Atmospheres, Expressed - Wiley Online Library

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with craftsman Bill Turner to develop the particular outcome of the mudroom .... Lawson Builders: Bob Campbell, Jim Cust, David Eaton, Tony Eaton, Mike ...

, Miami University, USA

ABSTRACT This visual essay focuses on Pavilion House, Deer Isle, Maine, a built project of the author’s own design. The term atmosphere in the title refers to the robust philosophical concept, developed by German philosopher Gernot Böhme and others, that is of value to those engaged in architecture and interior design. The subject of a vigorous discourse in recent decades, atmosphere concerns the feeling-based essence of an object, interior, place, or situation. The question at the heart of the essay is how to best represent interior atmosphere. The combination of text and photographs, which is historically of special importance for describing and documenting the built environment, has the potential to expand critical perceptions and understandings. In “Atmospheres, expressed,” the author writes a series of notes, mirroring the documentary aspect of the photographs, to create a conjoined documentary form that reveals how multiple sense impressions, thoughts, feelings, metaphors, and allusion together comprise atmospheres. The world comes with shapes, colors, atmospheres, texture—a display of selfpresenting forms. All things show faces, the world not only a coded signature to be read for meaning, but a physiognomy to be faced. As expressive forms, things speak; they show the shape they are in. They announce themselves, bear witness to their presence: “Look, here we are!” They regard us beyond how we may regard them, our perspectives, what we intend with them, and how we dispose of them. This imaginative claim on attention bespeaks a world ensouled.1— James Hillman

PAVILION HOUSE, DEER ISLE, MAINE I initially imagined my adopted home state of Maine and Pavilion House, Deer Isle, as destinations for learning and teaching, as places to travel with students, and to hold workshops with colleagues. Maine has a strong art and architecture history and culture and Deer Isle, celebrated in 2010 as one of seven “Imagination Intensive Communities” by the Maine Alliance for Arts Education, is home to a number of vibrant and successful cultural and community institutions.2 Finally, Pavilion House embodies many of my most cherished beliefs about architecture and interior design. Fulfilling my original intention for the project, I recently hosted more than 50 design and writing colleagues for the Ninth Annual Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum (2017),3 in partnership with my Deer Isle neighbors at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes (1961). The conference, which explored the theme of “Practice, Craft, Materials, and Making,” fully engaged the community through a series of public keynote addresses and performances. On Deer Isle, building community is important work and reflexive habit.

© 2018 Interior Design Educators Council, Journal of Interior Design 43(1), 29–41


Completed in 2012, Pavilion House was first presented in the creative scholarship awards program at the 2013 Annual Interior Design Educators Council Conference.4 In a 2017 monograph, A House and its Atmosphere, I reflect on the embodied processes of design, collaboration, and personal involvement in construction, seeking to expose the range of influences acting on designers, which includes teachers and texts, but also specific kinds of life experience.5 Photographing and writing about the project in different ways over several years has meant deepening knowledge about aesthetics, perception, and design. These developed understandings culminate in “Atmospheres, expressed.”


ATMOSPHERE The word atmosphere may first be understood in the sense that we use it in everyday speech, such as when referring to a political atmosphere or a lively atmosphere in a restaurant. But atmosphere is also a philosophically rigorous concept.6 The concept of atmosphere has a long history in aesthetics, it has blossomed in response to modernity, and it has been for the past three decades a fruitful subject of intense discourse in various fields. German philosopher Gernot Böhme, and more recently Italian philosopher Tonino Griffero, may be credited with doing more to establish atmosphere as a discrete contemporary aesthetic concept than other scholars, although there have been numerous others.7 It is at last possible to say that atmosphere enjoys widespread understanding and precise definition among those engaged with aesthetics, art, architecture, design, and related endeavors. Böhme first introduced atmosphere in his book, Für ein ökologische Naturästhetik (Towards an Ecological Aesthetics) (1989).8 Through a diverse collection of writings he suggests a history of atmosphere in the Western tradition.9 He uses the stage set as a paradigm to understand atmosphere because it places equal emphasis on the perceptions of the audience and the intentions of the designers or producers. This balance between the perceiver and the designed stage set underscores atmosphere as a third term because unless all members of the audience receive the atmosphere intended by the designer in more or less the same way, the entire enterprise of the theater collapses.10 Atmospheres adhere to the particular worlds within which they are found, whether of landscape, city, building, interior, object, work of art, or social setting; atmospheres are not a property of the thing, rather they exist in relationship between the perceiver and the thing perceived.11 According to Böhme, “there is probably no situation that is totally deprived of an atmospheric charge”.12 On the one hand, atmospheres are the media of advertising, politics, and other forms of selling and manipulation, and on the other hand atmospheres represent the complete democratization of aesthetics such that any kind of experience can be appreciated as aesthetic. In this sense it is possible to say that atmospheres are everywhere. Böhme identifies atmospheres as “experienced as something numinous—and therefore irrational.”13 According to philosopher Tonino Griffero, who has built on Böhme’s work as well as the work of others, atmospheres:

Atmospheres are not simply the result of personal experience with designed space. Rather, atmospheres infuse places with charged meaning.

. . . are feelings poured out into space. They are modes of a corporeal predualistic communication that at times is superobjective and supersubjective—the calm before the storm, the fever of the limelight, the numinous, the wind, etc.—and at times is more dependent on the subject, or condensed into (or anchored to) preferential objects. In any case, they are quasi-things whose ecstasies are expressive characters or qualities, and whose extraneousness to the thingly dimension and to the predicative structure often leads to misleading metaphorical projectivist explanations—which, besides, are invalidated by the simple observation that with the elimination of the perceived (and precisely that perceived) the atmospheric feeling disappears as such.14 It is useful to think of atmospheres in terms of perception by an audience on the one hand, and on the other hand in terms of the production, or building of atmospheres, by a designer or producer.15 The atmospheres of everything, everywhere, and every experience are democratically available to be perceived—one has only to walk and open oneself to perception, however irrational and disordered such experience may be. When one thinks of the designing and building of atmosphere and recognizes that it may be sometimes produced with precision, it is “possible to gain rational access to this ‘intangible’ entity”.16 As Gernot Böhme puts it, “Architecture produces atmosphere in everything it creates . . . . the colors, the design of surfaces, the lines, the arrangements and the constellations are . . . a physiognomy from which the atmosphere emanates”.17 The interior designer or architect is thus like the set designer—more or less in control of the production of atmospheres. 30


AUTHORING, COLLABORATING, CURATING The process of shaping the visual essay further made clear that in addition to the community context, the craftspeople who made this particular work possible, and the various technical and logistical challenges, the designer’s work of authoring, collaborating, and curating is always put to the service of creating a particular atmosphere that is perceived in multiple ways.

The process of designing and building Pavilion House revealed three distinct design actions that contribute to atmosphere: authoring, collaborating, and curating.

Authoring, the designer commands a particular product. For example, in Pavilion House, I designated a digital path to drive a water jet to cut a piece of steel to create the sculptural shear wall. Authoring, the designer’s work is nonnegotiable, except to the extent it is mediated by skilled craft, as David Pye argues in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968).18 The draftsperson delineates a set of intentions that the craftsperson then executes. While jigs and tools have always been a significant part of the craftsperson’s trade, digital fabrication takes such devices to an unprecedented level: The designer using a computer is often also the craftsperson in the sense that she is making decisions with precise understanding of how the tool will be driven. Authoring takes on new meaning in the digital age when there is no longer the necessity of an intervening artisan. Collaborating, the designer not only coauthors, proposing an outcome, but also relies on input from an expert, both to make the proposal possible and better. While collaborating I engaged in dialog with craftsman Bill Turner to develop the particular outcome of the mudroom furnishings and the living room bench. What these designs would be was neither predetermined nor solely authored, but developed through dialog. This is the critical point: I could only say “yes” when, through collaborative discussion and drawing, the production of a particular atmosphere was assured.

Curating distinguishes interior design work from other design disciplines. While most kinds of design involve authoring and collaboration, interior designers also engage in curating.19 The interior designer selects, organizes, and places autonomous objects with care and brings them new meanings in the process. The same cannot be said of architecture. In the case of Pavilion House, curating is integral to the interior. Objects possessing their own atmosphere also build the atmosphere of the place: an old mirror, a collection of sticks and stones, a rubber bucket, a hand-turned bowl, a ceramic basin, a lamp, a rug, a chair. Böhme writes, “. . . it is never purely a question of designing an object but always, at the same time, of creating the conditions for its appearance”.20

NUMENTECTONICAL LITERATURE I have long been interested in writing that might address the various ways architecture and interiors shape meaning and have agency, particularly as a spiritual experience. Such writing—called numentectonical, or spiritual-architectural, literature—might be modeled after the wellestablished genre of environmental literature or nature writing that allows people to understand and converse about the natural environment, for example, as landscapes that are imbued with cultural and spiritual meaning. Writing about the built environment, comprised of landscapes, buildings, and interiors, could do the same.21 Although numentectonical literature suggests a focus on divinity, I mean to invoke spiritual meaning-making more broadly, encompassing all of humanity’s religious traditions; a monotheistic outlook is neither implied nor suggested. Suffice it to say that people crave transcendent experiences, and there is the potential to find them in the built as well as in the natural environment. A long passage from American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin’s (1951) memoir, A Walker in the City, describes just such a numinous and transcendent experience that Kazin had at the age of 14 while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. The passage slowly builds until the



penultimate conclusion: Somewhere below they were roasting coffee, handling spices—the odor was in the pillars, in the battered wooden planks of the promenade under my feet, in the blackness upwelling from the river. A painter’s scaffold dangled down one side of the tower over a spattered canvas. Never again would I walk Brooklyn Bridge without smelling that coffee, those spices, the paint on that canvas. The trolley car clanged, clanged, clanged taking me home that day from the bridge. Papa, where are they taking me? Where in this beyond are they taking me?22 Reading this passage, even though Kazin describes the city of nearly 90 years ago, one feels as if one is there walking with Kazin, smelling the coffee, feeling the wooden planks, and looking out at the blackness of the river—moved by the wonder of it all. Writing can indeed convey what it is like to be out in the world sensing fully, finding landscapes, buildings, and interiors full of meaning. Professional and academic writing tends to avoid such first-person experience and feeling, a deficiency when it comes to writing about design. A numentectonical literature would look to literary nonfiction, journalism, or nature writing to describe moving or transcendent experiences in the built environment. American literary critic and historian Lawrence Buell has identified three themes comprising the “environmental imagination”.23 These themes might serve as a model for the “architectural imagination” by focusing on (1) the experience of transcendence, (2) the belief that material is living, not inert, and (3) the hope that architecture sustains community and individual identity. Environmental writing has the humanistic aim to redeem our relationship with earth. It seems reasonable then to expand the term environment to include built environment, to recognize that nature contains building, and to thereby borrow Buell’s outline of the premises of the genre of nature writing. Nature writing offers numerous examples of seeing in different ways, including scientifically, or with increasing discrimination, or over long periods of time, that could be taken up by numentectonical literature. The passage of the sun from dawn to dusk to midnight could be thought through in writing, for example, but also the rhythms of occupation and use in the context of changing appearances and over longer time frames. Thus, writing of depth and breadth could offer an antidote to the all-too-common one-dimensional understanding of design as style, or the popular attitude that design is primarily about participating in the dominant economic model of capitalism, or any of the other simplistic and reductive modes that fail to explain to a public what architecture is.

Numentectonical literature could do for the built environment what nature writing has done for the natural environment, and make the built environment a more vibrant matter of public interest.

Paralleling Buell’s third theme, and suggesting that architecture sustains community and individual identity, numentectonical literature might be understood as a significant actor and a shaper of communities. Architecture is much more than its physical existence and appearance; it is atmospheric feeling and the embodiment of metaphors that may be taken up individually and collectively and become a part of communal imagination. Metaphors are far more than mere literary devices, rather they are foundational to collective understandings that support culture and political action.24 As humanity enters an epoch in which sustainability and addressing climate change takes on greater urgency, this more nuanced and public understanding of architecture as atmosphere is necessary so that design can be seen to have agency.

DOCUMENTARY TEXTS, DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHS The notion of numentectonical literature presupposes the possibility of a range of kinds of writing—an array of forms and genres—that might well represent numinous experiences in the built environment. These forms and genres might be thought of as existing on a continuum from “objective” documentary or technical prose on the one hand, to verbal 32


performance (slam poetry, scripts for plays, monologues, etc.) on the other. Kinds of writing satisfying for getting at numentectonics likely encompass a broad range, from free-verse and formal poetry to critical essays, various kinds of fiction, lyrical essays, journalism, and memoir.25 Complicating any attempt to re-cast writing about the built environment is the question of images. Although people depend on images almost always to represent the built world, certain genres of numentectonical literature, especially the longer forms, suggest ways to dispense with them altogether. Nevertheless, photographs usually provide much more than evocative description. For example, a precise picture can stand in for extensive technical description, or provide a concise view of complex material relationships and materiality. In this regard photographs frequently fulfill an important documentary role. My photographs of Pavilion House tend to take a documentary stance in the sense that they provide a factual and realistic record. Thus,

…I have chosen to craft documentary text imagining a walk involving multiple senses, thoughts, feelings, and recognition of time.

What I intend to suggest is not only a sense of immediacy akin to being there, but also the fluidity and multisensory perception of atmospheres. As precedents, certain kinds of free verse or prose poems come to mind, but longer forms of lyrical essay and nature writing can also employ such concentrated use of language.

Nature writer Helen Macdonald remarks on the fragmentary nature of observation when she writes, “This way of watching wildlife is full of difficulty and mystery, and it makes the landscape seem intrinsic to what its creatures are: things in the present moment—bewitching, complicated, and always new”.26 As in nature, it is in the relation of part to whole—in the inseparability of things and experience—that one encounters the atmospheres of the built environment.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The author would like to thank those who gave generously of their time and talent in the development of this project: Gülen Çevik, John Humphries, and Murali Paranandi, who read critically and provided technical assistance; the craftspeople who built the house, led by Todd Lawson of Lawson Builders: Bob Campbell, Jim Cust, David Eaton, Tony Eaton, Mike Flanders, Curt Haskell, Clay Haskell, Lars Johnson, Anna Lawson, Sarah Lawson, Scott Parker, Brian Patterson, Jason Riley, Walter Smith, Tristan Soloman, Joey Tardiff, Bill Turner, and Hank Whitsett; Bill Turner, who collaborated on the mudroom furnishings and living room bench; Bill and Saer Huston of Huston & Company, who built the dining table; Jorge Casteñeda, who found the form of the red oak bowl.



Notes James Hillman, “Anima Mundi: Return of the Soul to the World,” in The Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman, Volume 2: City & Soul (Thompson, CT: Spring Publications, 2015), 33. 2 Much more than an award given to the arts in isolation, the Imagination Intensive Communities were selected based on comprehensive assessment of a range of community accomplishments. See http:// 3 Ben Jacks, “Atmospheres and Images: A House on Deer Isle,” in Collected Abstracts of Ninth Annual Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum, Haystack, Deer Isle, Maine, May 14–18, 2017, http://www. 4 Originally submitted in abstract as “Pavilion House,” the submission was revised to “Island Summer House” to conform to a more conventional approach to built project presentation. See Ben Jacks, “Island Summer House,” in Proceedings, Interior Design Educators Council conference, Indianapolis, IN, February 17–19, 2013, 170–181. Retrieved from 5 Ben Jacks, A House and its Atmosphere (Ames, Iowa: Culicidae Architectural Press, 2017). 6 As foundational texts, see Gernot Böhme, Jean-Paul Thibaud, ed., The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (London: Routledge, 2017); Tonino Griffero, Quasi-Things: The Paradigm of Atmospheres, tr. Sarah de Sanctis, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017); Tonino Griffero, Atmospheres: Aesthetics of Emotional Spaces, tr. Sarah de Sanctis, (Farnum, Surrey: UK, Ashgate, 2014). 7 Atmosphere has been addressed in a variety of ways by writers from various fields, including design, sometimes with different terminology. See, for example: Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Michael Benedikt, For an Architecture of Reality (New York: Lumen Books, 1987); Christian Borch, ed., Architectural Atmospheres (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2014); Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin (West Sussex: UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2005); Julieanna Preston, Interior Atmospheres (New York: Wiley, 2008); Peter Zumthor, Atmospheres: Architectural Environments, Surrounding Objects (Basel: Birkhauser, 2006). 8 Gernot Böhme, Für ein ökologische Naturästhetik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989). 9 Only recently has Böhme’s diverse output become readily accessible in English translation, collected in the single volume The Aesthetics of Atmospheres (2017). 10 Gernot Böhme, “The Art of the Stage Set as a Paradigm for an Aesthetics of Atmospheres,” in The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (London: Routledge, 2017), 30. 11 Gernot Böhme, “Atmosphere as an Aesthetic Concept,” in The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (London: Routledge, 2017), 25–26. 12 Gernot Böhme, “Introduction,” in The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (London: Routledge, 2017), 1. 13 Ibid. 14 Griffero, Atmospheres, 108–109. 15 A significant contribution to the literature on atmosphere, OASE #91 sought to address the question of whether or not atmospheres may be intentionally built. OASE #91, Building Atmosphere (Rotterdam: nai010 publishers, 2013). 16 Böhme, “The Art of the Stage Set,” 30. 17 Gernot Böhme, “On Synesthesia,” in The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, ed. Jean-Paul Thibaud (London: Routledge, 2017), 75. 18 David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968). 19 Here the term curate is defined as “selecting, organizing, and taking care, especially with respect to museology.” I am nevertheless mindful of a shifting use of this term to suggest “select for selling.” See “On the Tip of Creative Tongues,” New York Times, October 9, 2009, 04/fashion/04curate.html. 20 Böhme, “On Synesthesia,” 75. 21 Ben Jacks, “Sacred and Real: Instrumental and Transcendent Writing About Architecture and the Built Environment,” Collected Abstracts of the Seventh Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality Forum, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, June 18–21, 2015, 22 Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1951), 105–108. 23 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). 24 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). 25 For some recent literary examples, see Inside Out: Architectures of Experience, Conjunctions: 68 (Annandale–on–Hudson, NY: Bard College, May, 2017). 26 Helen Macdonald, “The Living Beauty of Wicken Fen,” New York Times Magazine, April 7, 2015, http:// 1



Biography Ben Jacks, Associate Professor, Department of Architecture and Interior Design, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, holds degrees from the University of Chicago (BA, Art & Design), the University of Pennsylvania (MArch), and the University of Southern Maine (MFA, Creative Writing). He is the author of The Architect’s Tour: Notes for the Design Traveler, and A House and its Atmosphere (Culicidae Architectural Press).