of architecture lies in the tango between the external, material world and our internal, emotional landscape - between the effects produced by material constructs and the impact they have on us. William Shakespeare had something similar in mind when he wrote “all the world’s a stage”. Architecture is essentially a stage for life and, as Jeffrey Kipnis puts it, architecture colours life the way a soundtrack colours our experience of a film. Just imagine the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the space station ‘dances’ around the earth to the waltz by Johann Strauss.
It is easy to imagine how colour, lighting and materials produce atmospheres, but how does form do it? The neurologist Antonio Damasio wrote that “sensations are experienced through the body. There is no abstract brain separate from the body.” His words may provide an opportunity to give form a new role as a generator of mood. Playing with forms, touching them, moving around them is a way to produce sensations. The works of the Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto are a good example of this. We experience scale relative to the size of our body, time relative to our age, and form relative to our own form. In her book Form Follows Libido, Sylvia Lavin writes on the evolution of the concept of empathy, which explains how we feel form by projecting our bodies onto things or ‘feel into things’. For example, a sinuous curvilinear form is generally considered seductive, while faceted forms seem painful and even aggressive. Think of Tapio Wirkkala’s sculpture Ultima Thule, a painting by Degas or whipped cream, versus the Stealth Fighter or the Cubist painting Guernica by Picasso.
I believe that the architects whose work most potently uses form to generate mood are those whose work produces sensations of motion. Emotion seems to emerge from the sensation of motion. We are shaken by the energy of Wolf Prix’s violently zigzagging sketches built in his UFA Cinema Center, we are carried away by the directional painterly flow of Zaha Hadid’s BMW Central Building, and we are swept into the vortex of centrifugal forms of Frank Gehry’s Weatherhead in Cleveland. The work of these architects produces a sensation and sensibility of movement that we experience emotionally, even when standing still or just looking at an image of a building. The work they create is also formally abstract and therefore, by bypassing the interpretative mechanisms of the mind, appeals more directly to our emotions. Their work produces differences of intensities instead of differences in kind and these operate much like our feelings.
Finally, what really makes plays, films and buildings tick emotionally is their dramaturgy - the considered staging of relationships and differences. Consider, for example, the relationship between the slowly rotating space station and the Strauss waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the staging of the vortex-like movement of Gehry’s Weatherhead ‘titanium storm cloud’ against its calm suburban context, or the dramatic sequence of spaces Zaha Hadid’s ‘vertical street’ carries you through at the Cincinnati Art Museum. If we think of architecture in terms of effects, moods and atmospheres, then organising a building into a sensible whole becomes an act of staging experiences in relation to one another – an architectural dramaturgy.