Ambiance dynamics

With architecture we cannot radically separate the material world from the immaterial one, the spatial forms from the temporal dynamics. Instead of speaking in terms of the beauty of an architectural object, I prefer to focus on the capacity of a built environment to intensify everyday experience and be responsive to its inhabitants. (Thibaud in LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 53)

At CRESSON (1) , a research centre at the Architecture School of Grenoble, dedicated to the study of ambiances and the design of innovative qualitative methodologies, architect Jean-Paul Thibaud investigated the notion of responsive environment to define different kinds of dynamics in ambiances and modes to account for its sensory variations. In his article The three dynamics of urban ambiances (LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 43-54) Jean-Paul Thibaud explores the notion of ambiance as a possibility to conceptualise how the built environment and social practice get mutually determined. Thibaud defines an ambiance as “a synergy between the senses that involves the emotional aspect of a situation. A quality of sound, light or fragrance is sensed in a single movement that confers unity on the sensory world” (Thibaud in LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 45). An ambiance involves not only the built environment of the place but also the lived experience of people. It is a time-space that can be qualified from a sensory point of view, relating to the sensing and feeling of a place. Therefore the way we relate to a place is based on the sensory experience it involves. And urban space provides numerous ambiances with particular properties and qualities, that engage passers-by physically, connecting them to the site. It shapes practices, which in turn affect it (Thibaud in LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 43). To take account on the sensory variations of a public space, Thibaud distinguishes three main dynamics involved in the creation of an ambiance. In his view, “an ambiance emerges from a triple process: acclimatisation, variation and alteration. These processes are always at work simultaneously in an ambiance but their respective power nevertheless varies from one atmosphere to another” (Thibaud in LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 53). Some ambiances change more than others, and are more flexible to variation and improvisation. This means that an ambiance may more or less have the capacity to integrate, exacerbate or neutralise social activities. By making this distinction, Thibaud aims to clarify three basic ecological processes that constitute an ambiance and that involve tuning, modulating and formatting. He argues that each process involves specific domains of thought and conceptual tools (Thibaud in LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 45). In this sense, in the first dynamic, a tuned ambiance “emerges as the place is brought into tune with the conduct it supports.” Therefore there is some close affinity between what is felt and what is produced, between the subject and the world. In his perspective, it is “an ecology of the lived world”. The second dynamic, a modulated ambiance, involves slight variations of the sensory context of the place. Therefore what is felt fluctuates over time and varies in line with activities. This ambiance engages “an ecology of situated perception”. In the third dynamic, a framed ambiance emerges through the conditioning of the place by the social practice itself. Therefore it gives shape to social situations and enfolds an “ecology of relations in public”. Another aspect that Thibaud mentions is that in the same place we may identify different ambiances. For example, a place saturated with stimuli and people walking fast may be perceived as tense, alarming, stressful; at a different time of the day or of the year, the same place may be sensed as relaxing, peaceful, restful (Thibaud in LaBelle and Martinho 2011, 44). I have found Thibaud’s work useful as a starting point to understand at which levels (physical, mental, social, ecological) phenomena may affect sensory variations of an ambiance. As it will be explained on the overview of the design methods, I have extended this study into different methods to design aural architecture based in sensory variation. My stance was that this variation generated distinct ambiances and affected the auditory experience of a space.


  1. CRESSON is a research centre founded in 1979 based in the School of Architecture of Grenoble, France. Initially dedicated to investigate sound environment and urban space, it extends its interests today to the study of ambiances and the design of innovative qualitative methodologies.

Back to: Research