The Turn to Affect in Architecture

Affect is a challenging and controversial term that grew in popularity in the late 20th century with the publication of A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari although references have been made back to the 1600s.

Affect is a process of existential appropriation through the continual creation of heterogeneous durations of being and, given this, we would certainly be better advised to cease treating it under the aegis of scientific paradigms and to deliberately turn ourselves toward ethical and aesthetic paradigms

-Félix Guattari[1]

What compounds the issue of a definition is that each discipline seems to mold the term to best describe how the world works according to their lens. My best understanding of affect refers to the highly temporary emotional state induced by externalities. For example, my current affective state in writing this blog post consists of a mélange of emotions and their stimulus: frustration from a recent snowboarding injury, impatience from the number of work emails I received this morning changing my schedule, gratitude from the package I received from a coworker with helpful reference materials, and annoyance for the text messages I sent cancelling my date. All of these external factors have produced a series of emotions that manifest into my current affective state and influence my physical body, my perception of the world, and my interactions with others.

Because post-structuralism and deconstruction rejected affect, an academic turn to affect and emotion extended discussions about culture, subjectivity, identity, and bodies in critical theory and cultural criticism as described by Rei Terada in his book Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the ‘Death of the Subject.’[2] Scholars such as Patricia Clough claim that this turn toward affect in the mid-1990s was significant because it “points instead to a dynamism immanent to bodily matter and matter generally […] which may be the most provocative and enduring contribution of the affective turn.”[3] With such a wide definition, why is the study of affect important?

After reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, I began to see affect as a key to concepts of reason and agency in everyday life through her examples of affect produced by art and literature.[4] It seems that affect is critical to unraveling and questioning our sense of self. I found Andrew Murphie’s blog Adventures in Jutland very helpful in organizing the various perspectives of major authors (including himself) on the benefits of affect. “It is crucial to our relations, conscious or non-conscious, as well as our sense of place, our sense of place, our own and other bodies… and to larger questions) such as the way the economic market works, business works, questions about the way we affect the world at large ecologically, etc.).”[5]

Specifically, what problems does affect respond to in social and political theory? Affect describes a large portion of emotional states and feelings but also the degrees of separation or “filters” as Berlant elaborates that are wielded to a particular, and usually economic, advantage. Affect is used to describe the space between what one actually feels vice what one needs to project they feel for social inclusion (such as in the example of Vincent who lost his job but was acting as if he was still employed). In politics, affect can be used to disrupt status quo of behavior and thought process when patterns and habits are identified (such as in the example of the Surveillance Camera Players of New York City).[6]

Another way to view affect is to understand the affect it is trying to have on the receiver. What tone, emotion, and qualities are used to convey the message that intensifies it or its experience?

As an architect, the discussion of affect reaches for a deeper meaning behind aesthetics. Affect in architecture is the emotional response or even physical response brought about by the spatial composition, texture, and feeling of occupying the building. An example I use often is the work of Peter Zumthor who designs spaces to evoke emotional responses – from claustrophobia to calm. Below are images of a project he design in Switzerland called the Bath Houses. This building is perched on a hillside in Switzerland as part of a hotel but is famous for the controlled experience it provides bathers.  Zumthor explains below in an interview with ArchDaily.[7]

Mountain, stone, water – building in the stone, building with the stone, into the mountain, building out of the mountain, being inside the mountain – how can the implications and the sensuality of the association of these words be interpreted, architecturally?

-Peter Zumthor


The meander, as we call it, is a designed negative space between the blocks, a space that connects everything as it flows throughout the entire building, creating a peacefully pulsating rhythm. Moving around this space means making discoveries. You are walking as if in the woods. Everyone there is looking for a path of their own.

-Peter Zumthor


This building is about creating affect-using materials like stone to convey a deep connection with nature and the mountain. Slices of natural light reminisce of light streaming through cracks in a cave – warmth, comfort, and safety. The acoustics (from the sounds of bubbling water to running water, to the slap of skin on stone) lead one to feel as if they are in a natural oasis. The touch of warm stone on the feet relaxes bathers as they come out of the water. All of these elements are consciously implemented to bring about a reaction, a reaction that changes as the bather moves through the building.


[1] Félix Guattari (1996). in Gary Genosko, Ed., The Guattari Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd: 159

[2] Terada, R. (2001). Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the `Death of the Subject.’ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Clough, P. (2008). “The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies” in Theory, Culture & Society. Sage. Vol 25(1): 1-22.

[4] Berlant, L (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

[5] Murphie, A. (2010). “Affect – a basic summary of approaches,” in Adventures in Jutland.

[6] Berlant, L (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

[7] Zumthor, P. (2009). The Therme Vals / Peter Zumthor.

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