Thermodynamic environments: a critical cartography on energy and architecture


Javier García-Germán Trujeda

Iñaki Ábalos Vázquez



Examining board
Josep Lluís Mateo (Pdte.)
Laurent Stalder
Salmaan Craig
Lluís Ortega

During the last five years, in the light of current challenges, several voices are urging to leave behind the modern energy paradigms —efficiency and performance— on which the so called sustainable practices are relying, and are posing the need to rethink, in the light of the scientific and cultural shifts, the thermodynamic and ecological models for architecture. The historical cartography this PhD dissertation presents aligns with this effort, providing the cultural background that this endeavor requires. The drive to ground architecture on a scientific basis needs to be complemented with a cultural discussion of the history of thermodynamic ideas in architecture.

This cartography explores the history of thermodynamic ideas in architecture, from the turn of the 20th century until present day, focusing on the energy interactions between architecture and atmosphere. It surveys the evolution of thermodynamic ideas —the passage from equilibrium to far from equilibrium thermodynamics— and how these have gradually empowered within design and building practices. In doing so, it has posed a double-objective: first, to acquire a critical distance with modern practices which strengthens and recalibrates the intellectual framework and the tools in which contemporary architectural endeavors are unfolding; and second, to develop a projective approach for the development a thermodynamic agenda for architecture and atmosphere, with the firm belief that a critical re-imagination of reality is possible.

According to the different systems which exchange energy across a building, the cartography has been structured in three particular thermodynamic environments, providing a synthetic cross-section of the range of thermodynamic exchanges which take place in architecture:

  • Buildings, as spatial and material constructs immersed in the environment, are subject to a contiuous bidirectional flow of energy with its context, defining a the first thermodynamic environment called territorial atmospheres.
  • Inside buildings, the thermodynamic flow between architecture and its indoor ambient defines a second thermodynamic environment, material atmospheres, which explores the energy interactions between the indoor atmosphere and its material systems.
  • The third thermodynamic environment, physiological atmospheres, explores the energy exchanges between the human body and the invisible environment which envelopes it, shifting design drivers from building to the interaction between the atmosphere and the somatic processes and neurobiological perceptions of users.

Through these three thermodynamic environments, this cartography maps those climatic patterns which pertain to architecture, providing three situations on which designers need to take stock. Studying the connections between atmosphere, energy and architecture this map presents, not a historical paradigm shift from mechanical climate control to bioclimatic passive techniques, but a range of available thermodynamic ideas which need to be assessed, synthesized and recombined in the light of the emerging challenges of our time. The result is a manual which, mediating between architecture and science, and through this particular historical account, bridges the gap between architecture and thermodynamics, paving the way to a renewed approach to atmosphere, energy and architecture. In this regard this cartography is understood as one of the necessary steps to recuperate architecture’s lost capacity to intervene in the pressing reality of contemporary societies.