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Light on matter. (Comment).

Without light, the world would seem almost formless. From the first architects have reinterpreted the luminance of the heavens. Added to this awesome task is the challenge of imaginatively providing artificial illumination. Are we up to it?

'The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep ... And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and god divided the light from the darkness'. (1) All the peoples of the Book -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- believe that light is the source of life and that, without light, all life will perish. (2) But light is not just an essential to existence for most species. It is an inspiration to all animate creatures -- most intensely perhaps to humans, who as far as we can understand, have celebrated the coming and the passing of the light of the day, the waning and rising of the moon, and the alternation between sunny summer and dour winter in all their religions, not just those of the Book, but since beginnings of our species. Without light, as the God of the Old Testament realized, 'the earth was without form'.

And of course, for most of us, the earth only acquires form when it is perceived in light. Of all the senses that give us a sense of form of our surroundings, the visual is the most important for most people, with the aural and haptic ones providing additional but non-essential information. Le Corbusier, as a fiery '20s polemicist, urged that 'Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light'. (3) With experience, Corb realized that our eyes and brains are made to perceive and respond to spaces as well as forms. His 1924 insistence that the primary elements of architecture are 'prisms, cubes and cylinders, pyramids or spheres' was modified in his postwar work. His perceptions of the non-Euclidean world and the importance of space matured in the mastery of Ronchamp, where an organic space, derived from its religious rituals is made almost palpable by the amazing shafts and sheets of light that penetrate the body of the churc h from its carefully organized openings.

The history of religious buildings is the history of human civilization and its relationship to light. From the Egyptians, Celts and pre-Columbian peoples, societies have built structures that celebrate light and the changes of the seasons. The Romans and Byzantines were the first people (in the West at least) to have made great public interiors (as opposed to the open-air time-measuring devices like Stonehenge or secretive enclosed ones like Egyptian temples or the ancient tombs of Ireland). Buildings like the Pantheon or Hagia Sophia were devices that introduced light to grand interiors in ways that reinforced their sacerdotal purposes. For instance the disc cast by rays of sunlight that descends to the interior of the Pantheon from the oculus in the dome (one of the most powerful images in the whole of architecture) fell successively on the images of the gods and emperors which filled the niches of the walls; the whole Roman state religion was made clear to the congregation by moving light. Similarly, in B yzantine churches, light was used dramatically to emphasize the stories of the faith and its most important annual and diurnal moments. The notion of the building as a numinous instrument was continued in descendants of Byzantine architecture as different as Gothic churches of the North and Ottoman mosques in the Middle East. Baroque churches, with their great and often awe-inspiring drama, were the last examples ofbuildings as instruments of religion.

Luminous drama

The tradition died (at least overtly) in the rationalism of the eighteenth century, when the fire of the Counter Reformation that had set the Baroque ablaze had been reduced to embers. It is no coincidence perhaps that by the beginning of the next century, gas lighting became increasingly popular, first in city streets to counter crime, then in buildings like factories so that workers could be kept at their machines far longer than they have been able to toil by the light of day. Artificial lighting, first by gas, then by electricity after Swan and then Edison invented the incandescent filament lamp in the late 1870s, (4) radically transformed humankind's relationship to nature. Electricity allowed the Industrial Revolution to explode all over the world, gradually transforming culture from being fundamentally mechanically based to today's post-modern electronic ways of living and thinking.

The enormous power given by electricity has radically transformed all our lives, not least those of architects. Without electricity, modern civilization would be impossible. Up to Baroque times architects, at least when making great public buildings, inherited the mantle of the priests of the earliest religions as interpreters of the cosmos to humanity by modifying and manipulating the light given by the Great Architect of the Universe. Universal, reliable and even human-made light, completely independent of diurnal rhythm, has abolished the shamanist aspects of our calling.

Certainly, we can create luminous drama with techniques often derived from the theatre and cinema, which (at least in their television modes) have taken the role of religion in much of the Western world. But the even, undifferentiated light that comes down from the ceiling of the open-plan office in which I am editing this leader, and in which so many of us have to work all the time is a hangover of Modernism, with its inheritance of some of the fiercer aspects of the Industrial Revolution, and its belief in universal standardized solutions to all humanity's needs. (I wrote the main part of it at home with a small lamp casting a pool of light over my desk, books and keyboard.)

Of course, we all need a decent standard basic background: we need to be kept dry in the rain; at a reasonable temperature during times of heat and cold, and appropriately lit during our waking hours. But in heroically trying to achieve these for everyone, Modernism (5) abolished mystery, individuality and magic, which remain essential components of the human psyche. They are largely realized in light, but not the drear, endless fluorescent sub-glare of the soulless desert of the standardized office or factory. Too much light makes the world without form.

In working places, new technology will allow people to adjust their lighting conditions to suit themselves and the ways in which they work, giving a degree of respite from the twenty-first century Panopticon in which every movement is inspected by management, in much the same way as Bentham's prisoners were surveyed by the overseer of his ideal prison. New technology can allow buildings to react to light, much as trees do. It is absurd to expect that buildings can be intelligent, but as technology advances, they can be caused to behave more like plants, with integrated sensory structural and services systems, and processes similar to photosynthesis, light-orientated movement and transpiration.

Light modifying devices like electro- and phototropic glazing, light emitting diodes (LEDs, which may replace incandescent and fluorescent lamps for many purposes) and organic LEDs, which can allow large surfaces to emit light (and accept energy from the sun), all offer wonderful possibilities. But we cannot yet understand them creatively. After all, it took centuries for the Romans to appreciate the possibilities of light in large spaces; Gothic was honed by generations; the Baroque was quicker in its evolution, and so was Modern normative artificial illumination, but post-modern, electronic and organic techniques for modifying and generating light are only in their infancy.

In developing and applying the technologies, we must not forget the lessons of the ancestors. Light is essential and magical. We must never forget the intimacy of gentle natural light falling through a domestic window or the drama of the shaft on a Bernini altarpiece; the slow motion of sun through sky accentuated by the ever-changing internal shadows; the stories told by light in the glass of Gothic cathedrals. Whether we can ever match and even extend them in our own way will depend on imagination, invention and sensitivities that we seem scarcely to have shown yet -- or even begun to think about.


1 Genesis Ch I, ii-iv. King Jame's version.

2 This is of course not entirely true, for early peoples did not know about the denizens of the dark like anaerobic bacteria, axolotls or the wriggling worms that dwell round fumaroles in the deep trenches of the oceans, all reproducing and surviving in total absence of flight. Other creatures, like the freshwater dolphins of the Ganges or the Mekong River, are blind and rely on high-frequency sound to establish their relationship to their surroundings. But they do of course depend on complex life-chains that themselves are sourced in photosynthesis.

3 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trs Frederick Etchells, Architectural Press, London, 1927, p31. The original French Versue Architecture was published in 1924, when Corbusier was 37.

4 The first public gas company in the world was set up in London in 1812, and Westminster Bridge was the first public thorough fare to be illuminated by gaslight. The first public power station was set up by Edison in 1883 in Holborn, London; it supplied, among other places, the Central Criminal Court and the General Post Office.

5 With wonderful exceptions such as Ronchamp and almost the complete works of Aalto.
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Author:Deitz, Paula
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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