Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chicago, August 8, 2010

The Art Institute of Chicago, Modern Wing by Renzo Piano

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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What's So Great About Daylight (1.0)

At least some part of our fascination with the sun and its light is that it puts us in the unaccustomed position of experiencing action at a distance, the sense that there is some kind of unseen, interactive, relationship between objects remote from each other. We don’t usually think of it this way, but it is astonishing to think that the sun, the unreachable locus of seemingly inexhaustible and fierce energy, would be the cause of shimmering brightness on the wall next to me or that I could then cause the sun’s illumination to bounce across a space onto another surface, unconnected to the first. But this is what happens and what we enable, what we count on to develop practical strategies in lighting and shading the places we design. Casting shadows has some of this quality as well, as bodies of no particular substance are broadcast by one object onto another. Shadows cross legal and physical boundaries with silhouettes that more or less follow the contours of the source or are transformed into odd shapes that stretch, compress, or mock their origin. The distance between the source of light or the origin of a shadow and the surface on which they come to rest implies that there is no connection across space, but the quality of light, the accuracy of a shadow or its telltale adjacency to its source suggest a connection and even complicity.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Everything is illuminated

An acknowledgement or two

“This work began with the hypothesis that the thermal function of a building could be used as an effective element of design….An analogy might be drawn with the use of light quality as a design element, truly a venerable old architectural tradition.”

Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture [1]

This work began with the hypothesis that there is no great architecture that does not include a response to daylight. [2] It is true that there is an ancient tradition of using daylight in the design of significant public architecture. But although daylight, as a critical component of architectural design, is frequently acknowledged, it is infrequently discussed seriously and then often with florid poetics that skip lightly over specifics [3] and therefore miss the poetry, too. [4] More recently, light has been mathematicized, analyzed with incredible precision and made subject to discernment by expensive instrumentation, but its significance, to most designers, is further obscured. Daylight is rarely discussed in such a way that architects can use the information in practice, [5] and not in a way that recognizes the vast influence that it might exert on design beyond dazzling effects and the everyday necessities of navigation.

And not only is it nearly a requirement of great works to address the availability of daylight, vernacular building traditions have always addressed it. Until recently, it was impossible to do otherwise. The only alternatives to daylight required that we set things on fire to gain illumination of varying quality and dependability. So, it is worth asking why are there not serious and accessible discussions about daylight, why contemporary architects (including a long and growing list of notables) ignore it and generate form for its own sake, and how we might address our lost vernacular knowledge of light, heat, and cold. We have misplaced our practical knowledge of configuring and locating openings. Instead, we dare to emulate greatness, but mostly for formal characteristics and provocative imagery rather than to design buildings that reveal to us how they actually perform in the light of day. Heating, cooling, and lighting [6] are still, 30 years after Ms. Heschong offered her hypothesis and evocative observations, events that manifest themselves, typically, with the flip of a switch. They are treated as if they were non-architectural subjects and most of our architecture—and our buildings—makes this clear.

Only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is perceived as visible light [7] but it is the energy in this slim range of the spectrum that stimulates our eyes and provokes our minds so that we can “see.” Remarkable then that it is within this small range that we understand our world best. It has been estimated that humans receive 80% of their information about the world through our eyes. [8] Most of us understand our circumstances best, most reliably, and safely, by using our eyes and it therefore seems to us that we are steeped in daylight, which is only a tiny proportion of the radiation that engulfs us. So, it seems that everything is illuminated--everything of value, that is; we place a lot of value on what we can see. We organize our lives in reference to light; our sense of time and location is measured with the light of the sun and its position or absence in the sky. The logic of the sun, its rhythm and power, have been transferred to other technologies: the clock, the compass, the programmable thermostat, fossil fuel engines, and electric light fixtures; allowing us to convince ourselves that we have control over all of this and that daylight is a standby solution, a “Plan B.”

Our vision tells us that we are enveloped in illumination and it may be this commonness of daylight that enables us to pass it off as unworthy of mention, emphasis, cultivation, or celebration. Why bother with something you’ve got lots of unless its appearance startles you, as with a great sunset or a bolt of lightning, a sunny winter day, or when it bleaches you with an onrush of brightness projected squarely into your eyes? People living in regions of the world where solar radiation is either sparse or superabundant have always had to tie their living conditions to the availability of light and heat and these patterns sometimes persist in their architecture and cities, establishing cultural expectations that are continued by the best architects. See Alva Aalto’s work in Finland, Peter Zumthor’s in Switzerland, Raphael Moneo’s in Spain, and projects by others. These architects have incorporated in their work, a respect for intrinsic local traditions, for making spaces by gathering, diverting, and reorganizing the sun’s heat and light. As a result, spaces in these cultures are designed as articulate built responses to a particular place in the world with its special rhythm of the sun, regional climate and local weather, and its landscape.

It should be clear to us, by now, that the supply of energy to be found in the ground is neither inexhaustible nor free for the taking. Evidence to the contrary grows larger everyday and it is possible to envision an architectural scenario where aspirations to greatness and the practical needs of everyday building coincide in the regular use of daylight for all of the many good reasons. In order to do this, we need to make such strategies available and comprehensible. The use of daylight should be as accessible to architects as common construction and planning principles, those rules of thumb, as we call them, that professionals use every day, thoughtfully, but without wringing their hands over them as if it was all new. For example, the location of a window in a wall with the aim of providing the most useful daylight, at the appropriate time of day, should be decided with the same sureness that we use to position 2 x 4’s at 16 inches on center. Effective, and meaningful daylighting strategies should be as evident in our buildings as are simple construction techniques, and at least as legible in the outcomes. All of the great daylighting ideas area based in common sense, everyday experiences of sunlight, as it streams toward us and is either absorbed, transmitted, or reflected because that’s just about all that light does.

This work begins with the notion that an architect’s knowledge of daylight is capable of stimulating a convergence of good sense and great outcomes. It begins with the hypothesis that Lisa Heschong was right.


[1] Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture, MIT Press, 1979, page vii

[2] If the reader can find an exception to this, I’d like to know what it might be. If you are thinking, “pyramids,” please

see example, “The Eye of Ra, by K. Levin, in Light in Art, edited by Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery, New York:

Collier for Books, 1971.

[3] Henry Plummer, Poetics Of Light, Tokyo: A+U, 1987

[4] John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean? 1959

[5] In spite of all of the math-based lighting books, few architects need to calculate the number of footcandles incident on a

surface, but all should understand the appropriate use of sunlight. On the other hand, even Louis I. Kahn’s discussions of

daylight can be slippery.

[6] And acoustics, too.

[7] Gotta find my source for this.

[8] Ibid.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Daylight and Meaning in the Architecture of Gunnar Birkerts

You can read the text of my article on Gunnar Birkerts (and earn AIA continuing education credit) at this address:

L’Institut du Monde Arabe

[Mechanical devices]

For L’Institut du Monde Arabe (The Arab World Institute, 1981-1987) in Paris, Jean Nouvel devised a system of mechanical diaphragms that open and close in response to daylight. The installation is formidable and sleek, with the diaphragms, which vary in size and configuration, located within the void of a double glazed assembly. Each such module, with its array of 121 operable diaphragms, is approximately 9’ – 6” (290 cm) square.1 The modules take up all but the ground floor level of the eleven-story structure at the south elevation, so that the daylight-receiving façade, in effect an automated shutter system, is ten modules high by twenty-four modules long. It’s big.

The individual diaphragms are much like those found in a traditional camera. The aperture size changes by means of a ring by overlapping stainless steel elements that open or close to permit more or less light to pass through. Computerized light sensors signal a system that activates these shutters. Changing south light is signaled by rapid clicking sounds, the movement of the diaphragm blades, galloping across the façade. The sight and sound of the adjusting diaphragms is reminiscent of the information updates on an old train station itinerary display.

Each intricate diaphragm is composed of reiterative geometric shapes. This design motif is familiar to us from the world of photography but also reminiscent of traditional Islamic geometric artworks. It precedents can be found in graphic designs such as garden plans,2 rugs, tiles, and traditional light-filtering screen work and plaster relief in Islamic Spain where they filtered sun and developed shadow. The geometries were always employed to delight the eye, organize surfaces, and regulate light. In a departure from traditional Islamic installations, at the Institute, control devices, switches, tubes and signals, are fully exposed as well. The geometries tie the program of the building to its cultural roots, founded in a part of the world characterized by intense sun and heat.

The smooth packaging of the devices behind tinted glass means that the they are not available to catch sunlight and make patterns of shade and shadow as they would, say, at the Alhambra. In Granada, the sun is higher in the sky and it grazes the plaster reliefs to create shadows. In Paris, where the sun is lower and the sky more frequently overcast, the diaphragms regulate sunshine and diffused skylight that is more perpendicular to the façade.

One would like to say that Nouvel’s installation is innovative in the sense that it suggests a method of regulating daylight that others might employ, but this is not entirely so. The dependence on so many moving parts--a mechanical system--is as close to the thinking of our time as it is to the time of the Eiffel Tower (1889) with its graceful celebration of custom-fabricated structural and spatial elements. Nouvel’s marvelous array of shutters is not so different from the Tower’s exposed members, except that his move; or from the many, nearly useless gears and levers in Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936).3 (What do they really accomplish?) But we’ve moved beyond the age of moving parts to a world of pixels, and smaller elements: we are now able to regulate light at the molecular level. At the larger scale of architectural works, an understanding of daylight suggests that there is a greater advantage to permitting the sun to move across elements correctly located in the path of its radiation. Moving parts don’t necessarily offer a useful increase in our ability to control sunlight, at least not one that is warranted economically. It is usually better to let the sun do the moving.

As we have seen at the Alhambra and elsewhere, traditional wood screens, fixed in place, work just fine, as do traditional shutters with manually operable blades or panels, such as shutters. In fact, Nouvel’s shutter system, with its many moving parts, does not always operate properly. Fortunately, L’Institut du Monde Arabe is quite beautiful, and still effective as a screen, even when stuck: the sun continues to do its work.

1 El Croquis 65 65; Jean Nouvel 1987 1994, Madrid: El Croquis, 1994; page 74

2 Charles W. Moore, William J. Mitchell, and William Turnbull, Jr., The Poetics of Gardens, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988

3 Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, (1936) Warner Home Video, 2003.

Friday, February 26, 2010

[stopping time]

Gunnar Asplund’s desire for clarity in the glazing at the Stockholm Public Library came in the wake of his experience designing the small, Woodland Chapel, completed in 1920 at the Woodland Cemetery (Skogskyrkogarden) in Stockholm. Although both buildings are descendents of classical, domed structures, the two Asplund projects are differentiated by their programs and in the way they remake daylight to support those programs.

The Chapel is a pristine, white dome under a steeply hipped, black, shingled roof; with its small size, and roof pulled down close over its walls, it defers, like a hut, to the surrounding trees, which rise from the forest floor to more than twice the Chapel’s height. A note of formality, and what begins to differentiate the building from a cabin in the woods, is struck by the set of twelve, white, polished porch columns.

Inside, tucked under the roof is the unexpected domed ceiling, a half-sphere inscribed in a pyramid. The dome is set over a slightly larger square room, its brightness in counterpoint to the dark roof that shelters it. At every stage in the illumination of the chapel, the sun is deprived of direction to make light that does not change and color that is muted by a sequence of techniques. Not only is the sky often overcast in this climate, but tall pine trees filter much of the direct sun that would come at the chapel from the side of the sky. At the top of the dome, a small, translucent oculus further diffuses light as it enters the room. Once inside, the light is distributed evenly by the dome’s smooth, white, spherical surface, a geometry without corners that would create shadow. Instead, the dome reflects incoming light into the room at an infinite number of angles; the form is a very effective diffuser of illumination.

The square room beneath the dome is painted gray and is larger than the dome, which, as a result, appears to hover in the space. Asplund’s chapel, singular in its vertically axial orientation, is centralized, focused, cool, and light is stilled. Time stops and the cemetery chapel sets itself apart from the world of the living.