Using Light in Architecture—How to do it?

Feature Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Don’t be that kind of designer that uses light arbitrarily; it can be so much more than that. Art curators think about lighting as an essential element when showcasing a piece­, so should we! I’m going to tell you three ways in which Architects use Light and Shadow in their designs. Hopefully, this will inspire you to hone your use of light to create a well-thought-out piece of architecture.

“In all my works, light is an important controlling factor.”
-Tadao Ando

Let’s get started!

  1. Use light to create space and darkness to fill it.

This is probably the simplest of points to make, but people overlook the importance of it.

Space only exists when light is present.

We’re not going to go too deep into the metaphysics side of this, so to put it simply, light allows us to see what is around us–how crowded or spacious it is. Without it, we recognise darkness as a mass.

Louis Kahn’s design of the Parliament in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban) features a monolithic mass with cut-out, geometric shapes­­­­–letting light into the building to create space. When light isn’t present, shadow fills the void within the building, and the darkness becomes part of the structure’s surface.

We don’t have to sculpt a form like a potter would their vase, but instead use light and shadow to cut, strip or feather our designs.

2. Light exposes reality, whilst darkness creates mystery.

“If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.”
-Tadao Ando

When a room is fully lit, we see everything for what it is—materials, bare. Furniture laid. Colours revealed. We are no longer left guessing or wondering what is or could be. Shadows create the feeling of uncertainty, an abyss that our imagination fills in.

Ando’s Church of Light uses shadow to create a sense of omniety. Although darkness consumes the sanctuary, the light-filled-cross breaks through, flooding the congregation with a sense of awe.

“Even a room which must be dark needs a least a crack of light to show how dark it is.”
-Louis Kahn

We can’t merely have a pitch-black room. We only see mystery when we see a glimpse of reality amidst a sea of nothingness. The contrast between light and dark could be used to induce a feeling, an emotion, a memory. It’s left to us–as designers–to relay these components to the building’s inhabitants.

3. Light focuses our sense of sight; shadow accentuates our other senses

Imagine you’re blindfolded. Someone tells you there is an Evian bottle right in front of you. You have no clue what kind of bottle it is–metal, glass or plastic–but we know how each material feels. The only way to find out is to reach for the bottle and touch it.

Without sight, we are left with our other senses to satisfy our curiosity.

When an architect does this, they emphasise the relationship between the user and the architecture; creating a memory, a place, an emotion. The occupying space becomes a dynamic entity.

These are only some possibilities. Olafur Eliasson has done many experiments with light; how light can change an objects colour and our perception of reality. Use his experiments as a basis for what you want to achieve with your design. One intriguing experiment is how the colour of light affects how our brain registers different colours.

Check out Olafur Eliasson’s Colour Experimen no. 78 here.

So I leave you with this… What are you trying to achieve in your designs? How are you going to use light and shadow to illustrate this?