Saturday, August 14, 2010

Being there: Architecture makes its own light

It seems worth pursuing the idea that architecture is capable of making its own kind of light, a light that is different from, even if it is a product of, daylight in the landscape. The sun and its light, experienced in the landscape, are not experienced in the same way inside a space. Light in the outside world is subject to an infinity of associations that nuance its significance: endless reflections in the atmosphere; its role as a vehicle for the transmission of heat, which lends it a tactile dimension; and the subtraction by absorption of color, such that the land, bodies of water, and particles of gas and dust determine the color of the light that escapes an object and finally reaches our eyes. The work of architecture is to receive and reorganize the sun’s light for our use and pleasure. In doing this work, daylight is remade.

In the landscape, light is different. Sunlight is scattered by the sky--literally scattered. This is the term used in physics to explain the infinite reflections and re-reflections achieved as light bounces among the atoms of the gases that make up the earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric gases absorb light in the ranges of color other than blue. Blue light escapes and is reflected to us, resulting in our perception of a blue sky. So, the sky neither an object or a surface, but an activity, a performance of blueness, a cool display of chaos,1 an improvised presentation of sunlight, water, oxygen, nitrogen, dust, pollen, carbon, pollution, and a few other things. The sky as illumination is constantly changing due to the changing position of the sun, the behavior of light, and water to the extent to which it assembles or itself loosely or closely, into different kinds of cloud. As the sky begins at the ground, we thrive within this activity, a shower of light.

Architecture organizes daylight. It determines how it meets us, where light enters and where it cannot, and the character of its entrance, which determines whether the sun comes in as blast of brightness and heat, slides quietly along a surface, or does something else. Buildings with openings always do this to some extent, but when they are configured with an awareness of the sun’s path, a building coordinates our lives with morning afternoon, evening, and night; and with the seasons, exaggerating or subduing the natural order of light and dark. For those who like to awaken to sunlight, reinforcing the sense that the day has begun, east-facing windows may be located in a bedroom to capture a sunrise. The end of the day may be similarly celebrated with openings in a house that face west toward the setting sun, capturing the yellows and reds of the sunset until the last possible minute. A house with both opportunities emphasizes the length of the day and articulates daily life.

It is possible to make changes to the commonplace order of daylight. In the Karas House (MLTW / Moore-Turnbull, Monterey, California; constructed in 1966) the architects created just such a switch to compete with a “cool and often foggy forest” site. They located a white-painted box, open to the sky, just outside of a large, high north-facing window. The inside face of the box, articulated with a big, yellow circle (“a surrogate sun”), reflects sun into the house, effectively giving to a north elevation, the character of a view to the south: sunshine.2 Similarly, the Paustian Furniture Showroom (Jorn Utzon, Copenhagen, 1987) accepts daylight from opposite sides of the space. The open showroom’s primary public face is a substantial west-facing window wall and its center is illuminated by a skylighted roof ridge, three levels above the ground floor. But a second long skylight over the east end wall pours skylight onto that wall and into the space, in competition with the obvious western light source. Coming as it does from two sides, east and west, the afternoon is given some of the character of morning, with daylight from the east.

Architecture tends to orthogonalize space with its typically parallel and right-angled systems of enclosure: walls encounter walls and floors encounter ceilings in the simplest way. Placing parallel surfaces and planes that intersect sharply in the path of light simplifies the display of life, coloring light, redirecting it, controlling re-reflections, corners defining themselves by degrees of shade and thin edges of highlights. Incoming light reinforces orientation, and perhaps even exaggerates the strictness of the perpendicular east-west and north-south axes. The vault and dome, the pyramid, and other non-parallel compositions are also at work reordering daylight, often denying shadow by limiting the occurrence of corners, and distributing light more evenly into a space. The rhythms that derive from the regularity of structure and the need to locate openings so as not to interrupt continuous lines of support, organize daylight into series of predictable and comforting events. Light and shadow become episodic and the definition of planes is sharp.

In the world of art, and particularly in the recent periods of abstract expressionism, minimalism, and conceptual art, many works reveal how they were made or invite the viewer to examine how they were made, to the extent that this becomes a primary intention of the work. The works of artist James Turrell are concerned with the organization and orientation of otherwise familiar architectural spaces by inviting the visitor to understand how they came to be. See, for example, Turrell’s installation, “Afrum-Proto” (1966), in which a glowing box appears to project from the corner of a room or Robert Irwin’s scrim constructions, in which again, light appears to become volume. Architecture too is subject to this kind of manipulation, particularly as the fabrication of its components and their assembly are critical to the viability of the structure as in the late work of the Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz; much of his thinking about construction is revealed by shadow. It is also possible for a space to be the live theater, an ongoing documentation, of the performance of the light of day. The active making of space before our eyes through the evidence of its character can be made and remade as light passes through the space. The sanctuary of Jorn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church (1968-76, Bagsvaerd [near Copenhagen]) is one such theater of daylight. The layers of walls and dramatically vaulted ceiling display the waxing and waning of sun and daylight, even monitoring the fleeting and minute effect of passing clouds.

Light can be controlled inside a space. Direct sun can be refashioned into diffused illumination, spaces can be ordered to produce dramatic changes from bright to dark. A gradated sequence of bright to dark spaces can be established to serve us as we move through a building. Light can be organized to carry images of objects and surfaces, colors, and tactile information to us. At the Chapel at Ronchamp (Notre Dame du Haut, Corbusier, near Belfort, France, 1954) the interior surfaces of its two towers are highly textured and colored (one red, one white) to tone and brighten light that falls to the floor. In the white tower, in particular, the role of the heavy texture of the plaster should not be ignored. It serves to slow and soften the falling daylight, the texture resists incoming light, making shadow and reducing glare, so that looking up into the space is comfortable. The texture produces scale, a subtle gift of measurement, so that we come to understand the size of the space.

Most importantly, it must be remembered there is nothing like being inside architecture, in a space for a time, to see how light and space perform together. The experience of daylight in architecture is not a singular, divisible event, but a complete orchestration of space and light, overlapping events and characters.


[1] “Apparently random and unpredictable phenomenon, or the behavior of a complex system…” (author’s italics) Business,; retrieved August 13, 2010.

2 Charles Moore, Gerald Allen, Donlyn Lyndon, The Place of Houses, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,1974, page 181.

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