Omnipresent in our lives, architecture influences both our physical and spiritual sensations. It touches us with its characteristic expression and arouses specific emotions in us. In particular, let us consider the solemn nature that takes hold of us when we enter a religious building, the impression of serenity and beauty that envelops us when we enter and move around in a spa, or that breathtaking feeling when we enter a majestic, monumental place.
Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was interested in the close relationship between the beauty of architecture and the emotions. For him, beauty is a feeling that can be experienced in particular moments, during specific circumstances. What are the elements that trigger this feeling of beauty and well-being in us and make us experience these emotions?
For him, the answer can be found in the atmosphere of the place—an atmosphere that we perceive unconsciously, without having to think about it, from our very first steps in a new place. It seeks out what is buried deep within us, like a memory, and overwhelms our emotional sensitivity. This experience is reflected in fleeting sensations that lead to an unconscious reaction and reveal emotions directly related to the space in which we move.
According to Zumthor, specific means can lead a user to experience the beauty of a place. He therefore proposes a creative process that focuses on nine atmospheric qualities that are for him essential to moving architecture: the body of the architecture, the harmony of the materials, the sound of the space, the temperature of the space, the objects that surround the person, the alternation between serenity and seduction, the tension between inside and outside, the levels of intimacy, and the light on things.
The harmony of the materials, for example, focuses on the infinite possibilities offered by a composition of materials and the way of arranging them to achieve a balance. Harmony is essential to creating a dialogue between them and thereby creating an atmosphere that will approach the emotional sensitivity of the visitor.
The sound of the space, meanwhile, considers each sound that emerges from the place through the resonance of the materials as well as through the presence of the users themselves. The space collects, produces, amplifies, and transmits sounds, thereby creating the characteristic acoustics that define it and enrich the user’s bodily perception.
The temperature of the space, for its part, focuses on the thermal experience on the physical and psychic levels. Materials do not emit the same heat to the touch, and their arrangement makes it possible to temper a place in a specific way. The chosen arrangement depends on the sensation desired by the designer: for example, the use of wood will not have the same effect as that of concrete or steel.
Finally, the light on things highlights the importance of lighting in an architectural work. The way the light strikes a material and is reflected by it refines the perception of the space. The relief and depth are discernible thanks to the play of light and shadow. Light gives life to the materials and spaces that it touches.
BRINGING EMOTIONS TO LIFE
These nine characteristics are an integral part of Zumthor’s works, but their foundations underpin the way of thinking of many other architects around the world. For the visitor, these architectural qualities, which are long sought-after by the designer, will not necessarily be perceived consciously due to their subtle incorporation into the space or the creative process. A person who feels good in a particular environment cannot always easily unpack these elements that create their feeling of well-being, because they form a harmonious whole. Since the experience of beauty is unique to each person, its foundations and repercussions are hard to pin down. The multiple sensory intentions implemented in a place highlight the relationship between body and space and call upon the user to react in their own way.
From the start of a project, architects place these architectural principles in the foreground, since they make it possible to materialize the atmosphere that the visitor will perceive. Each one approaches and shapes these concepts personally and according to their own specific way of thinking, but the idea of creating moving architecture remains.
PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE
In the Thermes de Vals project, Zumthor prioritized a sensual architectural design focused on the relationship with the body. This work applies his long-studied principles to create an experience based on the senses and perceptions. The primary source of inspiration, stone is omnipresent and allows for the creation of a dialogue with the geological setting of the site. The goal of each stone room is to complement the body, conform to its shape, and caress it. Light is abundant in the open, monumental spaces, while in the more intimate, enclosed spaces, semi-darkness prevails. Synonymous with fluidity and lightness, the water offsets the strong, solid stone, in addition to becoming one with the dancing light.
The time that the user will spend in this place and the path that they will follow also play a key role in the architectural design of this project. Seduction and curiosity are used to encourage them to wander or—by contrast—stay a while, without a specific route being imposed on them. A shorter or longer temporality is thereby created that is unique to each person, where freedom and beauty come together in a unique place.