Sunday, December 4, 2011

Memory 4.0 Color

We always know where daylight has been. It originates at the sun of course, but also we know about its passage through the sky and if it has touched the landscape, another building, a surface, a material with particular colors or finishes, by its color, direction, and intensity.

The blue sky is the result of the scattering of sunlight in the earth’s atmosphere. Atoms of the gases present in the atmosphere (oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc.), water vapor, and dust, combine to absorb light in ranges other than blue; the blue is reflected to our eyes. This sometimes results in the presence of blue tones in shadows cast on white walls on days of full blue skies. Moisture in the air results in overcast conditions and diffuses sunlight into cold, white light and gray sky; we associate gray and white skies with cool weather and have come to term white, gray, and blue as cool colors, associating color and temperature. Daylight, early and late in the day, travels through more of the earth’s atmosphere, through more dirt and dust particles, reflecting yellow, orange and red light to us. These hues, the colors of fire and of hot, dry climates, have come to be called warm colors.

Light and architecture can employ these strategies with startling effect. At Hans Hollein’s Museum of Modern Art (Frankfort, Germany; 1991) daylight entering a gallery through tall windows on opposite sides of a narrow portion of the building touches large wall surfaces painted dark green and deep orange. The colors are reflected subtly onto white wall surfaces visible around a stair. More directly, in buildings by the Mexican architects Luis Barragan and, later, Ricardo Legoretta, hot, tropical colors are used in remarkably unlikely combinations. The bright blues, hot pinks, yellow and red tones stun the eyes; in the hot sun of Mexican or of tropical climates, the colors may be bleached by the sun. Still, the warm colors appear to amplify the sizzle associated with the heat.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Memory 3.0 Living on the Edge

Window seats and bay windows are, by definition, located in exterior walls and are therefore edge places. They permit us to occupy the bounding edge of a space, which is unusual. But in itself, the window seat is a space, centered on the individual, with its own warmth and daylight that give an edge the qualities of a center. They work best in the traditional architecture of thick, masonry walls, such as at Turku Castle (Turku, Finland, 13th through 16th centuries) where the heat that comes with sunlight can be stored in thick walls to make a warm place, often at a cold exterior edge. Sunlight on the surfaces of the space signals the likely presence of warmth. The combination of protection in a cozy, warm space, right next to the cold outside, is one of those memorable associations, heightened of course, by the unlikelihood of it all. We are lent the impression that we have some control over our environment. The intimacy of the window seat, in a place that is precarious (at a glazed portion of a wall), but with a commanding view of external challenges is reminiscent of other great views: from steep hillsides, the tops of towers, the railings of bridges, and the ends piers, all of which permit us to hover above the world, in mid-air, which is to say, in mid-daylight. When these places are also comfortable, it creates an almost unbeatable combination of familiar and soothing associations with surprising visual challenges.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Memory 2.0 Seeing is believing

The recall or sight of an experience in light frequently triggers a tactile association with the warmth or coolness of that place in the same way that a phrase in conversation may bring to mind a snippet of melody that accompanies that phrase in a song. With this awareness, the designer can reinforce expectations based on our past experiences or challenge our preconceptions to establish new associations tethered to a singular place in the world.

There is something indelible about discovering light at the center of a space or a structure. Perhaps this is because light has to penetrate architecture, roofs, and walls, to find its way to the center. Daylight is familiar, but we are accustomed to finding it outside or at the edges of built spaces. The sun, the origin of all light and heat and the center of our solar system, is the prime example of the importance and pleasure we take at finding light and heat at the middle of things. This is replicated at the campfire, a display of light and heat that invites us to gather and recognize each other; it represents security in the enveloping darkness. We find the same power at the hearth, a fireplace, characterized by flickering light and radiant heat, around which we are invited to gather. The location of light, the sense of heat, and the cracking sounds of fire invite us to gather and make a center. Light at the center is also powerful because properly designed spaces typically invite people to fully occupy a space, and not just lurk at the edges. Light invites us to participate. It can be difficult to provide daylight at the heart of a space but, for this reason, it can be the element that reminds the designer to make inhabitable spaces.

Discovering significant light or space inside or at the middle tinkers with our expectations. Just as we commonly see light originating at the edges of a space, our parallel expectation is that centers will be darker and more solid, permanent, and fixed. This expectation is repudiated in the structure of Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel (Eureka Springs, Arkansas; 1980) where, at the very center of the diagonal cross bracing we would expect to see a solid connection between braces, there appears a trapezoid of space, an opening for light. This detail is representative of the chapel, fully glazed between wood supporting members on all sides, and with light occupying the center.

Memory 1.0 Seeing is believing.

Daylight remembers where it has been; it always arrives with company.  It reaches us most evidently accompanied by heat and color, which derive from its source, the sun, and from surfaces it has touched on the way to our eyes.  We can see and feel heat and color quite easily and both are capable of influencing our perceptions and our use of space.  Daylight levels and character, including color and motion, often signal to us what the temperature of a place is before we are close enough to feel heat or cold.  It has been noted that sight may be considered an extension of our sense of touch, enabling us to understand, at some distance from them, how things feel.  The understanding is based on our knowledge of having seen and touched these things before.  In this way, daylight messages engage our individual memories.  What we see and what we know about light leads us to anticipate the character of a space or a surface and to draw associations with other times and places.  Associations between light, its source, and events on the way tour eyes stimulate our own deeply held associations.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Stair at the Art Institute of Chicago

Click on this photo for a much better rendering of shadow, detail, and color.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Coherence: Light and integrity

Coherence refers to the potential for light rays to travel, closely packed in straight lines and parallel in a beam. The light rays hold together and seem to “cohere,” making what we usually call a sunbeam. This property of light is not common, but it occurs occasionally in our everyday lives. The clearest example of this is the laser,1 an instrument that emits visible radiation (light) with great temporal coherence (minimum divergence from the constant diameter of the beam) over a long distance. Laser light, its formal “coherence”, and its direction, are maintained by the introduction of a significant amount of energy. Other common examples of coherence are automobile headlights seen through fog or theatrical spotlights, in which the reflector portions of the lamp (light bulb) direct light rays so that they concentrate in a narrow beam and strike a well defined spot on a surface. Coherence, or the appearance of it, also occurs as a result of a third condition, in which intense, direct sunlight, is occluded by a defined opening—an opening in a wall, for example—defining a beam of light that streams into a space. As with the example of headlight seen in fog, this condition is dependent on the presence of particulates in the air, water droplets in the case of fog, or dust motes, small specks of dust. The particles catch light and reflect it toward our eyes. The specialness of this condition derives from that way in which the coherent beam of light assumes an almost material status. The light hangs in the air as if it were an object, frozen in place, with the dust sparkling and circulating in the air currents.

Seen in the atmosphere, this effect is often referred to as crepuscular light,2 the condition in which light and dark shafts emanate in a radial pattern from the sun. The term “crepuscular” is a reference to twilight; these effects are most common at sunrise and sunset. The distance of the sun from the earth is effectively infinite so that the beams of light are actually parallel, but appear to converge at the solar disk (the sun) due to perspective. As with so many of the effects of daylight, the perception of such sunbeams is as much a function of contrast, the presence of darkness, as it is the presence of light. The columns of light appear as sun shines between areas of cloud and the light is scattered by dust particles and air molecules. These columns are interspersed with shafts of darkness, the shadows of clouds. The condition of crepuscular light, or coherence, can be manufactured in architecture, however, the effect cannot be completely controlled, as it is a function of sun angle, weather, building design, time of day, and season.

The subject of coherence brings to mind the question of the substance of light. Some observers make the case that light has a material quality, but it may be that they are speaking metaphorically with the intention of saying that daylight is so important to architecture that it deserves to be considered, during the course of design, as having the significance equal to any of the construction or finish materials included in a composition. Undoubtedly, other observers are making a literal claim that light has substance, a view that gains some credibility from the notion that light behaves like a particle (a thing) as well as a wave (energy). But this particle-like behavior is exhibited at the scale of the photon. What we really see is more closely related to the behavior of light as energy or radiation in the sense that light never resides in any one location; it is always moving and its manifestation as substance is still a function of reflection, diffraction, and scattering.3 This is to say that light, even seen in its rare coherent state, is simply doing the things it always does.

Nevertheless, the appearance of coherent beams of sunlight in architecture instills awe,4 all the more so as it is simply a result of the way a building receives daylight. In Vilhelm Hammershoi’s5 painting, Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight, of 1900, the painter depicted sunlight streaming through a white-painted, wood window and into an empty room. We actually don’t see the sun, but on its way in, its light brightens the window jambs and the mullions. Then we see it slanting into the room, its beams derived from the pattern of the window sash. Finally, the sun falls on the floor of the room, replicating the configuration of the window divisions. But directly in front of the window, to the left of the sunshine, the floor is softly brightened, reminding us that skylight (without sun) is also present and available to illuminate the room.

In the case of the theatrical spotlight, the coherent beam of light focuses our attention on a particular performer or location. It aids in the process of storytelling by directing our eyes to the main point of the narrative. (In a grand theatrical production, Las Vegas-style perhaps, one might see a number of spotlights, some of them panning across the stage and implying that the entire stage or many things are important. Often, it is in the nature of celebration to dismiss focus or priority and to release energy every which way.) But the fact that, with one spotlight, everything else is left in relative darkness is also important. Much can be usefully obscured in the vast area of darkness, produced by contrast with a small area of bright light. For example, beams of light may also be used to define spaces or to distract our attention from irrelevant, uncontrollable, or dangerous information in the visual field. An important example of this, using electric light, is the 1936 display of anti-aircraft lights at Hitler’s Zeppelinfield rally in Nuremberg.

The Pantheon, with a large oculus centered at the top of its dome admits high sun, configuring a great beam that travels across the inner surfaces of the temple, grazing and clarifying sculptures, recesses, pediments, architraves, and all manner of Roman architectural detail. The oculus and its beam emphasize the singularity and centrality of the ancient temple at the center of the civilized world. The effect is not limited to the making of a single beam. A linear series of coherent beams can be seen, at the right time, of course, in the Cryptoporticus at Hadrian’s Villa. The Cryptoporticus is rectangular passage, mostly below ground, whose openings originally worked to receive sinking air that had passed over and been cooled by a large pool centered in the portico-surrounded courtyard above. The porticoes no longer existing to block some of the sun that now enters, somewhat altering the function of the space as one that captured and circulated cool air. Such spaces were used for the storage of perishable items.6

And in a somewhat more complex array, the cupolas atop the gable roofs at the Mosque at Cordoba (in Granada, Spain) create coherent beams of daylight. Perched high over the dark, multi-columned space of the Mosque, the cupolas are small, white plaster spaces punctured with small, squared windows in its sides. As the sun moves into the right location in the sky, its illumination enters the window at a high angle. The sun first brightens the sides of the monitors so that a region of diffused illumination is created directly below in the Mosque. When the sun angle corresponds with the cupola opening and a view to the floor, a beam of sunlight cuts through the orthogonal bays of stone columns and double-arches to create columns of light. The new array of tilted columns suggests an alternate building orientation, and superimposed on the given grid. The multiple openings low in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome admit incoming high sun to create the effect of radiating columns of light aimed at the basilica floor. The scene is something like the occurrence of crepuscular sunlight seen though openings in clouds. The ability to capture the sun, to aim it, to establish a protective ring of solar power is entirely befitting of a religious space. One is reminded of artworks in which Jesus or rock stars7 are depicted with their faces at the hub of radiating spokes of sunshine.

The vast glazed openings of modern buildings illuminate broad swaths of space and large surface areas and as the great architects of the twentieth century have demonstrated, this can be done artfully and with meaning. But coherent beams of light are linked to the small apertures found in traditional stone and earth architecture, buildings with construction systems in which large openings are difficult. Only the small opening in an opaque enclosure both creates enough shadowed space to contrast with the narrow shaft of sunshine. The development of coherent beams also benefits from a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, the geometric relationship between the sun and the earth. The great builders of ancient Egypt acquired this expertise and built temples in which they directed sunlight toward important statues inside otherwise dimly lighted rooms. They designed dark spaces, were proficient at spreading or absorbing light by the varying the reflectivity of stone surfaces, and could light rooms softly or uniformly through clerestory windows or grilles. Structures were designed to admit the rising morning sun, specifically identified with the sun god and his daily awakening, into an eastern facing doorway. Egyptian culture linked itself, through architecture and ritual, with daily and seasonal cycles of sunlight. “The Egyptians were well aware how to organize the interior lighting of their monumental buildings by creating axes of light, directing beams like theatrical spotlights on to a statue, leaving one room in shadow, and gradually increasing the darkness to suggest the rising mystery.”8 It is not surprising that, in ancient Egypt, the sun was worshipped as a god, named Ra, the creator of everything, a notion that is not so far from the truth as we now understand it.


1Laser” is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission or radiation.”

2 David K. Lynch and William Livingston, Color and Light in Nature, New York: Cambridge University Press, pages 15-17.

3Crepuscular rays are near-parallel, but appear to diverge because of linear perspective. They often occur when objects such as mountain peaks or clouds partially shadow the sun's rays like a cloud cover. Various airborne compounds scatter the sunlight and make these rays visible, due to diffraction, reflection, and scattering.”; retrieved June 16, 2011. See also John A. Day (2005). The Book of Clouds, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.. pp. 124–127, retrieved June 28, 2011.

4 Awe: “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

5 Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864 – 1916), was a Danish painter. Kirk Varnedoe, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, page 101

6 Chip Sullivan, Garden and Climate, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pages 32-34; and retrieved June 28, 2011.

7 Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis Bold as Love, released on various labels beginning in 1967. The well-known cover is a painting of the three musicians by Roger Law superimposed on a Hindu devotional painting featuring the god Vishnu, the preserver and protector of creation, in a variety of forms. Sources: retrieved June 28, 2011, and

8 Jean-Louis de Cenival, Living Architecture: Egyptian, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, pages 91-92, 140, 173-174.


Pantheon: Martin Schwartz

Cryptoporticus: Terrence Goode

Mosque at Cordoba: Martin Schwartz

St. Peters Basilica:

Thursday, May 12, 2011

More Open Windows

Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the May 2 edition of The New Yorker magazine discusses an exhibition of paintings whose primary motif is the open window. Most of the paintings in the show date from the early and middle of the 19th century, which makes the Scandinavian paintings in my recent post (March 18, 2011) derivatives of this trend. Mr. Schejldahl reports that the open window motif quickly became a cliche, but a review of the later paintings in the Varnedoe volume (and my post) reveal a much more deeply felt attention to the details of light and shadow, Nordic culture, and the landscape, and interior space. But see for yourself; see Mr. Schejldahl's audio slide show and read his article.


Romantic Windows

May 2, 2011
Peter Schjeldahl writes this week about the show “Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” at the Metropolitan Museum, which highlights Caspar David Friedrich and other Romantic artists “who became smitten, in the period during and after the Napoleonic Wars, with views of interior spaces that center on windows.”

Read more

Friday, March 18, 2011

Kaukola Ridge at Sunset, Albert Edelfelt (Finland) 1889

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight, Vilhelm Hammershoi (Denmark) 1900

The Artists’ Luncheon, Peder Severin Kroyer (Denmark) 1883

Northern Light

I’ve been looking at paintings by Scandinavian artists from a 1988 exhibition catalog called, Northern Light Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century, by Kirk Varnedoe. The depiction of daylight, sun, sky, reflected skylight, shade, and shadows is intense and extraordinary. The sun, in these paintings, always seems to have passed by, settled below the horizon, or is in some way unreachable. Its light is typically seen by reflection: in a distant sky just after sunset, sneaking toward the foreground in the surface of a lake, stretching across a floor or wall, or touching window sills and jambs; but it has passed by and cannot be seen. In painted landscapes, a lake stretches the light of the sky into the foreground, a, distributing colors into the landscape and against the land. Inside buildings, the light is set against dark or dim surfaces and comes to us from back rooms and around corners, but the source is still unreachable.

The light in these paintings represents how it occurs in Nordic landscapes. It is sparse for a good part of the year but lengthy in midsummer when it lasts and lasts, joining one day to the next. When it appears, the sun is relatively low in the sky, so its light slides across horizontal surfaces and brightens people’s faces and leaps off of glass and highly reflective objects.