Atmosphere & Architecture

In my previous post I went into some detail about a D-Crit lecture by Christopher Hawthorn. He outlined six themes and current trends in architecture that where mostly extrapolated from exhibits at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. These themes include: Atmosphere, the Worn, Vacancy, Temporary, Softness and Engagement. It’s coming a bit later than anticipated but that means I’ve been busy (good thing) but now I give you the first in a series of short articles in which I will attempt to give more context and depth via an exploration of meaning and personal explanation of how I define these pivotal concepts both within the realm of architecture and without.

To recap what has already been said about Atmosphere; Mr. Hawthorn used the idea as a transition from the hard, often harsh, world of architecture’s recent past saying that, “In a digitally technological world, architecture has the ability to create platforms for human interaction and atmosphere.” He focused on a particular biennalle exhibit which featured a large room with a steel ramp walkway that spirals upward into a man made water vapor “cloud” that was an analogy for the atmosphere we are in, as opposed to atmosphere as an object, that which is observable from a distance. I think the analogy is a good one but I think the atmosphere of technology envelops us all the time, especially me since I’m in NYC.

 I want to first point out the distinction between atmosphere as an object observed from a distance and the experience of being within and a part of the atmosphere.It seems that this idea hinges on the fact that atmosphere is something observable and therefore tangible. I would assert that atmosphere is much more than the air or particles within it. I’m sure that Hawthorn would agree but I’m not sure the point was made clearly, especially with the slides shown. Atmosphere is also the mood of a place created by the built and natural environment, people, animals and other objects that inhabit the space as well as sensory stimulus such as lighting, temperature, sound, smell, humidity etc. So there are lots of things that create atmosphere and something as simple as a shift change at a bar or restaurant or even a retail store can completely change the atmosphere of the place without touching the architecture. I have many childhood memories of my Mom’s bakery and I can tell you that the atmosphere in the early morning when the bakers are still at work in the back and the ovens are constantly wafting the smell of cookies, cakes and the fabulous sausage cheese bread throughout the place is completely different than that of the later afternoon when the bakers had long left the building, even though you couldn’t see the kitchen from the showcase area. And everyone knows that Ms Charlotte is part of the atmosphere, the place is just not the same on the days she isn’t serving the customers in the front. So thats my piece on atmosphere as a mood.

When architecture becomes less about form and space and more about creating atmosphere and the conveyance of information and ideas, the whole practice is, transmuted into something else. No longer is the focus on shelter alone. I would guess the beginnings of this idea came from early church and sacred place building, Stonehenge being one of the oldest existing monuments, the great Pyramids, Gothic churches etc. These are outrageously lavish structures that are oft created by the cult of personality. the new for of this is known as starchitecture and has held quite a powerful sway on development over the last decade or so. Of course this is becoming a little less common place in today’s world of shrinking construction budgets but there is also public and critical outcry against buildings as art for arts sake (and the designers ego) and more praise for the art of “placemaking” and higher demand for branded places – not places as brands. I will go into this in more depth in my post addressing architecture of engagement but here is the set-up.

Places as brands is a concept that I will equate to the art of starchitecture. These places are largely created not so much with concern about what will transpire within the walls of the structure or fitting into the surrounding context of the environment and city or even how pedestrians on the street level will interact with the building. Instead the designers have created construction techniques that stand out as thier own thus branding the buildings with thier particular sty. These buildings become landmarks in a city as they stand out and often compete with their surroundings, they become the destination and have the ability to be more important than what goes on inside them.

Brands as places is epitomized in the Duck which incorporates an architectural technique that make the place the theme, thus setting the atmosphere for whatever the business enterprise wants it to be. This form of novelty architecture blazed a path for branded buildings, which is typified in so many fast food chains. For example, most McDonalds you will see will invariably have a red plateaued roof, golden arches (in one form or another) and a standard red and yellow color scheme. In a similar, but much more elegant manner (IMHO), the Apple stores of the world present an extremely strong brand identity closely tied to simple, user friendly design. A modern glass box, or some derivative of the form, prominently display the Apple logo and allow passers-by to look through curtain glass walls at thongs of rapt consumers gleefully fondling all sorts of Apple products. This is a direct lineage of architectural form following function is similar to the lineage made in the initial lecture I am critiquing of SkiDubai being a direct descendant of the AstroDome.

Coming full circle, lets go back to atmosphere as air and the particles within it. Lets not focus on vapors or light within that space, instead imagine the electromagnetic fields that are made up by the positive and negative charges making up all those tiny elements. The same subtle yet powerful oscillations we can observe as they create noise, light and color are so scarcely different than others that are just outside of our detection. Other species including dogs, bats, and sea mammals can hear frequencies above this range and still others hear below our human scale of observable frequencies. The same is true for color but before I stray too far off topic lets look at the waves that have the most potential to impact human life. I believe the realm of radio waves are just that bandwidth that we are tapping into and currently creating entirely new forms of societies. A constant job hunter, I find myself excluding the term technology from job results since postings for “information technology architects” tend to swamp my results for landscape architect positions. Now most of us know what an IT professional is, and it is not an architect. But imagine if this IT Architect title was actually a designer of physical spaces devoted to technology.

There are indeed several architectural/technological love-children including of course smart homes and most are familiar with the home office in which people telecommute. But these all seem like small potatoes when cast against the fact that we are literally bathed with wave upon wave of data transmitting, information streaming, content laden and invisible particles nearly everywhere we go. The possibilities are enormous. So are the privacy and possibly health issues – but I won’t go into these (not today at least). One fairly new technology that I think could be somehow incorporated into future architectures is the location based app. There are also a slew of location specific apps for handheld devices that let people interact with there surroundings (including my personal favorite FourSquare) but no one really knows what to do with these yet, besides communicate your location to friends and promote your business with location specific advertising. Another fairly newcomer on the scene is RFID chips which have revolutionized book checkout at libraries and entry into apartment and condo buildings. I can see all sorts of mash-up technologies in the makings here.

Although it is possible to take a step back and “observe” this atmosphere by participating in an exercise of criticism and dissection as I am now, it is much easier to live in the cloud. To let yourself be bombarded with media, both digital and analogue, especially advertising and that technological bubble of the hand-held smart device, which I live in and rely on for damn near everything short of drawing in actual breath and the consumption of food and water! The future possibilities in applying the available and burgeoning technologies to everyday life are wildly diverse, scary, exhilarating and humbling. I saw a RFID shielding sleeves (for passports) on sale at some electronics store in the city a while back. I must admit I was somewhat mind boggled for a moment and didn’t put much though into it. Then, a couple days later I received a new debit card with, you guessed it, an RFID chip embedded within the plastic. This opens the door for speedy POS transactions as well as stealthy theft of personal information. The fear of having my identity stolen mixed with the heady notion of simply waiving my ATM card at the subway stall for easy access and instant posting to my FourSquare page mixed in a confusing cloud of hope and doubt about the future of this nascent technology.

Advertising is the final concept related to atmosphere that I wanted to address. Advertising is all around is, it is built into the products and packaging that we own and use, plastered on the streets and buildings in the public realm, blasted over airwaves and displayed on mobile phones, TVs and radios. My partner did her thesis project in architecture school on this particular subject and actually devised a way to incorporate lifestyle into branding efforts as a way to extend the city’s skyline, increase the property owners profitability, expand the brand promoters visibility and elevate the building dwellers lifestyle expectations. This proposed idea was in relation to a completely different country and culture but all the same it goes to show the absolute level at which advertising is a persistent influence on the way we operate our lives.

Times Square is the typical example of advertising as architecture and for good reason. Electronic billboards dominate everything in this environment vying only with one another for the consumers attention, then at the whim of suggestion it is oh so easy to duck into one of the flagship brand stores in the area to purchase that to die for new “thing” that was just flashed before your eyes. Another interesting thing I have recently seen is the new HSBC Bank advertising campaign where they have not forsaken the traditional billboards and television time slots but have also moved into the more pedestrian realm of placing their brand on everyday object that are at ground level and easily accessible to people like me who don’t watch tv and don’t pay attention to the billboards as I pass them by but I do notice other details, like the viewfinder that lets you peer across the harbor for a quarter that is now branded with the HSBC logo, or the sidewalk and stairs that lead up to Bryant Park, which have been branded by the HSBC logo and the ship cleats on docks, planters, light poles, recycle bins, even trees. This is not an indie poster stapled to a light pole, this is a corporately funded mass advertising campaign that covers various objects throughout the entire city. I see this as the final outgrowth of previous incarnations including subways advertising and the kitschy adverts above urinals. It is pervasive and mostly unavoidable. The final idea pertaining to the outgrowth and complete envelopment of advertising as it become atmospheric is my previously mentioned FourSquare (4Sq) and other place based applications. These technologies allow business to focus on potential customers that are in their immediate target area. I must admit I do enjoy the user discount offered to me when I check into a location suing 4Sq and it has been predicted that one day this and other apps will offer users suggestions of places to go when they are outside of their usual stomping grounds based on the places I usually check in here in New York. Maybe offering a suggestion of a nice vegetarian restaurant somewhere in Hattiesburg next time I go visit my folks, or the location of a Green Drinks event in LA next time I’m on the West coast. Although I generally accept these and maybe look forward to them, I can see how other less discerning folks may be bombarded or preyed upon by the potentialities of these technologies, especially as they evolve and morph into ever more predatory and deceptive modes of increasing revenue and profits as advertising on these apps move from the realm of small businesses to that of big corporations.

As a somewhat side note and a very effective way of obliterating my closing ideas for the concept of atmosphere… I personally think that we (Americans) consume too much and give into the whims of impulse. I once heard a definition of maturity as the ability to delay our sense of gratification. Well I’m sorry to report that according to this definition I live amongst a society of immature adults who cannot conceive of putting off that trip to Europe or that new TV/iPod/shirt/sofa.etc. Although the economic meltdown has put a little damper on this mentality (and I mostly surround myself with people who strive NOT to be products of our society) I never seem to stop hearing about how crappy things are now because their isn’t enough credit to buy these frivolous things. But I regress, America no longer produces products and our greatest export is culture. Our culture is one of consumption, spending and waste. Two of the primary drivers of this form of society is advertising and obsolescence. I won’t go into all the forms of obsolescent here but it is definitely worth looking at on your own and I’m sure I’ll address the idea in the future). It is understood by advertisers that brand loyalty begins at a young age in undeveloped minds, so children are often the target of advertising. But age, as I have pointed out, is not the sole indicator of maturity or a developed mind. Broad overarching movements have been spawned against the incessant exportation and resulting advertising of “The American Way of Life” see any of the myriad “Slow” movements beginning with Slow Food started as a rational alternative to fast food as the pervasive idea and cultural export began to gain a foothold in some of Italy’s smaller communities that placed such a strong value on sourcing, cooking and consuming their food together in a deliberate and communal way. I was at an event last night where I chanced upon a conversation of lingering intellectuals and activists about the dismay caused by Kraft Foods Triscut brand funding and hijacking a community garden initiative that was taking place in the Bronx. Brands are becoming more ingenious in identifying marketable exposure, becoming involved with projects that will positively increase their exposure to otherwise unwilling or unwitting participants by cloaking their identity behind anonymous sources of money until the critical branding moment when it is too late. On the same level we may be thinking about these concepts at a moment in time when it is too late to change the net effect and consequences. That said, I look forward to delving deeper into the other topic on the list of architectural themes that are currently shaping our lives and cities.







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