Atmosphere and image

Image of a cafe in the Piazza San Marco, showing yellow chairs

I am looking at a photograph that I took in Piazza San Marco in Venice in November. You can see it above, with its cheerful yellow chairs clustered around tables set with crisp linen cloths. I am looking at the image in a large digital format, much larger than shown on this website, and by concentrating on the details I am taken back into the moment. The moment was shared with a friend who had accompanied me on a walking tour of the City that day, and I can vividly remember the sense of the place, the temperature and humidity of the air, the flat whiteness of the sky and a thousand other details that are not experienced as such, but woven together to create a unique 'atmosphere'.

Images can be transporting in this way, taking us to far-off places, but to overstate their power to do this is romantic at best and misleading at worst. More often than not the power of the image is heavily diluted and diminished, and I attribute this to two things - the saturation of our visual environment, and the overstatement of the power of imagery alone in the absence of other sensory cues.

Marking this fact is seen as a bit superfluous, and generally the creative professions just get on with the business of image production and manipulation. Nevertheless there is something in it, something about the notion of the image as a single weapon in a broader arsenal that is not often discussed.

I am always mildly anxious while taking photographs. This is not an emotion inspired by a fear of making a poor image, something I avoid most of the time and can tolerate passably well when it does occur. It is a different kind of anxiety, an awareness of the moment being enshrined and frozen, almost as if I am scared of what might be captured by the lens. I tend to frame the shot with something of an aesthetic sense, but quickly, and not dwell on details that are plainly visible to me at the time, by virtue of my being there. I tend to quickly frame and fire off the shot, and just wait to see what it yields later on, rather than spending a moment pondering what I am seeing and considering how it could be framed.

When this goes well there is a spontaneity to the imagery, but when it does not go well the shots are poorly framed, or I see later that an opportunity was there but overlooked. The issue of making good or poor imagery is not really the point I am interested in, as I feel that closer attention to the technique of observation and framing helps this immensely. I am far more interested in the experience of marking a moment in time by capturing its specifics, and the relationship of this to the atmosphere of the place.

'Atmosphere' is not something that serious architects or designers discuss very often. It is seen as a non-professional or amateurish word, more suited to the realm of the decorator or Friday-night home improvement television programme. I disagree, and think that it is a fine word, and very useful for encompassing a broader spectrum of personal experience linked to place than the more restrictive 'style' or 'language'. What I really like about the word 'atmosphere' is that it is rooted in the experience of the person in the place, whereas more 'serious' technical architectural terminology is almost always focused on the characteristics of the space, building or place being experienced.

This is not a subtle distinction. To use the example at hand, Piazza San Marco has architectural and spatial characteristics, but to consider it as being merely the sum of those characteristics is to deny the richness of the actual experience of the place. The Piazza is never experienced independent of the temperature, the humidity, the quality of light, sounds, odours, movement and the presence of other people and the different things they are doing. In fact there is a wealth of nuance and subtlety - and an abundance - to the atmosphere of the place, and it is constantly changing. it is there to experience, if we can only tune our awareness to soak up the atmosphere in all of its parts.

Architectural discourse - the way architects speak to each other - is heavily censored and restricted, and this affects how we think about what we do, and how we discuss it with outsiders. It is partly the choice of words, driven by a sense of what is professionally orthodox and appropariate, and what is amateurish and 'beneath' a trained professional. Outsiders should not underestimate the designer's fear of being seen as 'uncool', either - I'm quite serious about that. Designer Bruce Mau acknowledges the corrosive power of 'coolness' in his studio's excellent Incomplete Manifesto where it is put like this:
14. Don’t be cool.

Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

Visiting Piazza San Marco is undeniably a cool thing to do so perhaps my example is a poor one, but nevertheless, an 'uncool analysis' of what this photograph taps into points to something quite outside an orthodox architectural discourse. If the photograph transports me to another time and place, it is not because I have captured the 'essence' of the place in my image: it is because there is enough detail in the image to evoke my memory of being there, reminding me that I was footsore, cool but not cold, suffering from the glare of an overcast day and overwhelmed by the simple wide-eyed fact of being there for the first time. All of those things forged the atmosphere of the place as a personal sensory and visual framework: from that comes the emotive and evocative charge of the image.

This quality of 'atmosphere' exists everywhere, and not just in photogenic tourist destinations: how it accumulates over time and with the familiarity of the everyday is of particular interest to me. The density of experience it amounts to is so common that we are usually blind to it, and we become insensitive to the places we go every day. Nevertheless, the subconscious or unconscious mind is always assimilating detail, and over time we build up a rich, dense and nuanced composite picture of the places we know. If you doubt this, think now of a place you knew and liked - or disliked - in childhood: the formative memories can be the most potent.

Designers use images to create. We use photographs and drawings to capture what exists, and to visualise and make real what does not yet exist. If we as designers can somehow more closely link the intention of the image to a sense of a place's atmosphere, we may find ways to describe an emotional and atmospheric reality embedded in what exists, and yet evocative of what we wish to create. This might be fertile new ground.