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What Do We Mean by Atmosphere? Why is it Important for Garden Design?


…this singular density and mood, this feeling of presence, well-being, harmony, beauty…under whose spell I experience what I otherwise would not experience in precisely this way.


*Peter Zumthor’s summary of how he uses the term ‘atmosphere’ in his book Atmospheres

What is it about a space that moves us? What is a place’s atmosphere?


What is Atmosphere?

Previously, we touched on the idea of ‘atmosphere’ and compared it to the ‘vibe’ we get of a place. In truth, however, it is more complicated than this and has huge significance within architectural spatial theory, a significance that carries over to garden design.

Atmosphere comes from the Greek atmós meaning ‘vapour’ or ‘steam’ and sphaîra meaning ‘sphere’. This etymology clearly indicates how the scientific usage of this word came to be whilst also providing insight for our philosophical usage; a space’s atmosphere can be metaphorically vaporous. We can contemplate a space’s atmosphere and understand the factors causing it, as we will discover, but something about it will remain elusive or invisible. Furthermore, any atmosphere, as we encounter it, will ultimately be transient, fleeting.

The architect Peter Zumthor holds the concept of atmosphere as being of paramount importance when designing and experiencing space. Zumthor is a renowned Swiss architect known for his minimalistic and highly atmospheric work. To him, atmosphere is something we understand through our emotional sensibility, an intuition we feel rather than something we conclude after logical thought.

Atmosphere is a kind of mood felt within an environment, a characteristic feeling that encapsulates the space, like a sphere of meaning or identity rather than gas. When we have true awareness of an atmosphere and when an atmosphere is powerful enough, we both feel its presence and feel freely present within the space.

Like a phenomenologist, Zumthor prioritises experience in his thought. Logical, scientific, and mathematical thinking is still needed during many steps of the designing process, but experience takes precedence.

peter zumthor dark side of the moon

Bruder Klaus Kapelle, seier+seier, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Allmannajuvet Rest Area and Museum, Fredrik Fløgstad, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Designing a Garden’s Atmosphere – What Makes an Atmosphere and How Does it Feel?

We understand atmosphere on an emotional level; we perceive atmosphere with our senses. The factors of a space that generate atmosphere are the various kinds of stimuli that we can register physiologically. It is via these concrete atmospheric generators that we can practically apply Zumthor’s philosophy in garden design. What do we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste in a garden? What are their affects?

Sensuousness is vital for a vibrant and powerful atmosphere. More than simply stimulated, our senses should be delighted, and the stimuli should be harmonious in generating the atmosphere. What we see in a garden is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we think of one of these generators, the visual is what we focus on in designs and it is the visual – through pictures, videos, or descriptions of layout – that we share with others when we try to show a space that we aren’t in. In this regard, any object in the garden is subject to the sense of sight, but for this sight we must also think of the play of light.

Light affecting a garden may appear as a variable that is largely at the mercy of nature, from morning to night and spring to winter, but there are many controllable factors that influence the light in the garden. A garden’s orientation, the height of its walls or fences, the colours of the objects and materials within, the reflectivity of its materials, the number or size of trees and their positions, the amount of artificial lighting, and much more. All these things can dictate the play of light and, in turn, the atmosphere that is felt.

Dim or low lighting can be gloomy, mysterious, or creepy in one interaction and context but serene, calm, or peaceful in other circumstances. Meanwhile, a garden exposed to the sun, with lightly coloured tables and chairs and a reflective stone patio, could hold a presence that is exciting, celebratory, or associative with certain geographical areas like the Mediterranean or Iberian Peninsula.

Of course, what the light touches, and what we touch, matters too. We can touch a garden bench, for example, but it will not be an effective element in the space unless it facilitates in achieving a certain atmosphere. It should act as delectable food for whatever senses it is meant to stimulate and guide the kind of interaction with the space that is desired. If the atmosphere is a relaxed and restful one, then the bench should be structured as comfortably as possible and located with respective consideration, near a fireplace if the climate is cold, and in the shade if the weather is mostly hot.

On a finer level, how does the bench really feel? What material is it made of and how is it treated? Does it have a rough texture to match the raw concrete of the side-path? Or is it smooth like the marble balustrade? These are both considerations for garden design and for contemplating the phenomena we experience – how material choice influences texture and tactility as well as visuals.

Light will pass differently through different tree canopies, depending on the colour of the leaves the light may be hued, and depending on the density of the branches the whole garden may be darker when the sun passes behind the collection of limbs. The shadows cast may form unique shapes on the garden’s surfaces that dance around in the breeze. When these tree-cast shadows reach indoor surfaces, we have a phenomenon that connects us with the nature right outside our window. Along with darkness and lightness, we also sense what is around us. A pergola overhead may not provide any physical shelter, but it gives the suggestion of protection, and that is enough to tempt us to linger underneath it.

More than this, though, different leaves and bark vary to the touch and will carry a greater significance than, simply, what is rubbed between the fingertips. The rough bark of a hickory tree may discourage us from leaning against it to read our favourite book on a summer’s day, whereas a smooth beech tree may welcome us. This textural variable alone could influence the functions we use that element of the park or garden for, and, consequently, how we feel the presence of the whole.

Garden Design is for Human Situations – Beautiful Experiences

Zumthor believes that it is more important, when designing, to imagine human situations than to fantasise about spaces in some majestic fashion. Designer and design should be grounded by the potential lived experiences of those who will occupy a space. We should focus on those tangible aspects that will create the atmosphere(s). Gardens are spaces that are open to the infinite world of phenomena; within them, the possibilities for creating and encountering atmosphere abound. Simultaneous to this infinite potential is the grounded, everyday, and intimate perspective that we have on this kind of space.

By centring this idea of atmosphere, we have a philosophy of spatial design, be it for architecture or garden design, that understands how built and natural spaces should function practically whilst also existing for people to have beautiful experiences; spaces that stimulate the senses, allow our emotions to process their atmosphere, and gives us time to see what we think.



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