architecture is light
in my dreams, the substance of architecture is light. in my life, the most powerful experience in architecture is the captivation of light in space. the first photograph i developed in a darkroom was of heavily dusted light rays streaming into the barn loft – long before i was drawn into the profession of architecture.
i dream of buildings – light streaking through arched clerestory windows, ice-white-blue transparent slabs opening out to stunning white peaked mountains rising out of deep blue seas, misted grey weathered columns in a green valley. it’s always about light.
Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Nôtre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp is a dream-like world of light. I was completely transfixed by the light-sculpting architecture of this place on my first journey through Europe. This remote pilgrimage in the early days of my career to the eastern border of France was a life changing experience.
Grand Central Station in New York is a place of great power to me - the angle of light-streams project the time of day as the people of the city flow in and launch their journeys – a true portal of time and space. A place that can captivate you in it’s state of constant change every time you return.
The Pantheon in Rome – the circular oculus opening in the center of the dome, washing the deeply articulated coffers and intricate marble floor patterns, creating a striking connection to the astronomical cycles of our days, nights, and months – a pure focusing of light and time in space, in this place of profound power.
The Aya Sofia in Istanbul, Brunelleschi’s Duomo of Florence, Borobudur in Java, and even the absence of light in the temples of Kyoto – which in their darkness awaken a sense of deep past, the dark creating a heightened awareness of inner self by shutting out any sense of time. All of these places I’ve experienced a deep sense of my own spirit and my connection to the universal human-ness of our world.
Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows” is the most powerful writing on light in architecture - “find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing another creates.” Just as light creates architecture – the substance of architecture is light. the power of light in architecture is not only in spiritual places – indegenous farmhouses in bhutan, simple barns in eastern washington, the seattle public library – there are modern buildings that capture the power of light in space, many that do not.
in Tanizaki’s essay, he makes the case that modern spaces overlit by electrical lighting are psychologically exhausting – that the eye and psyche are drained by overlit modern environments. I had years of discussion with my clients in Japan at Seibu and Sogo on the perception of light in their stores – typically overlit to 1200 lux and a cool 4000-4500 degrees kelvin - pretty much like a refrigerator, a morgue or a supermarket – and not the most romantic setting for the display of high fashion, beauty, accessories and home decor.
One of my clients (and friend) in Japan, Mr. Matsuhashi, once tried to tell me “look at my eyes, see how dark they are – we don’t perceive light the same way you do”. I looked at him and said “look at my eyes, they are the same color as yours!”. I finally came to understand that it was the climate and conditioning – that all the other stores were over-lit with super-cool spectrum lighting, and that is what they were accustomed to. Terrified that if the lighting were not equally bright as the competition, they would loose shoppers. Ultimately we came to a middle ground – 700-800 lux at 3500 degrees kelvin, which allowed us to highlight visual displays and give the eye someplace to be drawn to, and other places to rest easier. Another common challenge with lighting in these environments is glare – light fixtures that are not properly diffused, angled, or at heights and beam angles that force the iris to contract, and dramatically reduce your ability to see anything – let alone the refined fabric, color and detail of high designer merchandise.
What I’m exploring now more deeply in the work is the concept of natural light, it’s link to psychic and emotional response – and how that can be used both to enhance the experience, as well as reduce the usage of energy in the environments that we create. I believe this is a path for great invention and beauty.
The most powerful and magnetic connection of the human spirit to architecture is the captivation of time – embodied in it’s materiality and use. As my son once reflected on the concept of light and time, when he was 12 years old, and pronounced “everything we see is in the past” – as he explained, because light waves take time to pass through space from the object we see – all the we see is reflected light, from the past.