The impact of space — Atmosphere affects how we feel and perceive

Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency
7 min readApr 12, 2020


Peter Zumthor, Kolumba Museum, Cologne, Germany, 2001. © Photo Esa Laaksonen

Our surroundings impact how we feel and behave towards other people. Architect Esa Laaksonen reflects on architecture of peace through legendary architect Peter Zumthor’s observations of spatial atmosphere.

Text Heini Lehtinen Images Esa Laaksonen, Gregory Gerault, Arvo Pärt Centre

“There shouldn’t be such places as refugee camps, and there shouldn’t be an occasion in which people have to be placed in a camp,” states architect Esa Laaksonen.

“Especially with children, the environment where we grow up impacts how we are later in life. Some succeed better in achieving a normal life after growing up in a camp, some worse.”

Esa Laaksonen. Photo Gregory Gerault

Esa Laaksonen is an architect and teacher who has been working on the experience of space for decades. He has authored several books on architecture, taught at universities around the world, and received dozens of prizes in the Finnish and international architectural competitions. In the recent years, he has delved into the young sector of architecture and neurosciences.

“In reality, space impacts even the development of our brain,” he continues. “It’s been stated that the environment or the space we are in doesn’t only impact us when we are in the space, but in the long run, it builds us in a wider sense.”

Some leading researchers in the field state even stronger. One of them is Fred Gage, the president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and professor at the laboratory of genetics, who is known for his work in the intersection of neurosciences and environments.

“The environment can modulate the function of genes and, ultimately the structure of our brain,” Gage explains [1]. “Changes in the environment change the brain, therefore they change our behaviour. In planning the environments in which we live, architectural design changes our brain and behaviour.”

Luis Barragán, Casa Estudio, Tacubaya, Mexico City, Mexico, 1948. © Photo Esa Laaksonen

Twelve elements of spatial atmosphere

The environments we live in have both short-term and long-term impact on our physical, psychological and emotional health as well as how we perceive and behave with other people.

For us to feel well physically, our environment has to fulfil our physical needs: it has to be safe, and it must provide warmth, shelter, social connections and nourishment.

To fulfil our psychological and emotional needs, a variety of subtler spatial elements — in addition to the ones listed above — come to play.

“If we talk about space, we must understand which are the elements affecting the atmosphere of a space”, Esa Laaksonen explains. “[Architect] Peter Zumthor has approached the elements based on his long and profound experience in architectural practice.”

In a concise book called ‘Atmospheres — Architectural Environments, Surrounding Objects’ (2006), the legendary Swiss architect Peter Zumthor dissects the atmosphere of a space into twelve spatial elements based on his observations as a practicing architect.

The twelve elements of atmosphere as observed by Zumthor vary from tangible and easy-to-grasp to more abstract ones: the body of architecture, material compatibility, the sound and the temperature of space, and surrounding objects; between composure and seduction; tension between interior and exterior; levels of intimacy; and the light on things.

“Also, there is quite some research on how people react to space and other people in it and where are our intimate boundaries,” Laaksonen continues. “If we are in a small space close to each other — in a bus, for instance — we behave completely differently from being alone in a forest.”

“There is also research on the distance from which we perceive to be safe, no matter what kind of a group of bandits we are facing. Also, long enough views in parks make us feel safe, because we perceive someone who is far enough not a threat anymore.”

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, Arvo Pärt Centre, 2018 Laulasmaa, Estonia. Photo Tõnu Tunnel

Perception is a matter of milliseconds

“I enter a building, see a room, and — in a fraction of a second — have this feeling about it,” Peter Zumthor writes in his book.

We perceive environments through senses, and make judgments based on the sensorial input that we receive. This perception happens very fast; what we see is registered in 25 milliseconds, what we hear in 0,01 milliseconds, and what we touch in 5 milliseconds.

“It’s a survival mechanism,” Esa Laaksonen says. “We have to perceive a space fast. If it’s dark, people don’t usually move before they have an understanding of the space they are in — basically, before they know that there isn’t a hole on the floor.”

“This behaviour is based on evolution. Those who moved without finding out potential threats in their surroundings, fell to a gorge and were cut out in the natural selection.”

There is also an indication that we ‘read’ our environment in a similar way we ‘read’ and perceive other people — their facial expressions and body language.

How we read our environment affects how we feel and what are our body language and facial expressions. These again have an impact of how other people perceive us and behave towards us.

To name some, these aspects of space are researched in architectural psychology and neurosciences. There is plenty of promise in the neurosciences, which could support and measure how spaces are perceived and experienced, and how other people are perceived in a specific kind of space.

“Neurosciences have developed tremendously in the past ten years,” Esa Laaksonen says. “Still, much of what is published in the neurosciences at the moment is very theoretical. It’s about how electric impulses can be seen in the brain. It’s a lot of charts and it can be a heavy read, but it’s absolutely very interesting.”

Despite the promise for the future, there is still a gap between outcomes of neuroscientific research and applying the knowledge into architectural practice. Sometimes architects and designers create an atmosphere consciously and intentionally, but more often intuitively.

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, Arvo Pärt Centre, 2018 Laulasmaa, Estonia. Photo Tõnu Tunnel

Impact of spaces in peace-building

How built environments impact people is a complex set of causes and consequences. In the peace-building sector, this cross-disciplinary set of knowledge can be applied to a variety of contexts from reconstructing destroyed cities to planning and building refugee camps, and from prevention of urban violence and polarisation to designing spaces for peace dialogues.

Reflecting to the twelve spatial elements of atmosphere by Peter Zumthor, Esa Laaksonen mentions Arvo Pärt Centre, a cultural centre hidden in the middle of a forest in Estonia near the coast of the Baltic Sea, as a potentially ideal location for high-level peace dialogues.

Designed by Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos and opened in the end of 2018, the cultural centre is situated in a peaceful location in the forest with no human distraction from the surroundings. The curving glass exterior walls both let in the surrounding nature and daylight, and provide safety but also freedom of movement. The high-quality materials and details of the building provide a sense of respect for the visitor. The building doesn’t have a main entrance or exit, which creates a sense of equality through the architecture.

All these are potentially elements that create a psychologically and emotionally safe space, in which the visitors can feel safe, they are not disrupted and can potentially better and more openly encounter other people in a dialogue.

“Of course, there are also centres specifically designed for peace dialogues”, Laaksonen states. “But, perhaps there could be a centre for peace dialogues in which the impact of space has been taken well into consideration and implemented in the building.” •


Esa Laaksonen was speaker at Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy talks in Brussels, Belgium, in November 2019 with architect Helena Sandman, architect and urban designer Bengin Dawod and conflict resolution professional Miriam Bensky. The conference was organised by design and research office Raven & Wood Agency, The Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, Embassy of Finland in Belgium and Archinfo Finland. The conference was part of the official programme of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy’, a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and conflict resolution in order to find synergy between the sectors.



GAGE, Fred, “Neuroscience and Architecture” Theme presentation, Convention Center, San Diego, May 9, 2003 2–3. Quote from Melissa Farling: “From Intuition to Immersion: Architecture and Neuroscience” in Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa (Eds.): Mind in Architecture; Neuroscience, Embodiment and the Future of Design. Cambridge, Massachusets and London, England. The MIT Press 2015.



Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Specialist of societal impact of architecture. Co-editor of book ‘Studio Time: Future Thinking in Art and Design’ (2018).