Architecture and Light
The history of great architecture is about buildings that adapt creatively to light. One focus of architecture is the connection between what people see in the building's construction. Architects rely on light and its ability to reveal form as a way of creating that connection.
European Gothic churches inspire all as an architecture of color and light. Gothic architects reduced the mass of their cathedrals to lines of structure in order to maximize the area of glass. Cathedrals were representations of the universe, and the light flooding into them through stained-glass windows held together in the Medieval World with light.
During the Renaissance, domes representing the heavens dominated church construction. Light brought in through the oculi and other light sources enhanced the sense that the dome above the nave was a recreated sky, framed and imbued with metaphysical properties. The dome is where the appearance of divine light was expected and symbolized. In addition to capturing divine light, Renaissance churches were also used by contemporary scientists such as Galileo for optical experiments. Several Renaissance church roofs in Italy have holes where light beams enter so that on certain saints’ days a line of light traces a path through the church, a tribute to God and to science.
In the eighteenth century the French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée designed a Cenotaph to Newton” (1784). This conceptual building, never realized, was a celebration of Newton’s research on light. The building was conceived as a perfect sphere, with apertures representing galaxies in a spherical skin. During the day one could stand inside the sphere and view the stars. At night the sphere sent out beams of light celebrating Newton’s accomplishments.
Modern architecture follows this march toward transparency and opening to light and nature through the use of steel framing, the diminishment of mass, and an extensive use of glass. Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House—an all-glass house in Plano, Illinois—is probably the most famous example of this modernist ideal.
Glass tends to seem invisible, and architects’ fascination with transparency has led to a concentration on invisibility and reduction. The thread that links the history of achievement in architecture is the search for new ways to celebrate the intersection between the wall and nature; to capture the moment and to frame the place where light enters the building.
The following chapters present varying aspects of light in architecture. We begin with Color, and continue with Lines, Form, Glass, Windows, Sky Frames, Shadows and, finally, Reflections. Each chapter presents projects that show how architects have manipulated this life-giving aspect of nature to make its presence palpable as the focus of architecture.