Computable Atmospheres – Designing with Light

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Figure 1- The Chapel of St. Ignatius by Steven Holl Architects


Jason Lim

The term atmosphere originated in astronomy, denoting the gaseous envelope surrounding a celestial body. In the context of architecture, we use it to describe the quality of a space, one with a “singular density and mood” (Peter Zumthor, 2006). We experience an atmosphere by being immersed in it and sense its presence/weight through our various modalities—visual, aural, haptic etc. The sum of these impressions and sensations may evoke a state of mind, memories and emotional responses in us. This studio will address the topic of atmospheres and explore the use of computation in their design. Conceived as the first in a series, it will focus on vision and light, with subsequent studios concentrating on the other senses.
Our approach will involve the use of rendering technology (specifically Iray by NVIDIA), which has advanced rapidly over the years. Present day renderers are physically based and can accurately model the real-world behaviour of light. Moreover, some are programmable allowing the software to be used in a highly customised way. However, such technology is under-utilised when simply applied to render photo-realistic images at the terminal step of the digital design process, as is conventionally the case. Instead, the studio will seek to uncover the full potentials of rendering technology by investigating its use at the initial design conception stage, and by delving into concepts (physics and computer graphics) underlying the software, which are exposed through their APIs (Application Programming Interface).

The studio will be structured in three parts. First students will study selected architects/artists who address light in their work to learn about the possibilities of this medium. The second phase involves empirical experimentation with light. Students will document light-based phenomena at a real site, and sample data to re-create it with a renderer. They will conduct further experiments using software in tandem with physical modelling; and learn to create and modulate phenomenal visual effects by manipulating form and materiality. Finally, students will apply the knowledge gained to design a mixed-use building located in Basel. They will apply a repertoire of methods, developed during the experimentation phase, to produce atmospheric qualities related to the nature of spaces designed. Students will also explore various representational techniques to convey the mood of these spaces.


  1. Holl, Steven. The Chapel of St. Ignatius. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
  2. Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres. Basel: Birkhaüser Architecture, 2006