“The purpose of light is to create shadows and shadows exist to create emotions” Louis Kahn (1)
Natural light, according to Tadao Ando, is a fundamental component within a building to our sense of place in the world. The penetration of light through slots and considered apertures into a building’s interior with varied angle, intensity and color gives us a heightened awareness of the time, the day and the seasons.
It is a fact that nowadays, spaces are flooded with light and in particular with artificial lighting schemes that produce uniformly lit interiors, meaning we are no longer conscious of our relationship with nature. Unfortunately, many of us spend a huge percentage of our lives in uniformly lit offices that create a stagnant lit environment which contrasts with natural lighting, disconnecting us from the outside world.
Shadow within architecture
Where there is light, there is also shadow. You can’t have one without the other and it’s the same in architecture.
A pattern of light and shadow often emphasizes shapes and lights more so than normal, as the presence of shadows in the design contributes to the creation of strong contrasts. Thus, a particular piece of design can be better highlighted compared to simple natural lighting.
The perfect use of light and shadow, when done correctly, can have a positive impact on mood and well-being, contributing to the creation of beneficial psychological effects, while also impressing people with design through its ability to present space and highlight areas in an incredibly dynamic way, as Le Corbusier first identified many years ago.
Light and Shadow within architecture
The light, for the mere fact of allowing us to see the architecture, already has in itself a great architectural importance. But not only has it for that. The light illuminates the architecture and with it, not only allows us to see it, but it values and enriches it with its shadow games.
“Our eyes are made to see forms in light. Light and shade reveal these forms” (Le Corbusier)
Light and its unseparated Shadow, are necessary to establish the limits of a space. The good application of this duality can be crucial to make a comfortable place or not, because they strengthen or weaken the volumes that create the architecture and the gaps that make us enjoy it. (2)
The game of light and shadow act as the sound and silence within a song, on the one hand there are the elements that transmit the message, and on the other, those that allow us to understand it.
Light and shadow belong together. However, the increasing number of artificial light sources on earth has resulted in a steady reduction of shading zones. In architecture, the increasing use of glass and other translucent layers brings into question the very importance of shadows.
Do they protect or cause loss of brightness? Do we need shadows nowadays?
The answer is definitely yes. Shadow gives value to light, enhances it, creates ambience and emotions and gives a three-dimensional form to the space, making it interesting. On the contrary, the excessive amount of light makes a space flat and one-dimensional, turning it into an uninteresting and cold place. (3)
Light and Shadow
In lighting design, light is the unquestioned protagonist and we tend to forget the role of shadow. Light and its accompanying shadow give volumes, surfaces and spaces their character and expressive power, and they reveal the form, weight, hardness, texture, smoothness, temperature and other properties of material objects. Light and shadow articulate spaces into sub-spaces and places, and their interplay gives space its character, rhythm, sense of scale and intimacy. (4)
The renowned Japanese lighting designer Kaoru Mende states the effects of light could be appraised in the presence of its following shadows. Both light and shadow are incomplete without each other. Light and shadow play a crucial role in creating contrasts within any space, whether it is about a residence or an urban-scale project. (5) Human senses are always engaged with contrasts, potentially enhancing a space’s overall essence.
“Sunlight never knows how great it is until it hits the side of a building or shines into a room”, Louis Kahn. (6)
In contemporary architecture, light is mainly treated as a quantitative phenomenon. Design regulations and standards usually specify required minimum levels of illumination and window sizes, but they do not define maximum levels of luminance or desired qualities of light, such as its orientation, temperature, color or reflectivity.
In many cases, buildings on the altar of sight tend to permit too much light. This results in the weakening of space, as the sense of intimacy and secrecy are lost. Undoubtedly, a uniformly lightened space, without shadow, has an alienating effect.
Ever since the early 20th century, modernity has been obsessed with large surfaces of glass and, consequently, excessively high levels of illumination. No wonder Luis Barragan, the alchemist of modern architecture, argued that most modern buildings would be more pleasant with only half their window surface. “The use of enormous plate windows … deprives our buildings of intimacy, the effect of shadow and atmosphere. Architects all over the world have been mistaken in the proportions they have assigned to large plate windows or spaces opening to the outside…We have lost our sense of intimate life, and have become forced to live public lives, essentially, away from home”. (7)
Indeed, it is not surprising that the use of mercilessly bright light is such a powerful means of breaking down one’s defenses in political and criminal interrogation, as well as in torture. (8)
Light in architecture
Le Corbusier’s method to utilize shape and light was ground-breaking, as he saw light as a part of his overall vision and not just as a result of it. He played with light in dramatic fashion, using it to inspire his buildings to look divine and incorporate the horizons and natural daylight through multi-angled windows.
Le Corbusier often let light tease off of straight lines and well-placed curves in the design of the buildings in order to give them a contrast between light and dark that gave life to areas where previously there may have been no interest in.
What’s more impressive, is that Le Corbusier also took the Earth’s position in relation to the sun into his thinking as well, with many of his architectural designs shifting light in different ways through the year as the sun rose and set at different times depending on the time of year. His dynamic designs elevate static buildings to become something more, no matter the weather or season.
The historical significance of light & shadow enhancing spaces
Alongside establishing spatial shape, light aids in redirecting lines of sight and making people experience the complete essence of a space. The effects of light & shadow can intensify, strengthen, and highlight various spatial features while deepening users’ emotional connection with their surroundings.
People rediscover spaces continuously, if natural & artificial lighting are utilized to their maximum potential as per building requirements. Light provides a feeling of stillness & rest, whereas dark spaces are associated with uneasiness and inculcates a feeling of restriction and disturbance. (9)
For example, Romans had demonstrated using light to clarify the spatial features as seen in various structures of that era, such as the “Pantheon”. (10) They utilized light and solar radiation to reduce necessary movements to express the sensory perception of how strong and well-established or seamless the space could be.
The value of shadow
We already know the importance of light in a space, but shadow, which is inextricably linked to it, is equally important in the perception and experience of space. It creates a desire to explore what lies behind it – darkness, depth and a completely different world. It challenges our imagination to fantasize about the surface behind it.
It gives us a space to sit and think in solitude and reminds us of the realities of life that in order to see the light, shadows need to be experienced. “Deep shadows and darkness are essential, because they dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy”-Juhani Pallasmaa. Uniform and continuous illumination seldom give us this time and space and a chance to peep into the darkness.
All our senses get engaged when we perceive the shadows through vision, providing a unique sensory experience. This creates a deeper spatial awareness of the space and keeps us constantly communicating with the space, making us feel the essence of the architectural environment. (11) Every human perceives these shadows differently, either positively or negatively, which creates an impact on the emotional levels.
In order to experience the light, shadows need to be created. The cut out in the wall in the shape of a Cross – Church of the Light, Tadao Ando (12) is illuminated and the wall is in the shadow giving a spiritual experience to the users and making them more connected to cycles of nature. There is a well-balanced play of light and shadow, which highlights minimal features creating a sense of focus.
Today, we give more importance to lighting up the interior spaces and fail to create a balance between the lights and shadows and hence fail to provide users with a unique experience with the shadows. We tend to illuminate the entire space, which hides the details of the space, form, or furniture in the bright illumination of light, which makes the details and surface appear flat, be it natural or artificial illumination. We fail to realize that where there is light, there is also shadow.
By their very nature, light and shadow are interdependent features and cannot exist without each other. Exactly the same applies to the inseparable relationship between architecture and lighting. When we design the lighting in a space or a building, it is important to suggest focal points of light at key points in order to create interesting shadows. The collaboration between architecture and lighting becomes particularly important, as in this way, the space or building respectively are better highlighted, while at the same time acquiring plasticity, composing a scenographic backdrop with artistic value.
Let us not forget that light and shadow are fundamental components of visual arts, and therefore of architecture. (13)
Text Editor: Myrto Tempelopoulou – Lighting Consultant