Shawn Swisher, architecture student at the USC School of Architecture, is currently on a traveling research fellowship focusing on the work of Peter Zumthor. The research centers around Zumthor’s ability to create visceral reactions through his architecture, work that is based on fundamentals of architecture that seem to be fleeting in some emerging architectural trends. Here you will find periodic updates from his journey. There are many ways that architecture can stimulate us. We can be enthralled by theoretical concepts that intend to revolutionize how we interact with our buildings. We can be overcome by the metaphors underlying a project’s design. And, at times, we are able to separate ourselves from these more cerebral desires and draw intrigue based solely on our reactions to space and form.
Personally, I’m interested in this last type. Reactions are what tie us back to our purely human instincts, to the universal senses which connect us all. Responding to space and material in an almost reptilian way, we absorb our surroundings from the beginning of our existence, internalizing our sensibility. Our past experiences shape our perception and, in turn, each new experience reshapes the next. Hence, it is that which makes us most human that ties us so intimately to architecture. Perhaps that’s what I’m most interested in – what makes us human. Our perception defines our reality, and within our perceptions of space we’ve developed this idea of atmosphere. Though even the word itself seems mysterious and ephemeral, I believe it exists as much as anything else exists. Atmosphere is something felt, not thought, something taken in through emotional sensibility. It’s not always something we can define through words alone; rather it’s something that must be absorbed through the experience of the human body existing within it. Undoubtedly, this kind of perceptive ability has come through evolution – the ability to quickly interpret our surroundings and determine if it is hospitable or hazardous. In this way, our body is an instrument for measuring a specific architectural quality that no other device can determine.
What is atmosphere in this sense though? If I were to put it into words, I would say it’s the impression created by nothing more than our immediate, personal mental reaction to a specific space. To paraphrase Peter Zumthor, it’s when the physical presence of architecture manages to move us. The first thing that touches me when I visit the Shelters for Roman Archaeological Excavations in Chur, Switzerland, is its humility. Sitting amongst an industrial building, an office mid-rise, and a small pocket of residences, the shelters do not disturb the visual landscape in the slightest. The simplicity of the wooden louvered boxes instantly conveys a sense of welcoming without being ostentatious, as well as an acknowledgment of not being the main attraction of the archaeological site. Yet it also has an incredible awareness to its surroundings and to the ground upon which it lies; a minimal foundation, the weathered-with-age wood, and the preservation of the meadow behind give a certain permanence to the shelters. It gives it weight, and the building settles in.
These modest wooden slats which make up the exterior envelope also act as a veil to the interior. Timidly, it permits partial views, increasing the anticipation for what might lie inside. Splashes of light rush from behind these screens, but only serve to further mask the interior. Two viewing windows jut out from the wooden boxes to allow for public viewing of the space and the excavation site, but they are again only there to signal the presence of what the interior may hold – the dichotomy of light and dark, inside and out.
Upon entering the shelters, this wood – which on the outside was warmed by the touch of daylight, but visually remained subdued – glows like a lantern. The space and the light embrace me, and I suddenly become aware of being enclosed. Sunlight radiates from the cracks, and thaws the somberness of the interior. A large skylight pierces through the ceiling above each excavation site, light bursting through and crashing upon its metal frame. It diffuses down the thin metal sheet, pouring upon the ground. All of this is contained by the wooden space frame that forms the shelters. These wooden beams and steel members are carefully crafted together: the wood accentuated, the structural joints concealed within the wood itself. The structure frames the space gently, strong and graceful, and the slatted wooden panels wrap tightly around like the canvas of a drum. It is as though all of the materials that came together in construction are merely floating in a light box.
I internalize all of these sensations and I find myself calm but invigorated. Though the temperature inside is mild and a tender breeze can be felt trickling through the louvers, I feel warmth emanating from the walls which surround me. The wood, radiant and soft, seems to vibrate from the light falling upon it. The shelters, though silent and vacant except for myself, have a sound. Something moves me. Shawn is writing a blog where you can follow the traveling research and his impressions on the projects he’s visiting. For a complete gallery of the Shelters, you can follow this link.