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August Book Review: Footprint’s pick

The Architecture of Light by Mary Ann Steane

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For anyone interested in daylight, this is a thoughtful and absorbing book. Examining light as a sublime art form, Mary Ann Steane’s The Architecture of Light explores architectural attitudes and discourse surrounding daylight since the widespread availability of artificial lighting. Steane is an architect by training and a lecturer in Environmental Design at the University of Cambridge, where she has worked alongside Dean Hawkes and Koen Steemers for numerous years. Her approach emphasises historical and cultural perspectives, underpinned by technical understanding.

Structured in ten chapter-long case studies ranging from Ronchamp to Tate Modern via Liebskind’s Jewish Museum and Scarpa’s Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Steane investigates how these projects handle the relationship between movement, space, light and materials, looking closely at how these factors affect perception of the visual environment and architectural space. Illustrated with black and white photographs, plans and sketches by Max Beckenbauer, this book is more exploratory comparative essay than technical study. It is the choice of projects and Steane’s careful analysis which makes this a worthwhile read.

The book delves into the importance of light as an ordering device in design which inspires specific architectural responses through a critical understanding of place. Steane suggests that while a sensitive approach to light can be complex to achieve, it is ultimately rewarding and in recent years, often underappreciated.

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Poetic quotes from the architects enliven the text and reveal the designers’ own thinking about the importance of light. The inclusion of architects’ sketches is particularly useful in explaining how daylight was considered right from the conceptual stages of projects, giving the reader an insight into how light featured throughout the design process.

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Le Corbusier - sketch of the view down the living room towards the garden of ‘Une Petite Maison’

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Sketch by Max Beckenbauer - Barragan’s house, Mexico City

Footprint posed five questions to the author:

With a growing awareness of the importance of sustainable practice and energy efficiency in building design, do you see a trend of contemporary architects embracing daylight as the primary light source?

I think there is wide interest in daylighting design principles and their implementation. It has probably never gone away amongst architects, though issues like Health and Safety sometimes mitigate against a greater dependence on daylight. The way lighting guidelines have been framed do not help either as they fail to acknowledge the fundamentally interdependent relationship of daylight to spatial location and time, and the basic difference in quality between artificial light: uniform and controllable; and daylight: visually diverse over time and space.


You discuss light as an architectural tool to provide drama and influence visitor experience. In designing for daylight, what is the relative importance of an intuitive design approach and sophisticated computer modelling techniques? What role does each play in design?

Grasping the basic parameters of daylighting design involves a good understanding of the potentially changing character of daylight available – a matter of geometry, climate, daily and seasonal variation, the impact of material choices. Intuitions about daylighting are built over time, influenced by precedents of many different kinds, which is why it is still so important to take students to see buildings – and to encourage them to visit places they have otherwise only have got to know thorough photographs. 

Ideas about light can be modelled physically at an early stage. In contrast sophisticated computer modelling techniques are not typically very useful in my experience at the start of a project as they require just that - too much sophistication - and computer renderings are in any case not something one can get one’s head inside.

In the book you investigate architects’ approach to lighting design in projects across the globe. What differences did you experience in attitudes between the northern and southern hemispheres or between different countries?

It was interesting that the issues of light in a densely built up city like London or Berlin, with a long history and tightly written building codes, are different to those of more rural places in countries like Chile or Australia where it is certainly easier to experiment in radical ways. In this regard it was interesting that an explicit rejection of imported assumptions (usually from Europe) concerning the decorum of buildings – and the decorum of light – was apparent in all the southern hemisphere projects I discussed.

This is not to say that the buildings in the south were therefore definitively more engaging. The discussion of London buildings which have reworked existing light for new purposes indicated to me that subtle, intelligent and eloquent responses can be the fruit of the most unpromising of circumstances.

 What were the most inspiring examples you have come across?

As a design teacher, I particularly enjoyed the discussions on light that I had with staff at the Valparaiso School. This is because I enjoyed the way they make light and its quality integral to open conversations about the crystallisation of design ambitions.

The conversation about how they strive to reconcile a protest against science/technology and a cautious dialogue with it – through a design practice that looks to enact the lessons of local experience, and build on the immediate cues of place. - was very stimulating.  This is why the Music Room at the Open City was the cover image.

Could you provide one tip for architects or students of architecture when developing the lighting of a project?

Think carefully about relationships in light and the kind of natural light that is available. Consider the quality, quantity (and potentially the controllability) of the light required in tandem with the question of enclosure/disclosure. In this respect the design of apertures for light always deserves – and rewards - close attention.

Experimental sketch models of key spaces or even key apertures and their filtering mechanisms can be very helpful at an early stage, because they can be photographed and the images reworked/compared in the computer.

Finding images of precedents that illustrate the quality of light/space produced by apertures in the locations you are considering  (rooflights, clerestoreys, translsucent light wells, light –shelves, printed glazing etc. etc.) can also stimulate  more focused thinking about how to achieve what you are looking for.

Mary Ann Stean’s previous book is Environmental Diversity in Architecture, co-edited with Koen Steemers.

See all Footprint’s July books received here.

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