A Daylight in Architecture Reading List
I have been collecting and reading books on daylight in architecture for almost 40 years. I just now counted 98 of them on my bookshelf and that figure does not include several journals, or the books I have in my office at school.
To be honest, I could have done without most of them. The textbooks on daylight all say the same things but in minimally different ways. They are useful but hardly inspiring, and rarely insightful as they fail to integrate data with the experience of space and daylight—which is the point of our work as architects. I similarly find writers’ attempts to describe architecture in light in personal, poetic terms to be mistreatments of the thesaurus: I don’t need to be told how or what I should feel. What I am looking for, what I want to know, is how these spaces work. How they came to be that way. I am interested in buildings and spaces that look a certain way because they work in a certain way. It is the intent, the strategy, and the knowledge of how they work that is important. Then, we are prepared to talk about mood and significance.
There are a few books about light that are genuinely insightful, broad-minded, surprising, and useful. I understand this: architecture is difficult enough to write about with accuracy, much less wit. It’s near impossible to write about light: it’s like trying to draw pictures of water. (See Hockney and Hiroshige for their exceptional depictions of water.) But there are a few fine writers who have managed to write gracefully and intelligently about daylight in architecture. I refer to these books frequently and encourage others to read them, too.
In Praise of Shadows
Leete’s Island Books
The message of this small volume does, indeed, arrive, as Charles W. Moore wrote in his foreword to In Praise of Shadows, ‘with the thrill of a slap for us…to hear praise of shadows and darkness; so, it is when there comes to us the excitement of realizing…that architects develop complex shapes just to envelop empty space.”
Yes, it’s thrilling to find, as we too rarely do, that what is true is actually the opposite of what we’d assumed all along. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, (1886-1965), the noted Japanese novelist, playwright, and screenwriter specialized in examining the sexual and psychological tensions of human life. The portrayal of competing desires, within a person, is reflected in this essay in which he reverses the common human experience of light and darkness. For Tanizaki, in which shadow is everywhere and light is the exception.
The book celebrates not only shadow, but all forms of darkness: shade, dim light, translucency, the lovely shimmer of polished lacquerware, and the dark depths of the soups it may contain. In Praise of Shadows is a slim but provocative volume, in which the author compares Western and Asian cultures through their aesthetic inclinations. The subtlety of Japan comes out on top, of course: “Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.” However, anyone who has been fluorescently flushed in the frozen food sections of modern American supermarkets will concede that Tanizaki has a point. Written in 1933, the book may also reflect a growing nationalism that preceded World War II. Nevertheless, the essential truths of darkness and shadow emerge as if from shadow itself.
Thermal Delight in Architecture
The MIT Press
As far as I know, the cover of this book, first published in 1979, has always featured the same image: a photo of a woman’s pale, straw hat. The hat floats in a black background, its broad, its softly curving brim woven in two densities providing a band with larger openings in parts of the crown and brim, to facilitate both shade and ventilation. The hat is illuminated, perhaps by daylight, on the top and front and, as a result, shaded underneath. The image communicates a sense of thermal comfort—a casual coolness—and softened sunlight. And that is what the book is about: the ways in which humans in various world cultures have adjusted themselves to heat and cold, by design. But, like the straw hat, a stand-in for the book’s message to architects, it addresses sun and skylight as well.
The author begins by saying, “This work begins with the hypothesis that the thermal function of the building could be used as an effective element of design.” If the reader simply substitutes the word, “daylight,” for “thermal,” here and throughout the book, the text is an equally and powerfully convincing argument for the use of daylight to generate architecture.
Heschong’s endorsement of rich and provocative over uniform environments is supported by a broad sweep of natural (the animal and plant world) and cultural (the cold north to the arid middle east) examples. The book is an advocate for a multiplicity and simultaneity of approaches to thermal and visual variation. “There is an extra delight in the delicious comfort of a balmy spring day as I walk beneath a row of trees and sense the alternating warmth and coolness of sun and shade.” (page 19) Heschong cites, as examples of rich, often contrasting, thermal environments, skiing, the seashore, and the Finns’ fondness for their saunas. She writes, “When the sun is warm on my face and the breeze is cool, I know it is good to be alive. “(page 18) The effect of these phenomena is multiplied when several of our senses are engaged at the same time. “One of the magical things about our senses is that they do not function in isolation…one may not even be able to understand the information from one sense properly until it can be related to information from other senses.” (page 24).
Its modest charm and clarity of thought make the book worth reading closely, many times. Like Tanizaki, Heschong cannot resist a food metaphor: “A proper gourmet meal,” Heschong reminds us, “has a wide variety of tastes.” (page 19)
Sunlight and Shade in the First Cities: A Sensory Archaeology of Early Iraq
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
“There are two periods of about five days each,” Mary Shepperson writes in a brief summary of her ideas,1 “one in the Spring and one in the Autumn, when the weather in southern Iraq is quite nice. Outside of those brief pleasant interludes, it’s either cold, windy and rainy; or roasting, windy and dusty. In the past, before electric heaters and air conditioning, the only thing standing between human beings and great physical discomfort was architecture.” Nasty weather; but it is in the extremes of sun and cold that people have no choice but to make architecture and cities that mitigate those forces. In this sense, Sunlight and Shade serves as a primer on the essentials of sun, sky, and architectural form.
For archaeologists, one imagines, that this book confirms and advances existing knowledge about early city-building, the meaning of artifacts, the climate, and rituals with the aim of revealing social structure. For designers of places, and architects, in particular, Sunlight and Shade in the First Cities is the basic how-it-really-works text. It illustrates how the sun and the rhythms of its paths through the sky, make days, seasons, years, and climate. The sun’s light and warmth literally and metaphorically guided the emergence of city form in the Mesopotamian plain, now Iraq, at the end of the second millennium BC; it might similarly and profitably guide us today. As the author writes, the evidence shows that in city-building, as early as Mesopotamia, daylight was consciously and thoughtfully managed with architectural form. This knowledge yielded spaces for living, working, and symbolic objectives.
Beginning with architectural principles of climate adaptation and the specific sunlight conditions of the Mesopotamian plain Shepperson identifies the advantageous orientation of an entire settlement, the location of activity spaces for work and play, the location and proportions of daylight openings, and the distinctions between public and private spaces. Much of this insightful work is based on interrelated inferences gathered from the landscape, city remains, knowledge of Mesopotamian construction, sun path diagrams, and ancient Sumerian and Akkadian literature that recorded attitudes toward sun and shadow, darkness, and light.
Shepperson traces the impact of direct sunlight, the immense relief of shade, and the symbolic power of both, particularly as they are associated with the divinities, with ritual, public space, and power.
1 “Mary Shepperson, “Sunlight and Shade in the First Cities – A Sensory Archaeology of Early Iraq .,” The Ancient Near East Today, https://www.asor.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Shepperson-August-2017-ANEToday.pdf
From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom
University of Minnesota Press
Even though, as Tim Edensor points out, “the distinctions between light and dark utterly transform space…” the range of spatial experiences from luminosity to murkiness remain an “…ignored dimension of everyday life.” (page viii) To this end, the author merges disparate theories and studies from a range of fields including and beyond his own, to make the case that light and dark help us to establish an essential connection to place and the way humans engage in an ongoing effort to orient themselves to places they value. As a cultural geographer, he emphasizes that the senses do not provide unmediated access to the understanding of place or to our perceptions of light and darkness. He points out that light and dark operate differently in different locations on the earth, day and night, seasonally, with different impressions and effects; they both instigate and are embedded with cultural values.
Our existence in light, according to Edensor, is substantially “unreflexive:” experienced, subconsciously while we are otherwise occupied with the tasks and distractions of daily life. We live in light, often unaware except when challenged by an extreme condition. In addition, early modern architects, infatuated with the possibilities of minimal structure (fewer bearing walls) and maximum glazing (lots of daylight), often neglected to acknowledge the great differences in daylighting conditions that distinguish distant geographies and that, in fact, daylight changes, fluctuating constantly, in any given place. It is the range of fluctuations native to a place that contribute to its character.
Perhaps the most provocative chapter is “Nocturnes: Changing Meanings of Darkness,” which describes our experience of life before widespread electric illumination. Recalling the common negative associations we have with darkness, Edensor also reviews positive understandings of the dark, which include dream and meditative states, links with creativity, “conviviality, intimacy, experimentation, and excitement.” We are of (at least) two minds when it comes to darkness, an attitude of long-standing, reaching back to the Greek goddess of night, Nyx, an ambiguous being who represented “death and strife” as well as “dreams and love.” (page 170)
Shadow-Makers: A Cultural History of Shadows in Architecture
In this collection of essays, Shadow-Makers, Stephen Kite proposes to bring shadows “out of the shadows”—a reasonable objective, given that architecture in the modern era has been slanted acutely toward the making of great, illuminated spaces, bright surfaces, and the minimization of darkness and all manner of unhygienic stuff.
It is no wonder that we fear the dark. The cultural associations of darkness are often negative—or worse. We perceive the world as a light-filled place interrupted by occasional darkness and we link gloom with ignorance and the unknown. But in the history of art and architecture, and on our better days, this menu of fears encounters a greater truth: the universe is a beautiful, dark place, with remarkable occasions of light and gradations of shadow. And as Kite notes, citing Louis Kahn, shadow belongs to light. The examples cited in this book range from the making of shadow in Islamic settlements; they include the architecture of Sir John Soane, Louis Kahn, of course, and Peter Zumthor; and examine the last two projects of architecture’s modern prince of “gloomth,” Sigurd Lewerentz; among others.
The depiction of shadow inheres in the simplest sketch. Each tool leaves a mark, and each mark removes light. Kite explains that John Ruskin, understanding this, presented his shadow studies, drawn and written, to move architects beyond the use of light and shade to the modeling of form. He developed the case for darkness as a form-making strategy, asserting that cast shadows “sometimes [gained] supremacy over even the things that cast them.” Following this line of thought, Kahn is portrayed as more than the great finder of light in mass or the silence in light. He is also the keeper of a “treasury of shadows.” At Kahn’s First Unitarian Church, an interplay of daylight and darkness is introduced in the “folding” of the exterior masonry walls to capture shadow and admit daylight to the interior. Light and shadow become companions.
Shadow-Makers is dense with obscure wisdom and a range of observations, much of which are well worth following up on. But the thread of the author’s argument often frays, becoming tangled in citations just where the reader wants a firm foundation for the book’s subsequent and intelligent architectural narrative. Those interested in the influence of daylight and darkness in architecture, will appreciate this book for its wealth of references alone, but readers will want to come to it armed with fully-charged smartphones or laptops so that they can search references and call up supporting images. The effort will be worth it.
The Poetics of Light, and Nordic Light; Modern Scandinavian Architecture
a+u Publishing Co., Ltd., and Thames & Hudson
There is no question that learning architecture simply from a book or only in a classroom is a ‘Plan B’ proposition. The truly fine buildings are rare enough that their occasional manifestations are near miracles. There is no substitute for the experience of being around or inside one of them. For the student of architecture (a designation that includes professionals and teachers who have not lost their passion), the combined experience of both being there and having the recorded documentation required to understand how the building is configured is probably ideal.
Henry Plummer’s books, of which I am most familiar with his earliest (Poetics, 1993) and more recent (Nordic Light, 2014), may be something of an exception to my rule. One might learn nearly as much about the role of daylight as a generator of architectural space from his volumes of photography as from a site visit. His books are primarily pictorial and the photos capture light in architectural spaces as well as any I have seen. The photos, collected as they are in each of his several volumes, aggregate to offer compelling studies of spaces in daylight.
Plummer comes to his books with training in photography under the noted American photographer, Minor White, as well as in architecture. He has identified, visited, and photographed virtually all of the buildings that have long been celebrated for their explicit incorporation of daylight and, more recently, lesser-known but excellent new examples. Plummer has an unfailing eye for snapping his images at just the right time, when daylight and architecture are seemingly in perfect sympathy. I could be wrong, but it appears that all of his photos have been taken with available light with no additional technology. Photography yields images, which are not exactly the way we see them with the naked eye, but Plummer’s skill and the reliance on available daylight make them trustworthy in a way that images meant to capture only form are not. The images are more than visual pleasures to linger on: as photographs are literally recordings of light, Plummer’s ability to preserve these moments lends itself to the serious study of light and architecture.
Henry Plummer is a fine photographic craftsman and his work is clearly made better because of his awareness of the essential daylighted potential of architectural space. The photographs are accompanied by general essays on daylight and captions in Poetics, and by short essays paired with specific buildings in the later book. The later format and writing are more specific and credible. The early writing is often turgid and mostly evocative of the state of mind and the personal reactions of the author. Those earlier descriptions mean simply that the author likes the place but do not further the reader’s ability to understand how these spaces actually work in light or how their architects developed the strategies for generating them.
Nordic Light is helpfully supplemented by small floor plans and sections, but a little more of the documentary material is needed to fully understand the works. Still, Plummer’s photos are so good that working with his books and with an architectural history book or monograph at hand would be a reasonable way to study daylight in architecture: if you can’t get there.
The Art of Architectural Daylighting
Laurence King Publishing
The experience of daylight is notoriously difficult to describe in words; perhaps this is why its analysis is (too) often left to those who have mathematical inclinations. There is a tendency among those who write about light to speak in semi-spiritual terms, or in a highly individualized language of personal feelings, descriptions that tell us little more than that the author likes the effects. I find those approaches inadequate and often inaccurate: the idiosyncratic or otherworldly sentiments of others rarely help me to understand how a great daylighted space works. What we need is a spoken and written language for daylighting that reflects performance: what light really is, how it is transmitted, absorbed, reflected, received and gathered in spaces designed for such purposes; how it is occluded to make cool, shady spaces. We need how daylight may be cajoled into accompanying us along pathways, and directed to surfaces that domesticate and distribute it.
The Art of Architectural Daylighting comes close to satisfying both the interests of those who have the need to count lux (or footcandles or BTUs) and those who practice architecture and need to develop a way of talking about and devising daylighting strategies. For almost all of us, the book is an excellent introductory text to daylight and architecture. With the quality of its collection of case studies, it would reasonably serve as a standard contemporary architecture text. It draws its twelve case studies from a range of locations and latitudes. Very few of the examples will be familiar to most architects, and the surprise at discovering new and very fine projects is sufficient justification for reading the book. There are a few well-known names behind the case projects, but few of the cited buildings will be well-known. The thoughtful use of light native to specific latitudes broadens our knowledge of architects who are using their knowledge of the sky and light to generate architecture.
Professor Guzowski’s descriptions waver a bit, becoming too general in some situations. Chapters are themed with titles such as, “Choreographed Light,” “Structured Light,” “Atmospheric Light,” “Sculpted Light,” and so on. (This is something one encounters with regularity in the literature of architectural light.) I suspect that these themes are interchangeable and that the chapter titles could be switched with little loss of accuracy. To their credit, each one of the buildings in this book could serve as a pretty fine example of any one of these categories.
Nonetheless, the text is mostly specific, accurate, and appropriately performance-oriented; it tells us how the buildings work in light, regardless of theme. The book and its ideas are thoroughly and varyingly illustrated with building photos and excellent diagrams. Guzowski provides us with building locations, climate profiles, delineations of the daylight strategies, graphic analyses of illumination, descriptions of materials in light, and links these with considerations of sustainable performance. There are digital simulations and photos of spaces formatted for comparison. The collection of photos and data combined make it possible to study a building quite well. The Art of Architectural Daylighting manages to be both comprehensive and concise.
Light Revealing Architecture
Van Nostrand Reinhold
Light Revealing Architecture describes how daylight is essential to the development of spatial ideas in architecture and how we then seek meaning in the experience of the spaces. Millet appropriately begins with a consideration of “Light and Place,” and establishes criteria for understanding daylight within the fundamental human experience of the landscape and sky.
The strength of the book is its straightforwardness and its use of language to communicate in direct terms the visual influence of designed space. The author wisely describes daylight one space at a time, citing the orientation and configuration of openings, its materials, the nature of the sky, the time of day, and the local climate. This enables her to underscore the architect’s intentions. Millet is focused and accurate: she minimizes excited arm-waving about how we are supposed to feel about places. She addresses what people actually do inside buildings, for example: “Much of our experience of light,” Millet writes, “comes from working in it.” Near the end of the book, the author, like several others (Plummer, Guzowski) assigns metaphorical and cultural qualities to light itself. I have never felt comfortable with this approach. It seems to me that, counter to the careful examination of how light operates in specific rooms, the attribution of symbolic and spiritual character to daylight easily becomes personal; the interpretations change the work. What may be spiritual to me, might be simply directional, or even glare, to someone else.
Marietta Millet was generous enough to allow me to read a chapter of the book prior to its publication in 1996 and a couple of my photos are published in the volume. Light Revealing Architecture is broadminded and acute. Considering the book and its breath again, these years later, I think that it might well have been titled, "Light Revealing Places."
Visual Delight in Architecture: Daylight, Vision, and View
Lisa Heschong’s 1979 book, Thermal Delight in Architecture, is a cultural study of human responses to heat and cold conditions around the world. It is architectural but anthropological, broadly based and charming, insightful, and compact. The new Visual Delight is extensive, comprehensive, and clearly the result of a lifetime of work investigating the relationships between architecture, daylight, and people. Where the earlier volume seemed to rely on the author digging into a library for material, the new one employs a great mix of sources. It includes personal anecdotes and observations of Heschong’s, those of others, and their questions about architecture and light. This is substantiated with serious research, much of it by the author. The subjects range from the nature of light; the workings of the human eye; measured responses to daylight and electric light; the pleasures and greater efficiencies elicited from the daylighted workplace; the discovery of relationships between daylight, circadian rhythms, and health; and Heschong’s new and currently undervalued insight: the fact that good architecture offers and frames views into our world and for our measurable benefit.
This central insight and motivation behind Visual Delight make the point that our images of the world are, in fact, a function of light, specifically daylight, and of the human capacity to receive and interpret these light images. Heschong’s interest lies beyond isolated light phenomena, its quantities, percentages, cool patterns, and even glare. She’s looking for a comprehensive and situated understanding of the quality of light in a place. There is some provocative speculation, too, particularly concerning the possible correspondence and synchronicity between the daily and seasonal rhythms of daylight and emerging evidence of human physiological rhythms of attention and information processing; much of this, Heschong suggests, may be activated by what we see (by means of light) around us. This is why, of course, our buildings should be designed to engage with the landscape, the sky, and the city around us.
The book is open-ended, leaving us with new questions to answer and research to pursue. I am hoping for a revised and updated edition, one that might attend to the several typographical imperfections in the text, (Don’t publishers employ editors?) which do not, however, interfere meaningfully with the distinction of this work.