Living in light and shadow

We are cyclical beings by nature and while we no longer use the sun and the moon as timekeepers, we are intrinsically connected to the ebb and flow of light and darkness in our daily lives. Our bodies and our mood react to the periodic movement of the sun across the seasons. The cycle of dawn to dusk, day after day, links us to a system that is bigger than we can ever imagine. It is no wonder that we see the science of a rainbow as a miracle, even as we leave childhood behind. Light and shadow falling across our visual worlds are a kind of magic.

Bring to mind the light as it falls through the oculus at the Pantheon, the shadows cast by the sails of the Sydney Opera House, the electrifying Church of Light by Tadao Ando where the spiritual is connected to the architecture through sunshine. These are all examples of the power of light, and its companion, shadow. Light is the element that transforms construction into poetry. Without light, architecture is reduced to pure functionality – lacking depth and artistry. In architecture, light is the source material that clarifies all design.

The late, great American architect Louis Kahn once said: “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.” He was a master at using light to create drama in his designs. While large works of societal importance require a philosophical foundation, it can and should also be true of the domestic realm. When it comes to designing a family home, the very first question the architect will ask is where is the light?

Light is only perceivable because of the existence of darkness. Linguistically, they are considered opposites but any artist – be they filmmakers, painters or architects – will tell you that light and shadow are complementary. Many will focus their lighting plans on the presence of light instead of its absence. But, it is only in the shadows that light can be fully appreciated. Blakstad designs have long incorporated various ways of utilising light and shadow to create mood. Skylights and lanterns appear in many of the firm’s designs and while an untrained eye will see these elements as a solution to let light in, those who live in these homes will be privy to the artistic beauty the shadows cast across their spaces as the sun moves across the sky.

It is this movement within the architecture that evokes the moods we associate with the concept of home. Comfort, warmth, safety, reliability and a connection to the outside world. In architecture, the language of nature is communicated through light and shadow. These two forces are important for the way we perceive and experience ourselves within a space. Light consists of two kinds of shadow – its own and the one cast by the object it falls on, known as shading or attached shadow. In architecture these two shadows become an integral part of the illuminated object, be it a wall or something more sculptural. The object without the shadow barely exists. Frank Lloyd Wright summed up the relationship between architecture and light when he said: “It seems to me, light is the beautifier of the building.”

Our projects often include colour palettes of whites, neutrals and earthy tones, making the velvet sheen of whitewash, a curved staircase or the tilt of battered walls beautiful surfaces for the play between shadow and light. Inside, the light cast from skylights shifts imperceptibly, illuminating the quotidian objects of the interior and creating an ephemeral art from the everyday. As the sun falls, the landscape itself becomes the architect’s canvas. Here, outdoor lighting helps to accentuate the forms of the architecture, creating a sculptural mise en scène that is remade night after night. Artist James Turrell, who considers his primary material to be light, put it succinctly when he said: “Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.”

While we build walls and rooms and shapes, it is light that ultimately defines a space. As a transitory building material without solid form, light becomes tinder for the architect’s imagination. An imaginary friend with real-life consequences that can be coaxed and moulded, directed and captured, transforming our spaces into moments of peaceful delight. When Le Corbusier said: “Our eyes are made to see forms in light,” he may as well have been describing everything we see – buildings, art, mountains, seas and stars, all the way down to the spark in each other’s eyes.