Architecture can move us, it elicits different emotions. It can bring back memories, but it can also elicit direct emotions, like letting you feel small or big, or giving a safe feeling or an unsafe one. Architecture is sometimes even able to bring us in a spiritual mood. But the same space can make someone feel calm while another person might feel uncomfortable or even unsafe there. Yet most of us feel small in a big Gothic church and unsafe in a dark alley at night. Architectural spaces have certain atmospheres that influence the emotional state of a person: the interaction between the environment and its occupant.

“There was a time when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt’s garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen, the only really brightly lit room in the house […] Memories like these contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are the reservoirs of the architectural atmospheres and images which I explore in my work as an architect.” (1)

– ZUMTHOR, P. (2005) Thinking Architecture (affiliate link)

A different approach

During our studies at the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University of Technology (DUT), we have noticed that there has been hardly any research in the area of emotion in architecture. Even in our education it is rarely a topic of discussion. The lack of attention for this topic led us to graduation lab Explorelab, where we had the opportunity to explore our fascination: experiencing architecture. In the beginning of our research we discovered that at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering research has been carried out in this area for almost a decade now. Prof. Paul Hekkert from the Department of Design Aesthetics at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering confirmed this during one of our regular meetings.
In addition to the lack of relevant research, the faculty practises a very functional approach to architecture. We were interested in determining the implications of adopting a less functional approach; an approach where the focus lies on architectural atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user.

How can architects design atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user?
 To answer this question we first need to know what emotions are and how they are elicited. Knowledge of psychology and the extended research which had been done at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (DUT) into this topic help us to understand how emotions work. This research includes the ‘basic model of emotions’ by Pieter Desmet, which gives insight into the emotional process (2). To be able to use this model, information on architectural concerns and stimuli is needed. This will contribute to the understanding of how emotions are elicited by architecture.

Basic model of emotions

The basic model of emotions of Pieter Desmet (see below) shows that our concerns are decisive for the kind of emotion that will be elicited. The model describes the eliciting conditions of emotions with the use of three underlying key variables: stimulus, concern and appraisal.

A stimulus elicits an emotion when it is appraised as either harmful or beneficial for one of our concerns. So the same building can elicit different emotions because of different concerns.

However, there are some basic architectural concerns that all humans share, like the need for prospect and refuge, the need to explore and the need for thrill.

Basic model of emotions by Pieter Desmet

Prospect and refuge
Traditionally, we prefer to have a shelter on the edge of a forest, because, in the past, man could hunt in the open fields and woman could search for fruits and plants, and, when danger threatened, they could retreat to the shelter protected by the forest. In his book The Experience of Landscape (affiliate link), Jay Appleton refers to the open field as ‘prospect’ and the shelter as ‘the refuge’: “Where he has an unimpeded opportunity to see we can call it a prospect. Where he has an opportunity to hide, a refuge.” (3)

To emphasise this, humans have their field of vision to the front (prospect), therefore needing some sort of protection from behind (refuge).

The house ‘Can Feliz’ made by Jørn Utzon to some extent illustrates the prospect to refuge concept. With reference to ‘Can Feliz’, Grant Hildebrand says in his book Origins of Architectural Pleasure (affiliate link): “Here, on the right, an interior refuge has been developed by opaque walls, a lesser floor-to-ceiling dimension, and a low light level. Continuously on the left, a complementary zone of interior prospect has been created by a somewhat greater floor-to-ceiling dimension, walls with extensive transparent surfaces, and a much higher light level”. (4)

Can Feliz by Jørn Utzon

Traditionally again, we need to search for new sources of food and to protect ourselves from possible threats.

View from side street to cathedral, Ovieto – Italy

Thrill = fear + pleasure
Humans need challenges to keep training their skills, or as Veenhoven explains it: “paradise is not liveable”. (5)

Napes Needle, English lake district

Architectural means

Light, form, colour, sound, movement, texture and smell, are examples of how architects have created certain atmospheres. These atmospheres are the stimuli in Peter Desmet’s basic model of emotions (see above), eliciting an emotion that is appraised as either harmful or beneficial to one of our concerns.

New design process

To be able to design atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user, a new kind of design process is needed. It consists of two main stages with one additional preliminary stage that only needs to be carried out once.

1. Basic concerns
First, we require some general knowledge of the basic concerns to gain insight into those fundamental concerns that are related to architecture.

2. Specific concerns
Then, more specific concerns need to be unravelled. This can be done by interviewing potential users and observing how reference projects are used. This step has to be repeated for each project, because each has different users with different concerns. For example, the concerns of users of a meditation centre are very different from those of users of a dwelling project. But even between two different dwelling projects there are users with varying concerns. These concerns need to be satisfied by architectural atmospheres, which themselves can be created by architectural means and thus satisfy the concerns of the user. This stage where the architectural atmospheres are created, is the actual design part of the process.

3. Architectural atmospheres
Finally, the designed architectural atmospheres need to be checked against the basic and specific concerns of the user. To that end, potential users can be shown the design and asked for their feedback. This feedback should then be taken up in the design. This cycle can be repeated until both the architect and the potential user are satisfied.

In conclusion, we believe that a different approach to architecture is needed, primarily in view of the functional way in which architecture is practised at the Faculty of Architecture (DUT). Most projects at our former faculty are based on a very conceptual approach: a design method that has often little to do with users’ concerns.

This, or a similar design process has enabled us and a few other architects to create architectural atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user. Hopefully more architects will adopt this method of designing in the near future.

For further reading

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(affiliate links)

  1. P. Zumthor, (2006) Thinking Architecture (p.7-8). Swiss: Birkhauser Basle – affiliate link
  2. P. Desmet (2002) Designing Emotions. Delft: Delft University Press
  3. J. Appleton (1975) The Experience of landscape (p.73). London: William Clowes & Sons – affiliate link
  4. G. Hildebrand, (1999) Origins of architectural pleasure (p.30). California: University of California Press – affiliate link
  5. R. Veenhoven, (2000) Leefbaarheid, betekenissen en meetmethoden (in Dutch), as quoted in: M.J. van Dorst, (2005) Een duurzame leefbare omgeving (in Dutch) (p.86). Delft: Eburon, 2005

12 thoughts on “How to design atmospheres attuned to the concerns of the user?

    1. Thank you! We try to update on this subject every week.
      If you have any questions, ideas or research material we can look into – please let us know.

  1. It is a nice post about a forgotten part of Architecture. Emotions, feelings are very important for each user. The architecture is between life and space

  2. Focusing on emotions is a very interesting topic, but I got upset when I read in the post that the only way to be truly creative in your design, generally you must build for rich people, because they naturally have less concerns. After all, most of Peter Zumthor’s works were comissioned by the wealthy people.

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