Considerations for light vs. shadow in architecture


Most people like light spaces.  People tend to feel happier with natural light illuminating a space.  Studies have shown that workers in spaces that are proximal to a window are more content which usually equates to better production.  As an architect I not only have great respect for light and how it behaves, but darkness as well.  This may sound unusual lightto want to design a space to be dark on purpose, and it is…but there are some cases where it makes sense.  The best example I could think of would be a religious space of worship.  Usually in places like this architects try to create spaces the cleanse our souls…that breathe new breath into our lives.  One way to do this is to accentuate the light with dark…after all if everything is light than there is nothing special about one particular light source.  This is why many alter spaces tend to have low levels of natural light with one strong central light source.  This gives the light a sense of mystery.  It gives in an aura and a life of its own.

I like to think of things in terms of music.  Take the keyboard of a piano for example (musical but not music in this case).  Think how the sharp/flat keys “pop” because they’re black against the white natural keys.  If all the keys were white, it would just be like, “wow cool a bunch of white keys…”.  Same for the black keys.  But the fact that they are both there allows them to play off each other.  It shows just how black the black keys are and vice versa.  This is how I see light and shadow; you don’t realize how dark a space is until you pop a window in there.

Everyone knows that during the day light moves across buildings – who cares right? Wrong!  Shadows are actually very cool and can make a building very dynamic as the shadows move across a building throughout the day as well as  throughout the year.  Now, when an architect (namely moi) designs a building, 99/100 times I don’t have the luxury on the site to position the building the way I want it in terms of shadows.  Most of the time sites are simply too tight and don’t allow the play.  But every now and then comes a project where there is so much land and the amount of building is so small in proportion that we can actually orient the building however we want.  Playing with shadow is fascinating in itself to me, but what is even more fascinating is how technology allows architects to actually study shadows in the 3-dimensional computer realm.  At Balber Architecture, Inc. we work with the latest in computer technology to show our clients what buildings will look like before they’re built.  For more on this topic click here.

In particular though, the shadows and light come into play when I’m trying to analyze a given space and how it is designed to function.  For example:  there may be a family or a tv room in a house…I would want it to be designed where the people would be watching tv with the sun behind the tv…but then again, I want to try to minimize glare!  Tricky stuff.  Television viewing usually ends up being one of those priorities that has to be taken into consideration, but how seriously it is taken is up to the client.  If you are facing open water, you’d probably rather stare at dolphins and sailboats than a tv screen (I know I would!).  If you are in an urban infill parcel you’d probably rather stare at a tv than your neighbor’s brick wall.

Then there are spaces that actually need to be dark.  Take a movie theater for example.  Although theater lobbies can be flooded with natural light, I have yet to see an actual theater with a window in it.  These spaces aren’t meant to give great views of nature or to allow people to work long hours in…they are there for the soul purpose of enjoying a feature film.

Throughout history architects have played with shadows.  Various civilizations have linked entire cities around the rotation of the sun.  Going a step further, some civilizations built entire cities around the stars beyond the sun!  But that is for another post…one on UFO’s…which will not be on this website 🙂

If you have a project and would like to learn more about working with shadows, please feel free to contact me directly here.