Chapter VIII, “Daylight in Architecture”

Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_Geographer_-_Google_Art_ProjectJohannes Vermeer, The Geographer

In Chapter VIII Professor Rasmussen elaborates on the methods of using light in architecture.

At the very beginning the author indicates that the problem doesn’t concern as much the quantity of light let inside, but rather how it’s being distributed.

Throughout the book we come across many examples of both good and bad ways of using light in building.

Light distribution

Pantheon, the magnificent legacy of ancient architecture shows the vast knowledge of his creators in terms of brightening big spaces. Through using oculus, the hole located at the top of the dome, the hall procures concentrated rays of sunlight, which further reflect from the yellowish pavement onto the ceiling and then become effectively diffused. This method prevents coming across any deep shadows inside. The space is clear and pleasant to the eye, and we intuitively feel acoustics and airiness of the place.


Rasmussen explains some rules on brightening in architecture. He refers to photographing and using flesh light in it. Although it may prevent taking blurred pictures, it inevitably flattens photograph.

Good light is connected with creating good plastic effects, in the rooms. Hence, a good photographer in order to attain satisfying outcome, experiments with positioning his light sources until the greatest scope of plastic effects will be obtained.

Framing the sunlight

Rasmussen leads us through three types of designing light sources.

  • bright open halls (see Pantheon)
  • buildings with skylight
  • rooms with side lightening

He recalls the Copenhagen’s City Hall as an example of a building with skylight, and it shows uneven quality derived from the fact it consist two courts, from which one has a ceiling completely opened, hence too much light goes to that space making it overexposed and lifeless, and the second court, vaulted, so between the plane of the ceiling and the walls’ planes, there are rows of windows, controlling the amount of sunlight entering the space and although it makes this court a little darker, it makes it interesting.

When referring to side-light Rasmussen points out, that he values side lightening over skylight. He claims that it attains more interesting texture effects and allows architects to arrange more interesting compositions.

To prove this statement professor refers to the legacy of the Golden Dutch Age, about which you can read in my post on Vermeer and Whistler. While reading we can get impression of the deep sentiment professor feels towards his native region. In this, he shows similarities to contemporary phenomenologists, like Peter Zumthor, who often nostalgically recalls his native Switzerland.

Insights of the Dutch in terms of interior spaces

As an example of side lightening Rasmussen recalls the gabled houses in Denmark. The origins of their construction the author sees in the fact that most of them were built on the reclaimed land. Due to this hardship, people paid lots of attention to building economy and concluded that building upwards is the most profitable. We can see the analogy in their insight, and the New Yorkers’, the authors of skyscrapers, or the high, stone towers of San Gimgnano’s people. These buildings were very narrow and often shared their thick sidewalls with neighbours, what enabled them to lay all the weight of the building on them, so the other walls, except their own weight, didn’t have to support anything. It enabled their constructors to cover large areas of these “almost curtain walls” with big, planes of glass.

These original innovations turn out to be very practical and although showed high level of refinement, they weren’t translated on many other countries, at time. The answer for this phenomenon may be sought in differences between lifestyles. Within mediterranean culture, due to friendly climate conditions, people didn’t use to spend so much time in home and therefore their interior solarity was of a low value.

It’s hard not to mention that the society of the Golden Dutch Age consisted of people who had penchant for pretty things. But, you can’t enjoy your goods, unless you attain appropriate lightning, and the Dutch loved to build at their ground levels four-meter-high rooms, with big, double glazed windows and shutters from both sides to control the sunlight, all in order to receive light which made them feel good.

Especially artists were keen on experiments with shutters and curtains. Jan Vermeer, the Dutch artist, to whom Rasmussen refers, made so profound studies in this subject, that today, only by looking at his paintings, we are able to calculate the combinations he used.

Light is space

The author depicted a situation, when light created an enclosed space, without support from any walls or other objects. He pictured a group of people, sitting around a campfire, late at night, so it was the only source of light. Then people within the light’s scope could experience how it circumscribed the space around them, bordering them from darkness.

This bred in them a feeling, similar to being inside a common room, and regardless the fact they were using campfire to heat themselves. That’s a separate thing. Even on the stage, actors while declaiming monologues are being brightened by spot light, which creates a mysterious space around them.

Mathematical clarity and artistic expression

At the end of the chapter Steen Eiler Rasmussen referred to the work of Le Corbusier and his horizontal windows going all the length of the rooms. This method enabled the residents to enjoy big amounts of side light, beautifully showing the textures and creating the crystal clarity of Le Corbusier’s space.

Per contra, the author also mentioned Le Corbusier’s Church in Ronchamps, in which lightening was designed quite differently. The project outraged his contemporaries, but simultaneously showed the architect’s profound understanding of the possibilities architecture gives. His use of light in the church is ingenious. At first glance, it seems random and neglectful, but just as Picasso was drafting thousands of sketches, before he came up with the final outcome, Le Corbusier had also very explicit vision, of what he wanted to achieve.

He strived for creating a dimmed space, where our spatial sense will be taken over by light, leading us through walls of colourful windows, and, at the end, directing us straight to the altar – our final destination. Then such an original experience makes us starting to think about the richness of plastical effects, the architect put there, and about the light as the source of all creation.

Steen Eiler Rasmussen, “Experiencing architecture”, First MIT Press paperback edition, 1964

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