by Sourabh GuptaApr 26, 2020
If one questions, what is architecture, rarely will one find an architect giving an answer that doesn’t begin with 'light’.
We all understand the power of light, its role and relevance in the built form as we work with it. One tries to tame it and control it; or one plays with it to filter it or reflect it. One also attempts to diffuse it and radiate it. And since daylight on edifices is so overwhelming, literally and otherwise, we revere it and worship it.
The natural and the man-made worlds, both depend on sunlight in many meaningful ways. Architecture can draw some analogy with daylight, much in the way a sunflower draws one with the sun. Sunflowers turn towards the sun, tracking it across the sky, to get warmth from it. This warmth attracts pollinating insects. Once the pollination is done, it ceases this activity. It is also speculated that the sun helps create pollen in the flower, and hence the dance. The sunflower’s leaves follow the sun to absorb light for photosynthesis. Architecture similarly orients itself around sunlight. This orientation, however, varies as per climate and context, as light brings in the required warmth of experiences into the built form for it to 'pollinate' with people. Artist Olafur Eliasson beautifully recreated the power of the sun in his seemingly warm Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2004.
Speaking of architecture, man-made structures too, have applied and choreographed daylight for serious and meaningful applications. The public parks called ‘Jantar Mantar’, built by Sawai Jai Singh across north India in the early 18th century, feature innumerable architectural astronomical instruments. Most of these use daylight to measure time, predict seasons and locate celestial bodies.
In modern times, there are few architects whose works stand out distinctly as being synonymous with light. These include masters like Le Corbusier and Louis I. Kahn. In more recent times, few play with light better than the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and the Swiss Peter Zumthor.
The case is incomplete without mentioning Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute in Paris, which is a radical example to the phenomena of precision play, critical control and measurement of light, where millions of apertures co-work on light to optimally integrate into the building.
Moving on from light and its applications, I wish to explain the way light and light alone, plays the most important role in creating an experience within architecture by conducting itself in a particular way. This behaviour is usually induced by the way the architecture envelops or reveals itself around light.
Light and shadow reveal form. - Le Corbusier, 1965
Aligning us with the words of Corbusier, it is befitting to say that in order to experience architecture, light needs to role-play. Architecture can only create that is then rendered by light. It is the soul of architecture and therefore, helps it create various emotions and experiences.
Light therefore, filters feelings.
Experiences are choreographed through lighting. This journey of experiences can emote moods. And this, thus, sets the tone for the argument on the ‘behaviour of light’.
I have been on a perpetual architectural expedition and would like to extend the argument of creating multiple experiences by directing the way light behaves in a space, by sharing and stratifying my experience of light and architecture. For the merit of variety and depth, Le Corbusier and Peter Zumthor were chosen from my recent encounters as both represent modern and contemporary examples.
In Corbusier’s architecture of sacred spaces, the role of light becomes tangible and tactile. They are meaningful in their perception, as the experience of light is spiritual and completely severed off any religious forms and connotations. This genius performance of light is free of any religious configuration, yet is ethereal. It is so mystical, yet one can almost touch it. Despite these common paradoxes, light has revealed and expressed itself very distinctively and uniquely in each.
Humbling and Pensive
Sainte Marie De La Tourette, Lyon: by Le Corbusier
La Tourette is a monastery for Dominican friars, and therefore, is designed in an introverted approach by Le Corbusier. His intention was “to give the monks what men today need most: silence and peace... This monastery does not show off; it is on the inside that it lives.”
The monastery encloses a chapel, residence and place of learning for the friars. It is built around a central courtyard with the chapel at one end. The courtyard directs light to accentuate spaces through light punctures.
The chapel for monks is where light creates a humbling and pensive aura. The interior of the church reveals a concrete box, which is given a spiritual essence through its use of minimal light, controlled views and strong colours, selectively and strategically placed. External concrete sculptures work as ‘light cannons’. There are various types of openings around the church that welcome daylight, which in turn sculpts the interior. The light quality is soft and subtle, and brings peace, but with moments of overwhelming silence in space that anchors one’s thoughts. And thus, the demeanour of light inside is introverted and introspective.
Reverential and Respecting
Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp: by Le Corbusier
Notre Dame at Ronchamp heightens Corbusier’s paradigm illustration of how a chapel creates a spiritual space without any reference to the physical, and prevailing geometry, and aesthetic of churches of the time.
He stated that the interior of the space had “the emotional appeal that is based on the shadowed dimness of indirect lighting, in which form is only vaguely revealed.”
When one enters the building, it is distinctly dark with a mystical light play. Deep punctures of varying sizes and colours pierce the wall and bring in light in an unimaginable fashion. The exterior does not prepare you for the contrasting experience of the interior. Narrow slits admit only the required amount of light, which lends a magical impression on the inundating walls inside.
Ronchamp is exemplary of a space that clearly evokes spiritual emotions and inquires into mysticism through the play of form, space and light, as surfaces and planes diffuse sculpturally. The most important tool here is the control and containment of light within the thickness of the massive walls and slender slits. This spiritual mood with which light washes the internal volumes has no recourse to a church, and yet, is successful in making one respect and revere the space nonetheless.
Exciting and Exhilarating
Saint – Pierre Chapel, Firminy: by Le Corbusier
The Chapel at Firminy holds significance as it was completed after Corbusier’s death in 1965. It took 41 years to finish the building without losing or diluting its essence.
The chapel was built for the miners and steel workers that lived around the area. Le Corbusier wanted the space to be “vast so that the heart may feel at ease, and high so that prayers may breathe in it.”
Therefore, the play of light inside is rather synchronised, giving the impression of a constellation. Unlike his other sacred buildings, Corbusier uses geometry and metamorphosis in this edifice, along with sculptural values. The church comprises a square base that morphs into a circle on top. Punctures and boxes have been designed in such a way that light is choreographed to specially illuminate the altar on specific holy days.
The light in this church is simple and spectacular. It is almost cheerful and enjoying itself, playing with references and talking to the mass and the masses. The surfaces get strategically and minimally illuminated to pave way for a light shower on the people – speaking of an intangible cosmic energy and positivity.
The approach of building a building for experience rather than for what it represents, is epitomised in the works of architect Peter Zumthor. He once stated “…buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being.”
Calm and Sensitive
Kunsthaus, Bregenz: by Peter Zumthor
The art museum in Bregenz, Austria, has exhibition spaces that accommodate international contemporary art. Comprising glass, steel and a cast concrete mass, the interior of the building resonates and celebrates the building materials. The museum is a minimal structure that seems like a light box.
The most special aspect of the building is that it filters, absorbs and reflects light from the translucent façade, through the glass ceilings of the interior spaces. This is done in such a way that most of the interior gets illuminated using daylight and in case, it is insufficient, it is supplemented by artificial light. Therefore, the building transforms according to daylight, time, weather and the context.
The light does all the talking here. During the day, it plays subtly with the façade to reflect a picturesque context, changing tones and shades. Internally, it works with technology to bring a desired democracy between the natural and the artificial. This homogeneity makes light larger than life. It makes one feel its warmth by rendering cool, uniform spaces. The metaphoric light temperature play expresses light as an artist in itself, a powerful yet a polite one.
Guiding and Narrating
Kolumba Museum, Koln: by Peter Zumthor
The Kolumba museum at Koln houses a Roman Catholic religious collection of art of over a thousand years. The original church on which the museum stands, was bombed during the war. Architect Peter Zumthor was called upon to resurrect the ruins of this late-gothic church by respecting its history and essence.
Customised, handcrafted bricks were especially designed for this project and Zumthor restored the original octagonal chapel by creating double height spaces supported by thin metal columns, with a meandering wooden walkway that reveals the foundation below. Yet, the monumental space is made so by the latticed walls that filter indirect light and add a much-needed drama that perforates into the interior.
The light at the museum plays the part of a guide as one walks through the cold ruins. It takes you back in time and presents the space in its true context with its dim but tall wall renderings. It talks to you at every step with spots of bright exposed surfaces of the ruins. The light accompanies you throughout as a voice narrating stories of the structure, altering itself meaningfully.
Contemplative and Reflective
Bruder Klaus Chapel: by Peter Zumthor
Before I visited the space, I thought that the scale of this chapel in a village in Germany was probably the most special thing about it. However, upon experiencing it, a whole new dimension revealed itself.
The Bruder Klaus chapel is a fascinatingly constructed piece of architecture that is organic in its spirit. Around 112 tree trunks were huddled together to make a form-work, over which concrete was poured in layers, and then the timber structure was burned away, leaving behind a charred blackened interior, with a teardrop shaped light well as its only source of ventilation and light. Once you enter this small chapel, you are pulled upwards, where the roof is open to the sky and stars. Approximately 400 perforations in the concrete walls of the structure cater to a spectacular play of light inside that recalls feelings such that even the most generously scaled and adorned chapels fail to evoke.
Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words, and the light at Bruder Khaus is almost like a man of a few words, one who can say it all, very quietly.
Light has been fundamental in architecture. It attempts to transcend architecture to mean more than what it is and to be more than what it is. Contemporary architecture at times uproots itself from this contextually glocal phenomenon. And so, light is the context to architecture that cannot be ignored. Thus, if light was an elixir and a drop did it all, then this is where one feels, light is architecture.
(The article was first published in Issue #7 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)