Sunday, August 9, 2009

Notes on Complementarity 3

The Case for Non-Uniformly Lighted Spaces

There was a time when a room uniformly illuminated by electric light was seen as innovative and efficient. The opportunity to work continuously and effectively without the drawbacks of the daily and seasonal cycles of day and night, long and short days, represented the promise of increased productivity at work and even at home. Constant and uniformly distributed electric lighting overcomes the unreliability of daylight, which may leave some areas too dark and, just as easily, other areas too bright. Daylight varies from moment to moment. Direct sun can overheat a space in summer while its absence leaves us shivering in the winter. Daylight is just unreliable.

We thought, for a time, that our engineering sophistication and the availability of inexpensive electricity permitted us to overwhelm the inopportunities of the sun. Think of the gleaming insistence of a fluorescent room with its almost subconscious greenish prejudice. Rooms like this broadcast light from so many sources that strong shadows are cancelled. Without shadow, we lack clues to depth, distance, and orientation. There is evidence for a link between uniform electric lighting and worker inefficiency—exactly the opposite of what was planned. More often now, we see the presence of unvarying light, illumination of a constant intensity and color--particularly light of an un-sunlike color bias--and lacking distinct shadow, as discomfiting. Think of a room you hate: this is that room.

To take advantage of daylight, we have to design each fa├žade of a building a little differently. Daylight from different directions has different characteristics and they correspond to different times of day and the seasons. Each orientation of a building has to perform in a different way to provide the correct measure of control over incoming light. The asymmetry of daylight can never be eliminated, but it can be exploited to enliven spaces, animate facades, and gain energy advantages. Building envelope design should be responsive to the sun and skylight and open to variation and so should interior spaces. Architecture thrives when it is responsive, when it accepts and makes sense of the qualities of daylight, including its variability.

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