Atmosphere, in contrast, is a surface phenomenon. To appreciate architecture in terms of mood and ambiance is to sustain our attention on the foreground of sensations, drawing our focus away from buildings as fixed, cohesive objects with discrete forms and, often, discreet sociopolitical mechanisms. Perception, or the way space emits sensations, becomes the sole concern. Taking the user’s or the beholder’s point of view, atmospheric analysis has the advantage of relying on immediate experience, providing an accessible way to speak of architecture. A rich colloquial vocabulary exists to describe it: a space can be gloomy, murky, somber, gray, impersonal, indifferent, jovial, lively, sunny, uplifting, and so on. But the conversational character of these qualifiers should not make us conclude that atmosphere is inconsequential. On the contrary, our propensity to talk about it points to the fact that it has powerful and lasting effects on us. Perceiving space as a bearer of feelings is one of the most important ways that we orient ourselves in our daily lives. Thus, atmosphere is often our strongest memory of spaces we have experienced sensorially because it is inextricably bound to our first impressions of those spaces. It constitutes architecture’s most immediate communicative dimension, partaking of all sensory perceptions: sights, sounds, smells, textures, even tastes. It is impossible to turn off atmospheric influences, even if they are banal and we lose awareness of them. Furthermore, because they are inescapably present, atmospheric influences provide the basic expressive orientations in our environment, which is never devoid of meaning.
Even if a wealth of descriptive terms is available to characterize these influences, atmospheres remain elusive. Visible things may partly generate these influences, but atmospheres are themselves a complex manifold as invisible as the wind: “quasi-things,” as the Italian philosopher of atmosphere Tonino Griffero labeled them. From our interview with Griffero, we can gauge how complex atmospheric perception can be, both ontologically and phenomenologically. An atmosphere may generate impactful impressions that seem to precisely require no deciphering, yet to develop a knowledge of “how one feels” requires a special science of the phenomenon that is not entirely reducible to conscious cognition. One of the thorns in the side of atmospheric knowledge is the difficulty of disengaging it from the reigning mode of psychological explanation. Atmospheric effects may be subjective facts, but they are not pure creations of our mind as so many pathetic fallacies. They are transmitted affect; they exist in space. This spectral quality is at once atmosphere’s most fascinating and most elusive character. We feel strongly its effects, but not unlike Saint Augustine when confronted with the problem of defining time, as soon as we try to seize it, “we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.”1 This is one of the subtle forms of power that atmospheres wield: they inflect behavior and regulate mood.