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.