Playing With Light

13 Nov 2015

Last week, we celebrated Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, so called because it is marked by several days of celebration when every house window and shop front is illuminated by rows of lit candles (called diya). The festival culminates in fireworks which lights up the night skies.



Here in the UK, Diwali often overlaps with Bonfire Night and is a marvellous excuse to extend the joy of fireworks and sparklers. Every year, I remark on the coincidence that the cultures of my birth country and adoptive country have both found reasons to light up the dark mid-winter skies with pyrotechnics before we all bed down for the long winter.

But then humans have an intrinsic need for light and brightness to counter their primitive fear of darkness. Light is linked inextricably with joy in the human mind. Out of the many domestic clients who approach me to extend/improve their house, the most common issue they have (after lack of space) is that the rooms to the rear of the property are too dark. In modern times, we are spending more and more time at home. Family congregates round the kitchen table, friends are entertained there; many of us even work from home offices. Is it any wonder that we want as much sunlight streaming in as the British weather will allow?


The importance of light, and tying it into design, is something architects have drummed into them from pretty much the moment they step into university. We are encouraged to “play with light”. I remember being entirely bemused by that phrase in my first year, thinking naively that that meant no more than sticking a window in the external wall. I have a vivid memory of moving a window round in plan towards the end of my first year, thinking I was playing with light! I think I only grasped the true meaning of the phrase after years of study, and visiting architectural precedents. 

I still recall the wonder I felt when I visited the Pantheon in Rome, and saw the oculus that I had learnt about in Architectural History. If you are planning a trip to Rome, I recommend that you visit the Pantheon on a sunny day, and try to spend as much time in there as possible. The dark interior chamber is punctuated only by the light entering through the main door and the oculus in the centre of the domed roof. The sunlight falls on the coffered dome as a perfect circle which tracks right round the room over the course of the day. The effect is mesmerising! I spent the best part of the day watching the orb of light move round. (The second time I visited was less inspiring as I was with two children who did not have the patience or maturity to understand – to them, it was the equivalent of watching the minute-hand make a trip round the clock face.)






Playing with light is not just the preserve of the ancient masters. Frank Lloyd Wright is known as much for his buildings as for his work with stained glass. He spent as much care on designing the fenestrations as he did in designing the entire structure. He loved “playing with the light” that entered the houses by setting some of the glass pieces at angles so the colour of the light changed at different times of the day. Frank Lloyd Wright is also known for his use of skylights, and top-lit spaces in tall commercial buildings – a feature that has become ubiquitous today as the central light court. It was innovative in his day, and was a significant feature of his work.





While Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries manipulated the flow and heights of their design spaces to maximise the light ingress, Charles Correa had to do the opposite in scorching Mumbai. The eminent Indian architect worked in a city where there was a bit too much sunlight, and people wanted nothing more than to shut it out of their homes. I should know – I grew up there! While vernacular Indian architecture heavily features internal shaded courtyards, this is simply not possible in Mumbai where land is at a premium and apartment buildings are getting taller by the year. Charles Correa’s landmark Kanchanjunga apartments in Mumbai found an innovative solution by introducing deep balconies, each shaded by the mass above it. This helped maintain the residents’ relationship with the outdoors while protecting them from the fierce sunshine. I remember driving past it as a young adult, marvelling at the foliage of plants in every balcony. Most Mumbaikars have no more than a row of potted plants hanging precariously off their kitchen windows. Like all iconic designs, Kanchanjunga’s shaded balconies have now become the norm in Mumbai’s new buildings, but that is the beauty of a design that, quite simply, works.




So, I hope you’re reading this from a space that’s well-lit; whether from sunlight, the magic of electricity, or just by a warm cosy fire.  Diwali and Bonfire Night may be over, but we still have the brightness of Christmas to look forward to before plunging into the darkness of winter. Roll on, December!





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