• Designing the Experience of Space

    In this installment on our series about the three tenets of good architecture, we illuminate the experience of space and architecture. By focusing on the experience of the space rather than the form or function of the building, we as architects can impact people in profound and meaningful ways. Juhani Pallasmaa writes:

    “When designing physical spaces, we are also designing, or implicitly specifying distinct experiences, emotions and mental states. In fact, as architects we are operating in the human brain and nervous system as much as in the world of matter and physical construction. I dare to make this statement as science has established that environments change our brains, and those changes in turn alter our behavior.” (Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    … Environments change our brains, and those changes in turn alter our behavior.

    Rigid and in order: A quintessentially Swiss experience designed by Peter Zumthor. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Phenomenology in architecture

    However, too much of architecture has focused on form-making and too little on the experience of space. In fact, form-making has been the dominant theme of modernism, postmodernism and contemporary theories. This is a very rational, static and abstract notion of architecture that dates back to the renaissance, euclidean geometry and René Descartes’ philosophy of “cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.” Vittorio Gallese says, based on his theory of embodied simulation, that philosophy is incorrect. “More relevant than ‘cogito’ — and here phenomenology got it exactly right — than ‘I think’ is ‘I can.’ The physical object, the outcome of symbolic expression, becomes the mediator of an intersubjective relationship between creator and beholder.” (Gallese, Vittorio. “Architectural Space from Within: The Body, Space and the Brain” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    Gallese references the phenomenologists — both philosophers and architects — that have been studying human consciousness and built space through the context of experience and phenomena since the early 20th century, in direct opposition to Descartes’ philosophy that views the world as sets of objects. Architect and Professor Botond Bognar summarizes phenomenology in architecture as follows:

    “As opposed to traditional Western understanding based on a sharp distinction between person and the world, phenomenology — highly critical of Cartesian dualism in any form — regards subjects and objects in their unity. Phenomenology understands a world wherein people and their environment mutually include and define each other. It focuses upon nature and reality not as an absolutum existing only outside us, but as subject to human scrutiny, interaction, and creative participation.” (Bognar, Botond. “A phenomenological approach to architecture and its teaching in the design studio” in Dwelling, Place and Environment.)

    Slow Space is founded in phenomenology, as is our work at Aamodt / Plumb Architects. We ask ourselves how the spaces we create might make people feel. We ask our clients how they want to feel in their home, their school, their library or their hospital. Let us be aware of how spaces make us feel and teach our clients how to feel space as well. It’s no different than cultivating your taste for wine or fine food. One of the Slow Food Movement’s early objectives was to cultivate an appreciation for the taste of good food. I think we should do the same with great spaces. We should cultivate an appreciation for good buildings. It’s not enough just to look at a beautiful picture. Here is a picture of a beautiful dish from Bon Appetit. It looks delicious. But so does this picture of a Whopper, even though we know it is junk food.

    Let us be aware of how spaces make us feel and teach our clients how to feel space as well.

    How about wine? A photo doesn’t do much for it. It’s all in the taste, in the experience. And wine’s popularity is soaring. Millennials are spending more on wine and restaurants and experiences than consumer goods.

    Zumthor’s thermal baths as paradigm for designing the experience of space

    Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, serve as an example for designing the experience of space. We spoke with Swiss-born photographer Jonathan Ducrest, who explored the world-famous building with his camera. See his photography and read the story here.

  • Architecture as Experience: Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths

    This article is part of an installment of essays and examples illuminating the essence of good architecture, which, as Slow Space founder Mette Aamodt defines, comprises the three fundamental qualities of empathy, experience and beauty. The exploration of Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, represents a paragon of architecture as experience — as an extraordinary sensory experience.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Solitude of space

    To share a taste of this experience, we caught up with Swiss photographer Jonathan Ducrest, who explored Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths from a distinctive angle — from behind his sly camera lens — shot without special lighting. Ducrest, who says he’s “not big on taking pictures of people,” also minimally edited the photographs to give a more authentic sense of the place’s raw simplicity. It is the solitude of space that fascinates the photographer.

    Ducrest now calls Los Angeles home. He’d returned home to his native Switzerland for the holidays and decided to take his mother on a spa weekend. “This was my third or forth trip to Vals,” says Ducrest, contemplating how time moves slower in the small mountain village of fewer than one thousand souls in Switzerland’s Graubünden canton. “You just relax, without the everyday stress. You can walk and enjoy nature, and there aren’t a lot of distractions.”

    View into the surrounding landscape of the valley of Vals. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Swiss minimalism

    Zumthor, whose other significant works include the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, the all-timber Swiss Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, and the upcoming expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the United States, designed the spa building over the canton’s only thermal springs. The hydrotherapy center, commissioned by the village of Vals, was completed in 1996. Zumthor’s rectilinear design contrasts the valley’s traditional vernacular structures and pastoral setting, and was to look as if it pre-dated the luxury hotel complex.

    Zumthor’s minimalist, clean-lined design contrasts the valley’s traditional vernacular structures. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    “The spa and the hotel itself — it’s like this temple,” reflects Ducrest. “There’s nothing but the water and the stone the architect used.” The cave-like structure comprises 15 units, each five meters high, whose grass-covered concrete roofs don’t join. The slim gaps are filled in with glass. The dark quartzite slabs are quarried locally, and 60,000 one-meter-long stone sections clad the walls in a subtly ordered pattern. “He framed the landscape outside with windows,” the photographer describes. “It’s like you’re watching a painting when you’re relaxing in your chair, and you’re looking out and it’s snowing or the light is changing or there could be a storm outside. You’re becoming more attuned to your surroundings.” The fact that all the stone Zumthor used was brought in from the valley connects visitors even more to the encompassing environment. “Everything comes from there: the waters, the air, the sounds.”

    Everything comes from there: the waters, the air, the sounds.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Ducrest has long wanted to photograph the space. But without an official assignment, he needed to be cunning in shooting inside the thermal baths, beginning his day’s work early in the morning, when only hotel guests are allowed in. Having been in the space before, he knew beforehand what he wanted to capture. “I had my camera wrapped in my towel, and my mom was looking out if someone was coming. And I took the pictures in a natural light, there’s no flash,” reveals Ducrest, who intently refrained from retouching the photographs. He wanted to depict the architecture as purely as possible — in the way it was designed. What is more, he says, “The lighting changes throughout the day. If you start incorporating lighting that’s not supposed to be there, it’s going to change the feel of it. I like the fact that I had to deal with those constraints. And I don’t really like having people in my photography.”

    I don’t really like having people in my photography.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Feeling Zumthor

    By design, Zumthor, who received the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his lifework in 2009, pulls the visitor from the arrival and physical transition into bath attire deeper into the spacial experience of the building. A gentle slope leads down to the locker rooms. “You go down this dark tunnel, and you get glimpses of what he wants you to go and explore,” the photographer tells. “As you walk down the hallway, you turn to your left, and there’s this small but very tall opening, and you can see the space below. You see a pool, and you want to go there and see that space. You’re going through a turnstile, and again, you walk this hallway, and there’s water coming out of little water sprouts.” At the end of the hall, the locker rooms lie behind heavy curtains. “You emerge on the other side into the main space, and as you are walking down the staircase, you’re going to see the outdoor pool. You’re going to see a part of the main pool. And you’ll again want to go further and explore.”

    Rigid and in order: Swiss minimalism. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Ducrest’s images are a pictorial reflection on the architect’s intent of creating a physical, mental and spiritual human experience — with the Swiss touch of the internationally renown architect, who was born in Basel in 1943, the son of a master carpenter. “In Switzerland, we like things in order and a little rigid, that’s how we are. That’s still how I am,” Ducrest notes. “When you’re there, it’s always straight lines. It’s hard corners. From the design, you wouldn’t think there is something soft or calming about the space. It’s very rigid and square, and there seems to be no end to this gray stone. But then you add the thermal water elements and the lighting, and it all comes together. Now, it’s a perfect space.”

    The soft element of the thermal water in juxtaposition with the rough stone and the straight-line architecture perfects the experience of the space.

    Also read: “Designing With Empathy” by Mette Aamodt