Posted in Lighting, Materials

Putting Light In Its Place

photo credit: http://www.wsdia.com

From the time we are born, humans are exposed to the myriad of relationships that light has in our world.  From the room we were born in, to a walk in the park with a parent at mid-day, we are confronted with how light affects our well being and surroundings.  Understanding how we experience it will lead us, as designers, to help create thoughtful design that brings comfort to those who experience it.

According to Marietta Millet in the book “Light Revealing Architecture”[i], there are three types of lighting for design. The first is called Focal Glow.  This type of lighting commands attention and interest, such as a sunburst through the clouds.  The second is called Ambient Luminescence.  This minimizes importance and suggests a freedom from space, such as the glow of the sun through a tent.  The last is Play of Brilliants.  This quickens the appetite and heightens sensations.  It can be either distracting or entertaining, such as a walk down Las Vegas Blvd.  Each of these lighting types has their place in our lives to create a setting, commonly referred to as the “experience”.  Because we can only know what we experience, each lighting pattern we see reminds us of events prior.  Where we were, what we were doing and whom we were with.  It has a sort of sentimental value to us, and that memory influences the intensity of our new experiences of light in different spaces.

Lighting in our homes consists of overhead, floor and possibly table lighting.  There are incandescent, energy efficient and many other types of lamps that can affect our space.  Whether it’s noticeable or not, this light has an affect on you and what you do within your surroundings.  In my home, I have table lighting on each night table in my bedroom.  Usually only one of them is used.  There is an overhead light on a ceiling fan that I rarely use.  The genius loci I am trying to create, is one of peace and tranquility.  It is a place for resting; recouping the energy lost each day.  The lighting is low, yet sufficient and during the day, I generally require only natural light from the two windows on opposite walls.  Knowing that I would fall asleep if homework was attempted in my bedroom, due to inadequate reading light, I complete homework in my home studio.  Here I have better task lighting with a desk and overhead lamps. In addition, there are two large windows on one wall, and a few bushes and trees that shield the afternoon direct sunlight into this room.  Instead, an ambient luminescence is achieved creating a more pleasing reading environment with few shadows.  I am able to tackle my work without the distractions of fighting sleep.

The climate is another area that determines how much light is required for interiors.  Because of this, the structural direction must be considered when placing windows.   If there is too much light and heat coming into a space, the inhabitants could be uncomfortable.  For instance, the room 204 placement in the Studio Arts building.  Facing south and having windows on two full walls, this room gets unbearably warm for students during lectures.  Shades and blinds are an inexpensive alternative, but another option could be a sun shading technique called Brise Soleil, which controls how much light enters a structure.  Ranging from patterned concrete walls, wooden louvers to metal mechanical shades, as seen at the Milwaukee Art Museum[ii], Brise Soleil can be a creative, beautiful addition to a structure.

Included in chapter 1[iii], Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger describes the large windows on the long narrow row houses in the Netherlands.  Since light is prized here, because of the cloud filled skies, they celebrate their windows.  Hertzberger says, “This open window policy is attributed to the open society of the Dutch.  You can see inside and feel like you can take part in their activities.” This quote helps us understand how not only the climate but also the cultural background of people can influence how light is used in a space.  “The role of light is defining when it is revealed through the experience of a building.[iv]

In the early 1900’s, Frank Lloyd Wright showed us how natural influences can alter the way light enters a room by using abstract patterns from nature in the design of his windows.  With shape and color, shadows of images of nature projected onto the walls, which really blurred the separation of the outside and in. Wright also used different construction techniques to control the light entering into his designs.  Possibly one of the most famous homes that Wright built, Fallingwater, he used the structure to help control the light entering the interior. [v] By the use of cantilevered outdoor patio space, the windows below are shielded from direct sunlight entering into the main living spaces. This helped keep the home from getting too warm.

In conclusion, how light affects space, be it through the time of day, climate or even what the space is used for, is understandably required to know to design with a purpose.  If designers did their craft without any consideration for who will be using the spaces, there will be many spaces left unusable.


[i] Millet, Marietta S., and Catherine Jean. Barrett. “Chapter One.” Light Revealing Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996. Pg6. Print

[ii] http://www.mam.org/visit/details/detail_burke.php

 [iii] Millet, Marietta S., and Catherine Jean. Barrett. “Chapter One.” Light Revealing Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996. Pg10. Print

 [iv] Millet, Marietta S., and Catherine Jean. Barrett. “Chapter One.” Light Revealing Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996. Pg14. Print

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Lover of architectural history, family, building design, coffee and dogs.

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