Humanity has always had a very close relationship with light. Sunlight has forever illuminated the day, and fire has been able to extend the light into the darkness of night. As our civilizations have expanded, our relationship with light has become more complex. We sit around the fire for social and spiritual purposes, we manipulate the daylight through various building designs, and since around the last two decades, we have used various forms of artificial lighting to illuminate spaces that may have been previously left dark.
Nick Baker and Koen Steemers explore various modes of sunlight manipulation through vernacular architecture in “Daylight Design of Buildings.” They argue that unlike “high architecture,” which primarily uses light for aesthetics and artistic purposes, vernacular and traditional architecture responds to climatic parameters, such as the visual, thermal, and energy implications of sunlight. Thus, the traditional architecture design more closely relates to the views and needs of all the people, therefore, it is an “unselfconscious expression of the society and it culture.”
The issue of lighting becomes much more complex since the advent of gas lighting in the early 1800s and electric lighting by 1900. Artificial light has allowed for humans to become seemingly independent of the sun. An interior space can now be illuminated at all hours of the day and night, no matter of depth or scale. William Lam explains in “Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture” that designers have “limitless” possibilities due to artificial sources of lighting and believes that great, imaginative designs can come by effectively utilizing the artificial lighting as a powerful tool. Nevertheless, he claims that designers have gone ashtray with this possibility and have in effect abused the use of artificial lighting due to misguided notions of the luminous environment. We are now at the mercy of the technicians who control our luminous environments that have reduced the criteria of illumination to “simple numbers, which are basically unrelated to vision, perception, comfort, or pleasure.”
This relationship with artificial lighting is very similar to a topic I have discussed in previous blog posts about the advent of central air conditioner. Granted the AC is much more current in history, its effect on the architectural designs is very similar. Both have presented designers new opportunities to explore various new building spaces, but both the AC and artificial lighting seem to have evolved architecture predominantly in the wrong direction. AC has replaced natural, clean ventilation in place of an artificial environment that doesn’t properly address human comfort. Similarly, the use of artificial lighting has a tendency to ignore the environment, climate, and the human comfort.
Nevertheless, various innovative and bold solutions to properly utilizing lighting appear in modern times on the same level of ingenuity as the historical and traditional architecture as explored by Baker and Steemers. For instance, UK-based Moxon Architects are working on the design for Oliver’s Place Preston, or the “Porcupine Office Building”. An array of anodized aluminum fins suspend from the tensile rods of all four facades of the building that are strategically oriented to act as a large scale brise soleil as well as a rain screen. Their placement has been carefully considered such that “early morning and winter sunlight is able to enter the building while high summer sun is excluded and so does not adversely alter the environmental conditions within the building.” So the façade of the building is a brilliant passive solar design that deals both with the illumination and heat gain from the sun.
Another innovative project is Thomas Heatherwick’s UK Pavilion, “Seed Cathedral”, presented at the 2012 Shanghai Expo. Its appearance is similar to the Porcupine Office Building, but its use and manipulation of light is vastly different. The Seed Cathedral uses 60,000 translucent rods that act as fiber-optic filaments that channel sunlight into the pavilion’s interior. The filaments branch off of the six-story high structure and gently sway with each passing breeze. The interior is illuminated by thousands of subdued star-like lights, powered by the sunlight, creating a highly unorthodox, yet beautiful illuminated environment, which is informed and coexistent with the natural sun. The generated interior light is paradoxically both natural and artificial. Thus, it’s quite possible to design buildings that properly utilize light to create practical, exciting, and imaginative interior spaces.
Nick Baker and Koen Steemers, “Daylight Design of Buildings”
William Lam “Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture”